The Good News

The Rev. Canon Connor Gwin. This sermon is based on Matthew 16:13-20.

Who do you say that I am?

Our Gospel text this morning shows us a scene of Jesus and his disciples fresh from several chapters of argument with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Between last week’s reading about the Canaanite woman and today, Jesus and his disciples have continued to travel around Galilee.

Jesus has fed the four thousand, the religious elite have demanded a sign from heaven, and Jesus has warned his disciples about the yeast of the religious leaders.

Which brings us to today’s reading. Jesus and his disciples enter the district of Caesarea Philippi, which is an symbol-rich setting.

Caesarea Philippi was a site of pagan and nationalist worship for the Roman Empire. Prior to be renamed and reconstituted, it was a cultic center of worship to the pagan god Baal and later the god Paneas. It would have housed an incredible temple system and the accompanying priests and temple-industrial complex.

After the death of Herod, his son Philip renamed the town to Caesarea Philippi to honor the Roman Emperor, the Caesar – and himself, of course.

This was the shining city of the Roman occupying force. This was a political and military stronghold. This city was how the Roman Empire maintained control over the Jewish people.

Later, the Roman force that destroyed Jerusalem would start their march in Caesarea Philippi.

So it is in the shadow of the temples to Caesar that Jesus gathers his followers and asks, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples respond with the latest gossip – the people say that you are John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.

Notice that each of the people named is already dead – the people recognize that something is very different about Jesus.

He is not just a good teacher or wise man, as some would say even now. There is something transcendent about this Galilean workman, something that connects him to the realm of God beyond the veil of life and death.

 Jesus then turns his attention to Simon Peter, who speaks for the whole group and even for us today: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter confesses, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter, who is often depicted as the fumbling, bumbling disciple makes the stunning and earth-shaking confession. You are the Christ, the Messiah, the hope of Israel, Peter says. And Jesus is quick to respond: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” But Jesus adds, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Peter did not stumble on this truth on his own. He did not do his research and figure it out – it was revealed to him, just like it is revealed to us.

Faith is a gift, a sign of the grace of God. Which is clear in the life of Peter, who took every chance he was given to mess things up and yet, was chosen from the disciples to be the leader of the new community of Christ.

“…[Y]ou 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.”

Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry establishing a new community on Earth, a new way of being in the world.

The Incarnation was the beginning of in-breaking Kingdom of God.

As he journeyed close to Jerusalem and his inevitable death, he began to equip the disciples for their community-making task.

The keys that Jesus gave to Peter had nothing to do with the pearly gates, as our common mythology imagines. Jesus was using a phrase common to religious teachers of his time.

Binding and loosing burdens was the task of a teacher, the one who teaches with authority.

Jesus is passing on the teaching authority to Peter. He is saying, “You are to carry on the community when I’m gone.”

“And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Or put another way, “The very power of death cannot stop of the Good News from spreading and this new community from taking root.”

The word that is used for ‘church’ is the Greek word, ekklesia, which means “called out” or “set apart”.

The community of Christ is to be set apart from the religious institutions of that time and place; it is to be different from the political assemblies and ethnic groupings.

The Apostle Paul unpacks this set apartness in his writings. In today’s passage from his letter to the Roman Church,

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

This new community was revolutionary at the time of its formation and it is still revolutionary now.

We have heard the readings over and over, we have solidified the Church into an institution, but if we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” we can hear this message for the revolutionary Good News that it is:

“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”

We belong to Christ. We belong to one another.

This is not a social club or civic organization. As Archbishop Justin Welby is fond of saying, “We are not the Rotary Club with a pointy roof.”

The Church is a totally new entity that transcends racial, economic, and political divides.

The Church is the very body of Christ sent into the world to do the things that Christ did: to teach, to heal, to call people to repentance and new life.

“…and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

In our opening prayer we prayed that the “Church, being gathered together in unity by [the] Holy Spirit, may show forth [God’s] power among all peoples.”

Are we showing forth God’s power? How do we even go about showing God’s power?

Our readings today are a clue.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

God’s power is shown when we do not conform to the ways of the world.

In this moment of heightened anxiety, when it is easy to insist that arguments or torches or nuclear bombs are the way to solve problems, followers of Jesus Christ are called to speak up for the way of love.

In this time when people are separated into groups with those who agree with them or look like them, the Church is a witness that “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”

And that might be the biggest witness the Church can offer in our modern age: the witness of grace.

As author Marilynne Robinson calls it, “The givenness of things.”

Just like Peter did not stumble upon the Truth of Jesus Christ on his own, but it was revealed to him by God.

Just like Paul says this morning, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”

The Good News of God is that through Christ, God has shown grace to the world.

The Good News is that you do not have to do anything to earn the love of God.

The Good News is that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves.

In a moment that may seem hopeless, we are called to witness to the fact that the world has a savior that is neither you or me or anyone other than Jesus Christ.

When Jesus stood in the shadow of Caesar’s Temple and was proclaimed as the Messiah he was bringing into being a whole new world. 

When we proclaim the Lordship of Christ, we proclaim a new way of existing with minds transformed by the grace of God.

Who do we say that Jesus is by our actions and words in the world?

What Good News does our community proclaim?

Our task is to show forth God’s power through this revolutionary community in Staunton and Southwestern Virginia and to the ends of the earth.

So be it.