August 27, 2017 – 12 Pentecost A, Proper 16
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
The Rev. Jamie Osborne
In the last couple of weeks, division and hatred towards specific people groups has been on display. We have all seen the images of Nazis and white supremacists and the violence that has broken out. I’ve noticed two general reactions to their prejudice and bigotry. One response has been shock and disgust that there are people who truly think this way. Another has been to diminish them as an insignificant fringe group that doesn’t impact our larger common life together.
Shock and horror, and diminishment of these folks’ hatred, both of these responses are focused externally on other people. But I believe today’s Gospel offers us another option in the way to respond, a way forward that isn’t focused on hatred and sin, but on the love that God has for all people.
Today in Matthew’s Gospel, we see one of the most important moments in the life of the disciples. They have been traveling all around with Jesus, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. And now they arrive at Caesarea Philippi, a city about twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Maybe they were outside around a fire. Maybe they were in a house. We don’t know. But we do know that they were together, face to face with Jesus. He asks them who the people are saying he is. They tell him. And then he asks them the ultimate question: “But who do you say that I am?”
This was a question for the disciples, and it’s a question for you and me today who have gathered here together face to face with Jesus. St Ambrose said: “In your sacraments O Christ, I meet you face to face.” In the Eucharist we come face to face with Jesus in his body broken and his blood poured out for all of us. We see his face in all of us assembled in this place as the Body of Christ, drawn together into the life of God by the Holy Spirit. When we gather together and give thanks on Sunday, the day of resurrection, we come face to face with Jesus, and every time we do, the question hangs in the air: “Who do you say that I am?”
It’s not a question that we can answer once and be done with. We can’t give the correct answer and then move on, like giving the correct answer on a test question. The nature of this question is totally different. It’s a relational question. The question is about where we are in relation with Jesus Christ. The Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end. The one through whom all things were made. It continues to evolve and develop, gaining greater depth as we grow into relationship with the one who is beyond the limits of our knowing.
And one of the main limits we have in our knowing Jesus Christ is the way we put limits on the love that God has for the peoples of the earth. From those who are different than us.
Peter had a revelation. It was revealed to him and he could see Jesus for who he was and at that moment he had an answer to that question. He saw that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the person designated to deliver God’s people, Israel, from the rule of the foreign empire they suffered under. And Jesus commends him for it.
But just like it does for all of us, the question continued to work on Peter. And as he grew in relation to Jesus, the depth of that answer continued to expand. Who Jesus was continued to push past the limits of Peter’s understanding of who God’s love was for. For Peter as a Jew, he understood Jesus’ saving action to be for his fellow Jews. But as he continued to live his life in response to the question of who Jesus was, he began to grow in the love God has for all peoples of the earth.
In the book of Acts, we see Peter’s continued transformation in his understanding of the expansive and inclusive love of God. He has a vision of all foods being clean, and then through the leading of the Holy Spirit, he visits and enters the house of non-Jewish people, also known as Gentiles, which went against his culture and religious identity. And there he sees the saving work of God in the Gentiles as they respond to the good news of Jesus.
This was a huge challenge to Peter’s understanding of who Jesus’ saving love was for. This was a challenge for the whole church, who at that time were all Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah. And in Acts we see that they had to wrestle and pray as they were confronted with God’s expansive love for the Gentiles who they initially considered to be outside of the saving purposes of the Messiah. And this made it possible for you and me to be included in the history of God’s saving work.
And they came into contact with what has always been true. Not a new fad that will soon pass. But the truth that at the center of God’s heart there has always been God’s desire for all the peoples of the earth to receive the healing love and action of God. We can see this desire and love for all people throughout the history of God’s saving work in the Bible.
We see this in Genesis when God makes his promise to Abraham. When God said Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The promise to Abraham was that all peoples of the earth would be blessed through the blessing Abraham received.
We see it in Matthew when Jesus gives the great commission to the disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus disciples are to teach all the peoples of the earth how to live into the good news of the kingdom of God.
And we see it in the Book of Revelation where John looks up and sees a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
God’s expansive and inclusive love for all the peoples of the earth is not a new idea, it is at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I heard a story about the preacher Fred Craddock. He was flying back home after a ministry trip, and started having a conversation with the woman beside him. Pretty soon the conversation shifted, and she began to complain about the preacher at her church. She said, “He’s always preaching about othering.”
Fred said, “What’s othering?”
She said, “My preacher preaches on it every Sunday.” “’We need to do more othering.’”
“What he means is get acquainted with people who are different than yourself, establish friendship, share in work and prayer and praise and everything together. Other people. The other. Get acquainted and deal with and relate to the other. He calls it ‘othering.’ He preaches on it every Sunday.”
“I am so sick of his talking of othering. It’s just a fad”, she said. She got all bothered about it. “I’ll be glad when it passes. If he says one more word about othering I’m going to throw up, right there in church.”
“It’s not a fad,” Fred said.
She said, “It is a fad.” “Look here” and she opened up the airline magazine.
There was an article there and it was in English, Spanish, and in Japanese.
She said, “Now, look at there. The airline thinks they’re othering.” A few years ago it would have just been in English. And we’ll get back to just having it in English, it’s just a fad.
“It’s not a fad,” Fred said. “It’s as old as Christianity”.
She said, “What do you mean?”
And then Fred said, “When Jesus died, Pilate put a sign on the cross: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.”
Our lives are a life-long response to the question of who Jesus is. And any answer must include that he is the Savior of every nation, tribe, people, and language.
Take a moment and imagine what the whole church looks like. Imagine that St John’s was big enough to fit all the Christians in the world. What does it look like? Do you see the two-thirds of all Christians who live in the eastern hemisphere? Do you see all the different kinds of people? Do you hear all the different kinds of music? If you can, what you are seeing is the expansion of Peter’s initial answer. And as that answer has grown, you and I have become a part of it. And we get to grow along with it and into the love that God has for all the peoples of the earth.
Today we are gathered together as Jesus’ disciples. We are journeying with Jesus in the way of the kingdom of God. And as we follow along, we can see that every step he takes is driven by a love that pushes past all of our understanding. Where we naturally want to love others who are like us, his heart beats for every nation, tribe, people, and language.
And as we come face to face with him this morning, in his body broken and his blood shed for us, he turns and asks us all: “But who do you say that I am?”