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August 23, 2020 is Pentecost 12A/Proper 16A/Ordinary 22A

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10 – 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.

Isaiah 51:1-6 – 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.

Psalm 124 – If God had not been on our side, the raging waters would have overwhelmed us. Our deliverer is the creator of heaven and earth.

Psalm 138 – 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.

Romans 12:1-8 – 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.

Matthew 16:13-20 – 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.”

Two Sermon Series for Fall 2020 

  1. Set The Oppressed Free: August 23-September 13, 2020
  2. Bread for the Wilderness: September 20-October 18, 2020

These next four weeks I am suggesting a possible four-week series on the readings from Exodus. I’ll also propose a second series on the wandering in the wilderness after that. If we read the semi-continuous Old Testament choices, we get 9 passages from Exodus on consecutive Sundays.

The first series focuses on the liberation from slavery in Egypt. The second focuses on the wilderness experience through which the Israelites pass. It seems that both are apropos to all that is going on right now. The first speaks to the resurgence of attention to social injustice in the wake of the shooting of George Floyd. The second speaks to the unfamiliar wilderness of pandemic we are currently experiencing in 2020.

Set the Oppressed Free

EnslavedExodus 1:8-2:10Aug 23Moses in a basket raised by Pharaoh’s daughter
CalledExodus 3:1-15Aug 30Moses’ theophany at the burning bush
Set FreeExodus 12:1-14Sept 6Moses gives Passover instructions
Crossing OverExodus 14:19-31Sept 13Moses parts the Red sea

Bread for the Wilderness

ComplaintExodus 16:2-15Sept 20God provides manna/quail as people complain
ProvisionExodus 17:1-7Sept 27Moses strikes the rock and water comes out
LawExodus 20:1-4,7-9,12-20Oct 4Moses receives the Ten Commandments
IdolatryExodus 32:1-14Oct 11Moses finds the Israelites worshipping a calf
GloryExodus 33:12-23Oct 18Moses sees God’s back, no face

No doubt you can see a theme here. Moses is God’s key emissary in Exodus.

First, we’ll take a look at the Book of Exodus and its use in the Revised Common Lectionary. Second, we will look at the Exodus text. Third, there will be a commentary on the other readings, unrelated to the Exodus series. 

Exodus in the Revised Common Lectionary 

Without the semi-continuous readings, there would only be six passages read from Exodus in the three years of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Another couple of passages are read on the evening of Easter Vigil, and Passover is read on Maundy Thursday. Here are those RCL complimentary readings:

Exodus 12:1-14Maundy Thursday ABCThe institution of Passover
Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21Easter Vigil ABCMoses parts the Red Sea
Exodus 15:1-21Easter Vigil ABCMoses sings a victory song
Exodus 16:2-15Pentecost 11B (2021)God gives manna/quail/complaining
Exodus 17:1-7Lent 3A (2023)Moses strikes the rock/water pours out
Exodus 20:1-20Lent 3B (2021)Moses receives Ten Commandments
Exodus 24:12-18Transfiguration A (2022)Moses in the cloud on the mountain
Exodus 32:1-14Pentecost 14C (2022)Moses finds people have made a calf
Exodus 34:29-35Transfiguration C (2022)Moses’ face shines after the mountain

It’s not much. I know, but this cannot be helped. There are 929 chapters in the Old Testament. Even if one were to read an entire chapter every Sunday, it would take nearly 18 years to get through the entire Old Testament, and some of those chapters are pretty long. In a three-year lectionary one must be selective.

Outlining Exodus

Scholars have disagreed on how to outline Exodus. I humbly offer a simple outline of three sections:

Exodus Outline

  1. Chapters 1-14 Israel in Egypt
  2. Chapters 15-18 Israel from the Red Sea to Sinai
  3. Chapters 19-40 Israel at Sinai

The semi-continuous schedule gives us four readings from section 1, two readings from section 2 and three readings from section 3.

Exodus Chapter-by-Chapter

A chapter-by-chapter look at Exodus goes something like this:

  1. Israel in Egypt
Chapter 1The oppression of the Isrealites
Chapter 2Moses’ childhood, youth, murder of an Egyptian and flight to Midian
Chapter 3The burning bush commissioning
Chapter 4Moses receives miraculous powers and returns to Egypt
Chapter 5Pharaoh to Moses: the people must now make bricks without straw
Chapter 6God promises to deliver the people/Moses genealogy
Chapter 7Plague 1
Chapter 8Plagues 2-4
Chapter 9Plagues 5-7
Chapter 10Plagues 8-9
Chapter 11The warning at the final plague
Chapter 12The institution of the Passover and the final plague
Chapter 13Pharaoh lets the people go/festival of the unleavened bread/firstborn consecrated
Chapter 14The Red Sea crossing
  1. Israel from the Red Sea to Sinai
Chapter 15Moses and Miriam’s victory songs/Marah/Elim
Chapter 16Bread from heaven, two and a half months after leaving Egypt
Chapter 17Rephidim/water from the rock/King Amalek defeated
Chapter 18Jethro’s advice
  1. Israel at Sinai
Chapter 19The Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai/the people are consecrated/Moses goes up
Chapter 20The Ten Commandments
Chapter 21Laws about slaves, violence, and property
Chapter 22Restitution, social and religious laws
Chapter 23Sabbath, Sabbatical Year, and the Conquest of Canaan
Chapter 24Covenant/70 elders on the mountain
Chapter 25-28Appointments and vestments for the tabernacle
Chapter 29Ordination of Priests and daily offerings
Chapter 30Incense, water basin, anointing oil
Chapter 31Bezalel, Oholiab and the Sabbath law
Chapter 32The Golden Calf
Chapter 33The command to leave Sinai and Moses’ intercession
Chapter 34New tablets/covenant renewed
Chapter 35Instructions for the tabernacle
Chapter 36Construction of the tabernacle
Chapter 37-40Appointments and vestments for the tabernacle redux

There are so many themes here that are appropriate for our current situation. Slavery and freedom. Crossing the Red Sea. Yearning for the promised land. Living in the wilderness liminal space. No longer in Egypt, but not yet in the promised land. Worshiping in a portable tabernacle, in temporary spaces, and in unusual circumstances. Jethro’s leadership advice to Moses in chapter 18.

Set the Oppressed Free Series Week 1:


Exodus 1:8-2:10 -August 23, 2020

8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. 

15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

2:1Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

 Exodus means “the way out.” Who is getting out of what, where? This is the master story of the Old Testament, of the Jewish people: Israelite slaves are liberated from slavery in Egypt.

Our first reading in Exodus, in this series, consists of most of Exodus chapter 1 and nearly half of chapter 2. It sets the stage. Genesis ended with Joseph as a ruler in Egypt. Exodus fast forwards us to a time when Joseph, Jacob’s 70 children (Exodus 1:5), and the Pharaoh that Joseph served, are a distant memory. A new Pharaoh is in charge. He has no memory of Joseph.

How long were the Israelites in Egypt? It depends on who you ask. Genesis 15:13 says,

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years

Luke tends to agree (Acts 7:6). Exodus 40:41 likes the more precise number of 430 years:

The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.

430 years en punto, as they say in Spanish. Paul quotes this 430-year number in Galatians 3:16-17, though he is referring to the giving of the Ten Commandments, not the marching out of Egypt.

The names, ages and generations in other places of the Bible suggest a shorter stay. The Septuagint explains this by interpreting the 430 years to include the time back to Abraham’s arrival in Canaan at age 75. “And the sojourning of the children of Israel, while they sojourned in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan, was 430 years.” The Samaritan Pentateuch agrees. So 215 years from Abraham to Joseph, and then another 215 years for Jacob’s descendants in Egypt.

What time is this? Some say the scene is set in 1200 B.C. Some estimate closer to 1300 B.C. No period of Egyptian history matches the account of the Exodus. The authors of the books of the Bible do not share our interest in historical precision. None of the Pharaohs are mentioned by name. The Bible is not a history book. In the earliest surviving historical mention of the Israelites outside of the Bible, the Egyptian Merneptah Stele, which dates to 1207 B.C. the Israelites are in Canaan. So this age old story of slavery and liberation, relived many times in history, would need to have taken place prior to that.

Exodus 3 tells us the Israelites are having babies. They are multiplying and growing strong. The dominant Egyptian culture is rising up. This is a story as old as time. Think about the 90% of the population in South Africa that was black during apartheid. Consider the fact that Palestinians are having babies in Israel, and growing as a percentage of the population. In the antebellum lower South, blacks were approaching 45% of the population prior to the Civil War. In the Aldine area of Houston, Texas today, 79% are Spanish-speaking. 41% are foreign born. They are having babies. Even if you shut down the border today, in a generation, those children will constitute a voting majority. Whenever the dominant culture feels threatened, they tend to rise up in many and various ways.

Egypt’s ruler took action. “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase… and fight against us and escape from the land.” The Egyptians used them as slave labor, to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. The tension increased, the legislation got more contentious, and the conflict came to a head.

Slavery in the American context began somewhat differently. Slavery is as old as humanity. It just hadn’t been based on race. The Romans conquered all kinds of people and made them slaves. One could buy one’s way out of slavery. Chattel slavery (where a person is owned forever, and all that person’s children are property of the master) based on race began with Prince Henry the Navigator in Portugal, according to Ibram X. Kendi (How to Be an Antiracist). He made a fortune for himself and for King Alfonso V, enslaving hundreds of Africans. The first major slave auction was held in Lagos in 1444.

The first African slaves arrived in North America in 1619, one year before the Pilgrims on the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. We had slaves before we had Pilgrims. Last year was the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving in North America. At first there were no slave laws, but in 1640 a Virginia court sentenced John Punch to a lifetime of servitude for attempting to flee his service. The whites with whom he fled were only sentenced to one year of servitude. In 1641 Massachusetts became the first colony to authorize slavery by law. Colony after colony began to enact slave laws.

Even Presidents owned slaves. When George Washington was 11 years old, his father died and he inherited ten slaves. Washington punished disobedient slaves by whipping. The punishment for trying to escape was being sold to the West Indies, so the slave would never see his family again. By the time of his death, Washington had 300 slaves at Mount Vernon. In his 1799 will, shortly before his death, Washington ordered the emancipation of all of his 123 slaves. Martha freed them in 1801. Older slaves were to be provided for in perpetuity by his estate. Washington was the only Virginian known to take this action. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” contradicting what many believed, that the black “race” was inferior to the white “race.” Nevertheless, Jefferson owned 600 slaves in his lifetime. Some were part of his extended family. It was common practice to make more slaves by impregnating your existing slaves. All of Jefferson’s house slaves were related. He told George Washington he was earning a 4% profit margin on slaves. Slavery has always been about money and power. Jefferson grew to believe slavery was wrong, but he never freed all his slaves. By the 1860 census, there were 4 million slaves in the U.S.

Pharaoh, fearing a slave uprising, decided to trim the population by ordering the death of male Israelite children. When a Hebrew child was born, if it was a boy, the midwives were ordered to kill it. Two conscientious objectors, Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, disobeyed. Pharaoh, outraged, ordered Hebrew boys to be thrown into the Nile. Thus ends Exodus 1.

In Exodus 2 we meet Moses, the liberator. Moses’ mother hid him for three months, at which point it was no longer possible to keep her child a secret. Desperate mothers take desperate measures. People marvel that Central American mothers send their children to the U.S. to escape poverty and violence. Sometimes you do what you have to do. Moses’ mother put him in a basket and hid him among the reeds in the Nile. Technically, she did throw him in the Nile.

Moses’ sister watched carefully. When Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to bathe, she discovered the basket and baby and had pity. Moses’ sister sprang into action, offering to find a wet nurse. She ran and got Moses’ mother. Thus Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house. He was named Moses (Mosheh) because he was “drawn up” (mashah) out of the water.

Fast forwarding historically, Isaiah 61 begins with words,

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;

God’s action in the world is to liberate those who are enslaved. Verse 8 of Isaiah 61 says:

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;

God hates injustice, inequality and economic exploitation. When those sins take place, God sends emissaries to rectify the situation. Moses, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Amos, and the prophets are an example. Jesus himself, when he is asked to read in “church,” chooses this passage from Isaiah 61.

It should come as no surprise to us that the African American community resonates with the Exodus saga of slavery and liberation, which is the central story of the Old Testament. Before God gives the law, God is the liberator. “I am the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Because of this history, it is built into Hebrew law to care for the immigrant and sojourner, “for you were once sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

Quoting Isaiah, Jesus saw his ministry as one of liberation from all forms of oppression. Those who are followers of Jesus are invited to be a part in God’s liberating work in the world. Where do you see God engaging oppression, injustice and slavery in our world today? Where is Christ being crucified in the world today? What is the Spirit up to in the world and how can we the baptized people of God be a part of this liberating work?

Is God calling you? Is something burning in you? Next week we’ll talk about the burning bush.

Isaiah 51:1-6

This text lays a foundation for our gospel reading from Matthew, in which Jesus renames Simon to Peter (Rocky, The Rock).

The Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona

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.

Romans 12: 1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do 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. 3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

We have now left Paul’s agonizing struggle in 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. 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 where “newcomers” to the church try to take over too quickly! (It is possible that the Gentile Christians were always considered newcomers, and maybe even suspect, 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. Paul tells the Roman Christians that their worship is to present their bodies, their very lives, as a living sacrifice to God.

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 that is being translated “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.

Like in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul offers in Romans 12 a list of spiritual gifts or charisms. This is how Paul understands the body to function. The eyes see, so they automatically should be the lookers of the body. The ears hear, and so on. The seven gifts or charisms that Paul mentions here are:

  1. Prophecy
  2. Ministry
  3. Teaching
  4. Exhortation
  5. Generosity
  6. Leadership, and
  7. Compassion

I think of prophecy as speaking God’s word. Ministry is caring for those in need: feeding the hungry and so forth. Teaching is obvious. Exhortation is comforting those who are grieving. Generosity is pouring out your resources for the greater good.

I’m so glad that Paul mentions leadership. All are leaders of some kind. You may lead a small group. You may lead your family. You may lead yourself. Some, however, are called to lead entire communities. Those with that gift, Paul says, should lead with diligence. Diligence is the work of a gifted leader.

Compassion is related to both ministry and exhortation. It is listening.

Are these gifts present in your congregation? All are needed for a well-rounded ministry. Are you watching for them, and deploying people in ministry according to these gifts?

Matthew 16:13-20 – Built on a Rock

 13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And 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. 19I 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.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

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.

Map of Upper Galilee

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 archeological 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 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 this 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. (

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:

  1. John the Baptist
  2. Elijah
  3. Jeremiah
  4. One of the prophets

Then Jesus turns the question on them: “But who do you say that I am?” Impetuous Peter immediately pipes up, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

The astute reader will remember that Peter and the disciples have already confessed Jesus as the Son of God in Matthew’s gospel. 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, worthy of a death sentence. 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 he can, with 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 one’s 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 that Peter is not the rock on which the church is built. Peter’s confession is the rock on which the church is built.

In Mark, which Matthew has in front of 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 then 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.”

Matthew, in this passage, gives Peter preeminence among the disciples 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 to 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 those who are 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 bedrock foundation.

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 the building the foundation of the church on rock.

One sermon possibility is asking people where there 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 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.