Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow – T11 – Peter’s Confession of Jesus’ identity
Exodus 1 v 8 – 2 v 10 Israelite oppression; the birth of Moses
Matthew 16 vv 13 – 20 Peter’s confession of Christ
- Introduction. “Who do you say that I am?” Most of you would say, “You are Christopher Miles” but in other contexts, I am Gerald Miles, as Gerald is my first Christian name. Some years ago I was walking across the grass in front of Canterbury Cathedral. I was wearing a clerical collar. I had a camera hanging round my neck. Was I a clergyman? Was I a tourist? Well, yes and no. My primary role there was as a lightning protection consultant to take photographs relating to the lightning protection of the Cathedral. Other people see each of us in different ways, defined by our work, our family relationships, our characters and so on. When Jesus asked the disciples firstly, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and then, “Who do you say that I am?” what was he getting at? Having got clear answers to both questions, he then warns the disciples not to tell anyone of his full identity. A bit puzzling. Let’s think about it.
- What others thought. Jesus’ opinion poll reveals a variety of answers to the question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
Some were saying that he was John the Baptist. A bit strange really when his cousin John was but a few months different in age, albeit he was already dead. Perhaps the identity began as a rumour from King Herod the Tetrarch who on receiving reports of Jesus, said, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Matt 14 vv 1, 2). You will recall that it was Herod the Tetrarch, one of Herod the Great’s sons, ruling over Galilee and the Decapolis, the region to the S and W of the Sea of Galilee, who had reluctantly had John the Baptist executed a year or two back and probably still had a troubled conscience about the matter. Maybe it helped to ease his conscience to think that John the Baptist had come back to life to exercise an even greater ministry. Since the King said Jesus was John the Baptist, a number of his subjects accepted his assessment.
Some people were saying that Jesus was Elijah. Why should they say this? Elijah was looked back to as THE GREAT PROPHET, a man of great courage who challenged Kings, false prophets, including those of other faiths and who was in close touch with God. He predicted a drought which lasted for over 3 years. He healed people and even raised them from the dead. Jesus had many of the characteristics of Elijah. But why should people expect a return of Elijah? This relates to the last book of the Old Testament, where, in the context of the coming ‘Day of the Lord’, the prophet Malachi says in a revelation from God “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah, before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4 v 5). The role of ‘Elijah’ would be to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal 4 v 6). Some people were interpreting the prophecy in a literal re-incarnation of Elijah. However, Jesus, saw that the prophecy found its fulfilment in John the Baptist, who had a mission of a call to repentance to prepare people for the day of the Lord, i.e. for Jesus’ ministry. Following a visit of John’s disciples, Jesus quite clearly says of John the Baptist, “If you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come” (Matt 11 v 14).
Some others were saying that Jesus was Jeremiah or another of the prophets. Often a great leader will ask his inner circle of followers for a sounding of public opinion. This is not a sign of weakness but rather of strength, to be willing to hear what people are thinking and saying, out of the hearing of the leader.
Clearly Jesus showed all the qualities expected of a prophet, a righteous person, who healed, cast out evil spirits, who taught, who challenged people especially the religious and national leaders, who performed miracles, including raising dead people.
- Disciples’ response. This consideration of the general public’s assessment was a prelude to Jesus asking his immediate close band of followers, who had accompanied him in his ministry around Palestine for some 3 years, who they thought Jesus was. The inner 3, Peter, James and John, had accompanied Jesus when he raise Jairus’ daughter from death, they were about to accompany him on the mount of transfiguration where they would see him conversing with Moses and Elijah. What was their assessment? Jesus asks them, “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16 v15). Peter, always quick to come up with an answer, like some other people I know who are nearly always the first to put up their hand in a family service or in class, is the one who answers for the 12 in saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus strongly affirms Peter’s response.
- Consideration of the responses. Why was it though in an age when there seems to have been quite a general expectation of the coming of God’s anointed one, the Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek, that the ordinary people and the leaders failed so often to see Jesus as the Messiah? One reason was that their concept of the Messiah was very different from that of a prophet. The Messiah was to be descended from King David, he would throw off foreign rule, which by then, through Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome had lasted for over 600 years and which lasted for a further 1900 years until the ending of the British Rule in 1948, at the ending of the League of Nations’ mandate. Jesus indeed proclaimed himself to be a king, but not of this world, of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus began the session with the use of his favourite title for himself, ‘Son of Man’, one who was truly man, man at his best. He leaves it to others, in this case Peter, to make the divine attribution, ‘Son of God’. It is fundamental to the Christian faith to see that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Many people today are willing to accept Jesus as a prophet. Christian people, Muslims, people of other faiths. Perhaps it is your stance. Seeing Jesus as a prophet is a good starting point. One cannot ignore though the claims that Jesus made, for example ‘I and the Father are one’, ‘Before Abraham was, I AM’, to name but two.
Why though, having elicited these responses, did Jesus warn his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ? You might have expected him to say, ‘Right, you believe, it is now your task to lead others on from a belief in me as a prophet to believe in me as the Messiah.’ Jesus goes on in Matthew’s gospel to predict his own death. He did not want to initiate a huge popular uprising that resulted in military action to quell it, resulting in the death of many other people. There would be time enough for a rather different proclamation, after his death, resurrection and ascension. People, including priests, would come to faith, but faith in the King of Heaven. There is a time for proclamation and a time for silence.
- Our identity. I began my sermon with a question of our identity. ‘Who am I’? The question of our own identity and the identity of Jesus are linked. Many people are missing out on this link and are at sea in the relativism of humanism, atheism or simply uncertainty. Some mental illness occurs in this lack of an external reference in God, especially through Christ. This is not to say that Christians are immune from mental illness, merely that those of no religious faith are, I suspect, more prone to mental illness. The question of human identity is being raised in the development of artificial intelligence. This will become a very significant issue in years to come.
Jesus says to Simon Peter after Peter’s strong affirmation, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” Peter is the name that Jesus gave to Simon when Jesus called him to discipleship. The Greek word petros means ‘rock’. Jesus statement is interpreted either to mean that the Christian Church would be built on Peter as head of the Church and first Bishop of Rome or that belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God is the foundation rock of the Church. Jesus is I believe saying, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock of belief in me I will build my Church’.
In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus invites people to build their spiritual houses on the rock of living out his teaching, his words. Those who hear his words but do not put them into practice are by comparison like those who build sand castles to be washed away by the tide.
Let us seek a full belief in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, Son of Man and Son of God, the Christ, the rock of our salvation, finding our full identity in him and living out his teaching.
1606 words Christopher Miles