To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.
The setting of today’s gospel lesson from Matthew carries with it great significance as we explore this passage. Caesarea Philippi is about 25 miles north of Galilee. Near the base of Mount Hermon, an ascent of about 1,700 feet, this was a long journey. This was a border town where people of Israel met the people of the Gentile world. This was also a site of the worship of the idol Pan. In Greek religion and mythology Pan was considered to be a universal god, of shepherds, flocks, nature and the wild. It was here in this unique setting where Judaism brought both worship of nature and worship of humanity together. It is here that Jesus asked the question of His disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man am?”
We see through our Scripture reading that they associated Jesus with many of the great voices of salvation history. John the Baptist, the herald of the new age; Jeremiah, the prophet of reform and hope; and Elijah, the prophet of power and miracles. None of these witnesses of the past answered the question of who Jesus really was. As Jesus questioned his disciples we see that once again the brash and bold disciple Peter gave an answer for himself and all the disciples when he replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Verse 16) His confession was a calm, calculated answer from the experiences in which God had presented to Peter and his fellow disciples. Jesus confirms Peter’s confession that day. This confession marks a turning point in the gospel of Matthew for from this time forward Jesus began sharing more and more in detail about his upcoming betrayal and His coming Passion.
As Peter and the other disciples would learn, to confess Jesus Christ as Lord makes a transforming difference in our lives because of what God gives us in return. First we learn that in confessing Christ as Lord that God gives us a new awareness. Each day we make many decisions some that are trivial, while others critical. The Lord doesn’t want us to form judgments based on mere appearance or human reasoning. For this reason God has given us the Holy Spirit to help us see the reality of each situation. God knows every person’s heart and for this reason the only way we can wisely interact with others is to be open to the leading of God’s Spirit within us. God has given each of us the ability of spiritual discernment yet too often we continue to stumble through life; doing the best we can, and failing to fully rely upon God for guidance. We must learn to trust more in God. A discerning spirit begins with a humble, teachable attitude. If we have been handling decisions, situations, and relationships through our own wisdom, confess this to God. We should seek through prayer a desire to follow God’s direction in our lives. In doing so our wisdom will grow, and our discernment will mature as well. Verse 17 of our passage reveals to us that the very understanding that Peter had gained about Jesus’ true identity was not of his own doing rather it was a revelation, a gift of God. Only God could reveal this insight. Peter began to see life with more of an awareness of God in his life over time. He was able to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil and truth and error. Within this new filter he and the other disciples discovered a second thing that God gives to us.
God gives a new purpose. In verse 18 Jesus makes reference to the church saying: …on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. Had Peter not encountered Jesus, he would have likely lived and died a fisherman. However his faith and trust in Jesus transformed his purpose in life. The keys of the Kingdom to which Jesus makes reference to in this passage was given to Peter. While such responsibilities were normally in the hands of the Teachers of the Law they were now entrusted to Peter and his fellow disciples. Together they became the foundation stones on which God would build the church. It is a large foundation that continues to be built today by many people including us! We are a part of this same foundation as we have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord. We have a purpose to be a part of growing God’s Kingdom. Thinking of growth, in the Greek Islands one can seek out the home of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. In the area, one can also find an olive tree, supposedly dating from his time. This tree some say is over 2,400 years old. The trunk of this tree is large but completely hollow. The tree is little more than thick bark. There are a few long, straggling branches, supported by sturdy wooden poles every few feet. The tree has an occasional leaf here and there and might produce a few olives each year. Yet in the fields around, however, olive groves are seen in many directions. The strong, healthy, young trees with narrow trunks are covered with a thick canopy of leaves, under which masses of olives can be found each year. The tree of Hippocrates can still be called an olive by nature, in that it still shows the essential unique characteristics, but it has long since ceased to fulfill an olive’s function. Tourists file up to inspect this ancient relic, having some link to a dim history, but the job of the olive tree passed long ago to many successions of replanted trees.
In thinking of this tree, do we know any churches (or even people) like the tree of Hippocrates? The form is there, but the function is not. They have stopped reproducing and are satisfied just being big or having a noble history. We can avoid this scenario because God has also given us a third thing for consideration.
God gives us a new power. Those who have become a part of God’s Kingdom through confessing Jesus as Lord receive a new power. Through our faithful witness to Christ and as the Holy Spirit works within our lives, others will learn about and become a part of God’s Kingdom. This is an enormous power and responsibility. We serve as the gateway to the Kingdom of God for family, friends, coworkers, and others. Who might find their way into God’s Kingdom through our witness? Our confession of Christ opens the door to new possibilities for each of us. These possibilities only become reality when we subject ourselves to God’s authority.
As we think of God’s authority in relationship to the authority of those in power both in our nation and within the world, we recognize that there seems to be a lot of unrest with authority figures. Years ago in our nation when we were involved in the Civil War, there were a small band of Confederate representatives who met with President Lincoln in the cabin of a riverboat steamer. They all agreed that the terrible cost of suffering and loss of lives on both sides in the war had been too much. The Confederate contingent unrolled a map and pointed out several concessions of territory and frontier boundaries they were willing to make concessions upon. The Confederacy made it clear they would agree to these concessions if the Union would agree to lift any claim to the remainder of the Confederate states. At the conclusion of their presentation, President Lincoln placed his hand upon the map and said, “Gentleman the government must have all.”
Likewise, God’s kingdom makes the same claim upon our lives. If we confess Jesus as Lord, we must give Him our all. Part of giving our all is to treat one another with respect. In light of recent events in our nation that magnify the great divide among races and cultures we are to remember these words of instruction as shared in our Moravian Covenant of Christian Living that say:
Our Witness in the World A. Love Toward All
We will not hate, despise, slander, or otherwise injure anyone. We will ever strive to manifest love towards all people, to treat them in a kind and friendly manner, and in our dealings with them to approve ourselves upright, honest, and conscientious, as becomes children of God. Together with the universal Christian Church, we have a concern for this world, opening our heart and hand to our neighbors with the message of the love of God, and being ever ready to minister of our substance to their necessities (Matthew 25:40).
As God continues to give us perspective, purpose and power may we also remember these words of instruction from the book of Proverbs 2:6-8:
For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones.
Together as we set goals and as we seek to overcome challenges in our life of faith and as congregation, may we strive to be a role model for others and to have God always in our hearts.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
August 27, 2017