The Israelites increase in Egypt, so the Pharaoh oppresses them, murdering Hebrew boys. Moses is hidden in a basket and floated down Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses. Moses’ mother ends up being his nursemaid.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.
If God had not been on our side, the raging waters would have overwhelmed us. Our deliverer is the creator of heaven and earth.
All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth. They shall sing of the ways of the Lord, for great is the glory of the Lord. For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Jesus: “Who do people say that I am?” Simon Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Prayer of the Day
O God, with all your faithful followers of every age, we praise you, the rock of our life. Be our strong foundation and form us into the body of your Son, that we may gladly minister to all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. You are | the Messiah, the Son of the | living God. Alleluia. (Matt. 16:16)
A Rocky Foundation
This text lays a foundation for both Romans and Matthew.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father. And to Sarah who bore you…
Remember your roots. Abraham is the father of Judaism. The Israelites are the children of Abraham.
Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.
Here there are echoes of the call of Abraham in Genesis 12:
I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
In verses 4 and 5, “the peoples” are rendered in the Septuagint as ἐθνῶν and ἔθνη; the Gentiles; the non-Jews. The key is being a blessing to all people – inclusion, not exclusion. This is in keeping with God’s covenant with Abraham and Israel’s deepest heritage.
We have now left Paul’s agonizing of Romans 9-11, and moved into the section of Romans, chapters 12-16, where Paul deals with the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. The letter is written from Corinth sometime in the mid-50s, and there had been an expulsion of Jews – and therefore also Jewish Christians – from Rome during the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD). There had also been an expulsion under Tiberius (14-37 AD).
The Jews had been allowed to come back to Rome during the reign of Nero (54-68 AD), about the time Paul is writing. One can imagine the tensions that this may have caused – Jewish Christians returning to their communities only to find that Gentile Christians were now “in charge.” It’s a bit like some congregations were “newcomers” trying to take over too quickly! (And, IMHO, I suspect that the Gentile Christians were always considered newcomers by the Jewish Christians.)
One can sense Paul’s desire to reconcile these differences as he uses the same “body” analogy that he used to bring unity to the community at Corinth. Prior to that he writes,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.
The Greek word for perfect is telion, which means “complete.” Telion is that which brings about the perfect result or goal. The transformation (metamorphosis) is from being conformed to the way that the world and the structures of the world work to how the body of Christ functions. It is in sync with what Paul says when he writes, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” All of those were categories of social caste and structure in Roman society; castes and structures that had no place in the Christian community.
In other words, the apostle Paul understands Christianity to be reordering societal structures. This is no mere philosophy. This is a world-altering reality.
Consider this piece on “Pauline Ethics” by Dr. David Fredrickson at Luther Seminary,
The community of believers is a speaking place, where the future of the community is determined through unhindered conversation. To grasp the radical openness of the Christian congregation, it is important to note who was not granted freedom of speech in ancient democracies: women, slaves, foreigners, and children. Paul tore down the barriers to full participation through his conviction that the Spirit grants free speech to all who belong to Christ. For the church to be the church, the voices of all must be heard.
Many of these tensions and issues still exist within our congregations and communities today. The hardest barriers for a congregation to break down are the socio-economic castes. It is something that we would do well to examine.
This Sunday, a large section of the gospel comes to a close with our text, Matthew 16:13-20. At 16:21 we begin a new section of the gospel with Matthew’s formulaic, “From that time…” Verse 20 will start with a prediction of Jesus’ death. Today’s section has the confession of Peter.
Jesus has come down from Tyre in modern day Lebanon. He is considerably out of his comfort zone. Now he goes to Caesarea Philippi, due east of Tyre, in present day Syria, just north of the Golan Heights. In the Hellenistic era, Caesarea Philippi was “Paneas,” for a spring located there, dedicated to the god Pan. Today Caesarea Philippi is an uninhabited archaeological dig known as Banias.
In Jesus’ day, Caesarea Philippi had been annexed to Judea during the reign of Herod the Great. In honor of his patron, Herod built a temple to Augustus alongside the existing Temple of Pan. In fact, Josephus refers to the city as “Caesarea Paneas” in his Antiquities. In 14 A.D. Herod’s son, Philip, changed its name to Caesarea in honor of Augustus. Following Philip, Agrippa II made it the administrative capital and built an extensive palace there. During Nero’s reign (62-28 A.D.) the name of the city was changed to Neronias. Colonial power is the power to name something. Vespasian rested and quartered his troops there prior to the siege of Jerusalem. Agrippa II sent some of his own troops to aid in the siege.
Note, in the above painting of the Sanctuary of Pan, the Temple of Augustus (the Augusteum) on the left, with Pan’s grotto right behind it. Then there is the Court of Pan, the platform just to the right of the Augusteum. Then the Temple of Zeus in the middle. Further right is the Temple of Nemesis, and then finally, on the bottom right, the Temple of Pan and the Dancing Goats. This was a very religious society, and that religion was tied to immense political power. (http://www.bible-history.com/biblestudy/caesarea-philippi.html)
Caesarea Philippi was not a politically neutral venue for Jesus to ask, “Who do people say that I am?” And it was certainly not a neutral atmosphere for Peter to respond, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Those were imperial titles. Caesar, and only Caesar, was the son of the god.
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man. In Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, David E. Garland, points out the many times Jesus has used the ambiguous phrase “Son of Man” (8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:3, 32, 40; 13:37, 41). In fact, a quick search reveals thirty times “Son of Man” appears in Matthew, as compared to only seven times for the “Son of God.”
Son of Man in the Hebrew Bible just means “mortal.” Or as my Hebrew professor used to say, “When YHWH calls Ezekiel, ‘son of man,’ God is just saying, “Hey you there, with the arms and the legs, listen up…” But in Daniel 7:13-14) we have this apocalyptic phrase:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Jesus calls himself “Son of Man” a lot more than “Son of God” in the gospels. The “Son of Man” in Daniel is an apocalyptic figure who announces the new age. All people, of all languages and nations, worship him. His kingdom will never pass away.
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
The disciples offer four answers:
- John the Baptist
- One of the prophets
Then Jesus turns the question on them: “But who do you say that I am?” Impetuous Peter immediate pipes up, “You are the Christ the Son of the living God.”
The astute reader will remember that Peter and the disciples already confessed Jesus as the Son of God. Remember two weeks ago, when we read about Jesus walking on the water? Once Jesus got into the boat, the wind and the waves ceased. Then the disciples said, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
This confession would be considered treasonous. It was at the same time both a political and religious statement. This cannot be overstated. Caesar is the son of god. Not a peasant from Galilee.
Caesar is not just a powerful ruler. He doesn’t command a household, a city or even a nation. He commands life and death in an ever-expanding Empire that has unimaginable wealth and power. All mortals must obey, or they can, with a blink and a nod, have everything taken away. You will be stripped of everything, even your clothes, and be nailed naked to a tree by a myriad of Roman soldiers who are obedient to the empire. Your children will be crucified before your eyes. You don’t defy Rome. You don’t dare even mention the idea.
So to say, Jesus is Lord, the Son of God, (or even Son of Man) is to say that Jesus is historically and cosmically more important than Caesar. To say that his kingdom is greater than Rome, and that it will last longer is inconceivable. It is to say Jesus is where ones allegiance should be. It is to say Jesus, a poor peasant preacher, is greater than Caesar. This confession of Peter is unthinkable, but it is the confession on which the church will ultimately be built. And here I will argue it is on Peter’s confession that the church is built, not Peter himself.
In Mark, which Matthew has before him as he writes, Peter’s confession – coming halfway through Mark’s gospel – serves as a “hinge”. It is the turning point. Prior to that are miracle stories, healings, exorcisms, power over nature, and even a raising from the dead. Then, in the face of all that, the question is asked, “Who do people say I am?” After Peter’s confession, the rest of Mark’s gospel deals with the fact that Jesus will be crucified at Jerusalem – and what that means for his disciples and discipleship. Mark’s intra-Jewish theological argument is, “What does it mean to follow a crucified Messiah?” In the wake of the thousands that died and/or were crucified in the siege of Jerusalem, what does it mean to follow someone who also wound up crucified outside the city’s walls?
How then does the confession function in Matthew’s narrative? Certainly Mark’s theology of the cross, the via crucis, still holds; as Jesus says a few verses later
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world, but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Matthew, however, inserts something Mark does not:
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
It is not an insignificant insertion. Jesus praises “Simon bar Jonah” for this answer, and gives him a nickname: Petros. Peter. The Rock. Rocky. And Peter is petrified. In a lovely play on words, Matthew’s Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
This does give Peter preeminence among the disciples and in the early church. The “you” is second person singular. (The question of Petrine succession is another issue; and there is the Paul/Peter confrontation in Galatians.) But then there is also the question, “What does preeminence look like among disciples who are called to follow the way of the cross, where the last are first and servants of all?” Certainly the mother of James and John doesn’t quite get it in chapter 20. (In Mark, James and John ask the question for themselves.) Peter doesn’t even get it in the following verses. “Peter, get behind me. Get back in line. I lead; you follow.”
“I give you the keys to the kingdom. What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what you release on earth will be released in heaven.” And then Jesus instructs them to keep this on the down low.
Luther in his Small Catechism understands the keys to be a power or authority that Christ gives to the church to forgive and/or bind, not a pope or a priestly caste. Maybe so, but even Luther’s interpretation smacks of a type of imperialism when understood apart from a discipleship via crucis; instances of abuse abound.
An interpretation more attuned to Matthew – where Jesus is the “new Moses” reinterpreting the law; creating a new Torah for Jewish Christians – is that it is a caution, a warning, that “what goes around, comes around”. It goes back to Jesus first sermon – teaching section – in Matthew 7. In short, “Be careful what you bind up, because you will also be bound by the same.” As noted in Matthew 7: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
On earth as it is in heaven. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
What does it mean for people of the cross to have authority? How will we as the body of Christ loose the bound? How will we be about the task of forgiveness and reconciliation in a culture that is becoming increasingly polarized? The church must keep eyes fixed on Christ, a rocky foundation.
Way back in Matthew 7, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said those who hear his words and act on them are like a wise person, who builds his house on the rock. Those who don’t act on Jesus’ words are like foolish people who build their house on the sand. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus talks about building the foundation of the church on rock.
One sermon possibility is asking people where their allegiance is? To what have you given your life? This will lead to a conversation about ultimate things, what is really important in life.
Another direction is asking people who they say Jesus is? We know what the church’s confession is, but who do you say that I am? Or, more poignantly, who do y’all say that I am. The “you” is plural in the original.
How do we as followers of Christ relate to the empire in which we live? How do we balance faith and patriotism, especially when we disagree with the things our government is doing?
Where is your focus in life? Where are you looking, and putting most of your time and energy?
“Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” Isaiah says. For us, this is Christ.