Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2017, Proper 16, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.,+ Rector Scripture: Matthew 16:13-20
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send forth the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to see Jesus for who He truly is, Lord and Saviour, and may we be empowered to proclaim His lordship; He who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
In an article entitled, “It’s a Culture War, Stupid,” George Weigel writes (8-22-17): ‘Tonight I am preparing to celebrate a funeral for someone (let’s call him “H” to protect his privacy) who, while suffering from cancer, was admitted to hospital with an unrelated problem, a bladder infection. H’s family had him admitted to the hospital earlier in the week under the assumption that the doctors there would treat the infection and then he would be able to return home. To their shock and horror, they discovered that the attending physician had indeed made the decision NOT to treat the infection. When they demanded that he change his course of (in)action, he refused, stating that it would be better if H died of this infection now rather than let cancer take its course and kill him later.
Despite their demands and pleadings, the doctor would not budge from his decision. In fact he deliberately hastened H’s end by ordering large amounts of morphine “to control pain” which resulted in his losing consciousness as his lungs filled up with fluid. In less than 24 hours, H was dead. H was 63 years old. He leaves behind a wife and two daughters.
We are not talking here about someone who was advanced in years. We are talking about a man who was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. We are talking about a man who still held onto hope that perhaps he might defy the odds long enough to see his daughters graduate. Evidently and tragically, in the eyes of the physician tasked with providing the care needed to beat back the infection that hope was not worth pursuing.
Canada’s vulnerability to the culture of death is exacerbated by Canada’s single-payer, i.e. state-funded and state-run, health care system. And the brutal fact is that it’s more “cost-effective” to euthanize patients than to treat secondary conditions that could turn lethal (like H’s infection) or to provide palliative end-of-life care. Despite assurances from governments both conservative and liberal that they’d address this shameful situation, the financial calculus had always won out—from a utilitarian point of view, euthanizing H and others like him was the sounder public policy.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” So wrote Charles Dickens in his book, entitled A Tale of Two Cities. Or, in the words of the American Revolutionary, Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try men’s souls” (December 23, 1776).
Priorities, discerning what are right and wrong, true and false were no less difficult during the time of Jesus than today or during the time of Charles Dickens. The very context in which we find Jesus and the disciples in this morning’s gospel from St. Matthew is illustrative. It is a place that Emily and I visited in Israel. It is a place, delineated by water rushing before a slope, dotted by caves. These caves were places to worship the various pagan gods of the Roman culture. We walked up the slope and peered into them—rather primitive looking actually. It was against this backdrop of Roman gods that Jesus posed the question, which we heard this morning, to the disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
In other words, Jesus is standing there with all these pagan god statues right behind Him. In a manner of speaking, it is a parking lot full of gods, and He has asked the disciples to pick Him out of the crowd. Pick Him and say who He is or isn’t. You get the picture. There is, then, some basis of comparison. We might recall the last time we went shopping for a car or some other big ticket item. There are all these many options. Trying to choose between one above all else can be confusing if not frightening. How do we make such a choice? Is a Mercedes better than a BMW or some other make of car? What about televisions? What is the best TV?
As we heard, the disciples weren’t quite sure what was the best, the best god or the best whatever. Seemingly, they weren’t sure how to answer Jesus’ question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” So they replied, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Two points are to be made here. First, every one of us sitting here this morning is a son or daughter of man. In that respect, “Son of Man” is not a unique title. The disciples might just as well have said any Hebrew name, even their own. However, we have to assume that Jesus was looking for something a little weightier from the disciples. He might have expected them to recall a certain passage from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. Here the prophet (7:13, 14) records the following:
“As the visions during the night continued, I saw One like a son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven; When he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him, 14 He received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.”
Of course, prior to His question in today’s gospel, Jesus had made several references to Himself as the Son of Man. Here are but a few: “‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’– he then said to the paralytic—‘Stand up, take your bed and go to your home’” (Matthew 9:6). “For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers” (Mt. 13:41). This was no trick question that Jesus had posed to the disciples. For all that they had seen Jesus do and teach, reasoning alone should have provided the answer to His question. Why, we might ask. Why was the seemingly obvious, not so obvious to them?
If we recall what we know about the pagan gods of Rome, what were some of their names and what did they do? Here is a short list: Apollo, god of light and classical order, Bacchus, god of wine, Dianna, goddess of nature and hunt, Fortuna, goddess of good luck, Mars, god of war, Neptune, god of the sea, Pluto, god of the underworld, and Venus, the goddess of love. In other words, these were gods and goddess of certain aspects of human endeavor—wine, war, and love. Indeed, they highlight the priorities and preferences people have established for themselves. As priorities and preferences, they tend to color the way people look at the world; a way that is in part and not the whole picture.
We return then to the disciples. What were their priorities or preferences? Did they see John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah as the ideal, indeed the ideal that established that individual as the very Son of Man of which the prophet Daniel had prophesied?
As we heard, Peter got the answer right, but not until after Jesus sharpened the question. “But who do you say that I am?” Surely, the disciples must have thought that was what Jesus’ meant in the first place. Had they hedged their bets? Knowing the answer to Jesus’ question in light of what the prophet Daniel prophesied (“His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.”) was, perhaps, too profound and too earthshaking to ponder. It would change everything; the way they looked at the world, themselves, and others.
We forget that Jesus inaugurated a brand new worldview (the resurrection being foremost) not only for the Jews but subsequently for the Gentiles as well. It would be as if you and I woke up tomorrow morning to discover that aliens from another planet had landed at Gregory Park during the night. Can we imagine? Everything we know and depend upon suddenly would no longer apply, no longer even make sense? Indeed, Jesus was an alien, not of this planet.
Peter got the answer right. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Not only was Jesus the Son of Man; He was also the Son of God. How was it that Peter got it right? Jesus explained, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Notice, we now have a third “son of” in addition to the Son of Man and Son of God. We have Simon son of Jonah.
We might miss this at first. Who was Jonah? He was that guy who spent three days in the belly of a great fish? Who spent three days in the belly of the earth? Jesus, of course! Simon Peter would be vis-a-vis the Spirit a son of the man Jesus, who spent three days in the belly of the earth. Incidentally, the Hebrew word, Jonah, means dove. The Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism in the shape of a dove. Identities, then, are being clarified and made. When one becomes a follower of Jesus, one becomes, you and I, become a son of Jonah, the one who was raised from the dead after three days.
As we heard, flesh and blood had not revealed Jesus’ identity to Peter; rather, as Jesus said, it was “my Father in heaven.” Again, we have another identity and name change. Jesus renames Simon, Peter. The Greek word for Peter is petros, meaning rock from which we get the word petroleum. Jesus tells the disciples, “on this rock I will build my church.”
If you know something about Roman Catholicism, then you know that this verse is very important. It is the basis for their belief that the Pope is the head of the Church, Peter being the first Pope. Why? Well, it would seem that that is what Jesus is saying. On this rock I will build my church. What though is this rock? Is it the person, Peter, or something else?
The Protestant tradition (to which we belong as well as to the catholic) contends that the rock is not the person Peter, but the confession of the person Peter. What did he say? “You are the Messiah (the Greek for Messiah is, of course, Christ), the Son of the living God.” Certainly, without Jesus there is no church. Certainly, without acknowledging and confessing that He is the Messiah and the Son of the living God, there is no church. In other words, there can be a church without Peter, but there cannot be a church without Jesus, who is Lord and Saviour, not Peter.
Where then does this leave us? We have all heard the expression, “you are what you eat.” As children, when our ability to reason was simple, that idea might have caused us some confusion. You mean if I eat hotdogs, I am a hotdog. If I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then I am that. Of course, it is not as simple as that. We do know if we eat what is good for us our bodies are the better for it, and if we eat what is not good for us, then our bodies, our health is the worse for it.
A similar reality also applies to our priorities or what we worship. We are what we worship. Our identities, as with Peter, are defined by what we worship. You see, aside from the fact that the Ten Commandments prohibit idolatry (You shall not make for yourself any idol, the second commandment) and aside from the fact that idolatry is loving something other than God, we may wonder what difference it makes. Of course, the idols of OT times were nothing more than wood, stone, or metal. They were inanimate objects, having no deity, no spirituality, and no power behind them. The nature of idolatry or of the idol worshiped (the various Roman gods mentioned earlier, for example) tells us what the real problem with idolatry is. We are what we worship. If we worship the god of war, then we are warlike. If we worship the god of wine, well, we know where that leads. If we worship a goddess of fertility, well, that seems to define our culture today, does it not—sex, sex, sex.
In other words, Jesus likewise asks of us, “But who do you say that I am?” We know what our culture might say. He was an historical character, a moral teacher if He existed at all. But who do we, you and I, say that Jesus is? Certainly, we can ignore the question, holdout for additional evidence, otherwise known as agnosticism. The question still remains and will continue to remain, though, “But who do you and I say that Jesus is?”
Priorities, discerning what are right and wrong, true and false were no less difficult during the time of Jesus than today or during the time of Charles Dickens. The changing landscape of moral values is perhaps more challenging today than ever before. When we go to the hospital who does decide whether we live or die? What idol, cost effectiveness for example, will we worship, and thereby determine our choices and actions? At a deeper level, the public debate on this issue and many others all ask, “What idol shall we put above all others?”
Yes, with all the technological advances, it is the best of times, and it is the worst of times; both of which try our souls. Where shall we find stability, upon what rock shall we stand? The question, who is Jesus, is not just some theological debate. Rather, it is foundational to our personal welfare as well to the welfare of our society. Will we define ourselves by who Jesus is or will we define ourselves merely be our individual personal preferences? Whereas the latter might seem like the greater way to freedom, we know that unlimited freedom without love and consideration of others is not freedom at all, but chaos and violence. Who do we say that Jesus is? By our answer, we also say who we are.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.