Sunday, May 1, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Simon, Son of Jonah"

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” 

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” 15 He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. 18 I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. 19 I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” 

20 Then he ordered the disciples not to tell anybody that he was the Christ.  (Common English Bible)

“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week Five

It was a simple question.

But simple questions can very easily be the most offensive, most dangerous of questions.

And Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds had just been asked the most loaded question of all.

Are any of you Jewish?

Master Sergeant Edmonds had, along with thousands of other Allied troops, been captured by the German Wehrmacht at the Battle of the Bulge during the Second World War.  At the POW camp in Germany, the camp’s commandant demanded to know which of his new prisoners were Jewish.  Edmonds ordered his entire group to step forward.

Putting a gun to Edmond’s head, the commandant repeated the same order: Jews, step forward.

Again, everyone identified themselves as a Jew.

And the camp commandant backed down.

I do not know how many lives Roddie Edmonds saved with that gesture, but he saved enough that he is one of only five Americans to be named Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli Holocaust memorial organization Yad Vashem, which he was this past December.

Who do you say that you are?  That question will likely vary depending on the context in which you are asked—and may none of you find yourselves in the circumstances of a genocide to be asked it.  That question cuts to the very root of where our beliefs often come from—our identities and our experiences.  And that identity gets asked of Peter by Jesus, when Jesus asks Peter who He is.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter—that’s right, a season, not just a holiday.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe that the earth is round.  I believe that milk spoils.  I believe the hokey pokey is what it’s all about.  But that’s all belief does.

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

Today, we’ll be talking about that difference in light of one of the most famous declarations of belief—or faith, we’ll get to that distinction later—ever made, by Peter in response to Jesus.

The “Son of Man” (or the “Human One” in the CEB translation) is a common term for Jesus to use throughout Matthew to refer to Himself, so it isn’t as though He is springing a brand new moniker on Peter for the hapless fisherman to stumble over.  By this point, sixteen chapters deep into Matthew’s Gospel, we know—and Peter knows—full well that Jesus is asking Peter who Peter says that Jesus is.

Peter, perhaps taking a page out of the book of contemporary politics, artfully tries to dodge the question entirely: “Some say John the Baptist or Elijah, still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

If you’re keeping score at home or in your seat, that’s four different possible answers that Peter threw out in the span of a single sentence, hoping that maybe one of them is in fact correct.  He is like the student who fills in every bubble on their multiple-choice test: at least one of the answers has to be correct, right?  Might as well cover all of my bases!

Except that what Jesus has asked Peter isn’t a multiple-choice question, it is an open-ended question: there are an infinite number of potential answers.  However, there is but one completely correct answer, and fortunately for Peter, he finds it next: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

It is the first part of that baptism recitation I mentioned earlier, and it is at this point that Peter actually begins going as, well, Peter.  His given name is Simon bar Jonah—Simon, son of Jonah.  But he is given a new name in faith by Jesus, a name which means “the rock,” from the Greek “petros.”

On this rock, this sometimes-clueless, sometimes-cowardly fisherman of a rock, Jesus builds His church.  And how sublimely appropriate it is that He should do so.  Peter is not a Herculean person, a symbol of Hegelian perfection.  He does not cut a silhouette of mystique or power, at least not until Acts, when his mere shadow is able to cure people of their ailments, illnesses, and injuries.

He is simply Peter.  He is simply Simon, the son of a fellow named Jonah.  But Peter, in his complete, utter ordinariness, in his you-couldn’t-tell-him-from-Adam anonymity, in that level of sheer humbleness of being unknown to the world to this point, Peter still is able to proclaim truth, even if it is only to an audience of One.

For the One to whom Peter proclaims the truth of his faith is the most important One of all.

The truth of who you are—and of who you believe this Son of Man to be—is a simple question indeed.  Even if it is answered only for an audience of one, the impact of the answer is still great.

Answered for an audience of one, the simple, terrible question, “Who among you is Jewish” was answered in such a way that life was made to go on for prisoners of war at the mercy of their fascist overlords.

Answered for an audience of one, the simple, but great question, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and do you accept Him as your Savior?” brings newfound life to the lost and hope to the redeemed.

And answered for an audience of One, the question, “Who do you say that I am?” took an unassuming laborer and made Him into the foundation of faith for billions across time and space.

Peter may well have believed in Jesus long before this point—we have to think that he did, or else he wouldn’t up and leave his home, his family, and his work otherwise—but his willingness to stop hiding behind what others said, and to rely solely on what he thought about Jesus, that’s an act of faith.  It’s a faith in oneself to realize that they made the right decision in following Jesus, and it’s a faith in Jesus in realizing that He is very much worth following in the first place.

Who do you say that *you* are?  Someone who believes, or who has faith, or who wonders, doubts, questions, and all of the above?  Someone who lives out their faith or who struggles at it, who feels they can follow Christ or who is worried about getting lost along the way?

For who you say that you are has an effect on who you might say Christ is as well.  Peter had become sure of who Christ was, but not yet sure of himself—so he relied at first on the opinion of others in answering Jesus’s question to him.

In that way, we are as Peter—potentially unsure of ourselves, even if we have been following Jesus for a long time now.

But sometimes, a more bold answer is required, and we must move from belief into faith as Peter has done.

May the example of Peter, the rock, be a source of strength and foundation for you, even amid the doubts and the worries and the fears of your lives.  Peter had them.  I have them.  We all have them.

Your faith is strong enough to encompass all those things, though.  Let it be that strong and able.  Let it be that redemptive.  And let it be that which gives you hope enough for God’s own grace to remain in your life as it always has.

We may be as small and as ordinary as Peter.  But maybe it is okay for our faith to be that big.  Maybe even more than okay.

Let that soul-sized faith be a rock for you, upon which you can build your life and faith anew.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 1, 2016

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