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Pentecost 10 August 21, 2011

Pentecost 10 Proper 16A RCL August 21, 2011

Exodus 1: 8-2: 10
Psalm 124
Romans 12: 1-8
Matthew 16: 13-20

As we begin the Book of Exodus, there is a new king in Egypt, a king who does not know Joseph and what a trusted administrator he was. This new king is seriously threatened by the Israelite people because they are growing and prospering. He is afraid that the Israelites will ally with an enemy of Egypt and fight against him.  So the king enslaves the Israelites and subjects them to hard labor.

Herbert O’Driscoll wisely points out that all along the West coast of the United States and Canada, we did the same thing to people of Japanese origin during World War II. This is a pattern of human sin that crops up over and over again.

One reason why the Revised Common Lectionary came into being was that our former readings did not include much about women and children.  The king tells the Hebrew midwives that they should kill any boy babies. With great courage, the midwives refuse to do this.  Then the king tells all his people that they should throw all Hebrew boys into the Nile. A Levite man and woman marry and they have a son. The mother and the boy’s older sister again show great courage. When the mother can no longer hide the child, she makes a little boat for him by waterproofing a basket and hides him in the reeds along the bank of the Nile. Here we have one of our favorite Sunday School stories, the tale of Moses in the Bulrushes. The boy’s older sister keeps vigil watching the basket. The king’s daughter comes and finds the child. By this time he is crying and she takes pity on him. She immediately recognizes that this is a Hebrew child, but this does not get in the way of her compassionate response. Her maid secures the services of the child’s mother as nurse, so now the young Moses will be living in the royal palace with his mother nearby under the protection of the king’s daughter. Eventually, the Pharaoh’s daughter adopts Moses as her son.

Through the actions of these courageous women, the liberator of the people Israel  is snatched from the jaws of death and is raised in the very palace of the oppressive king.

In our gospel, Jesus and the disciples are in the district of Caesarea Philippi. This area is about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It has been the site of worship centers dedicated to Baal, the god of the Canaanites, and the Greek god Pan. Herod the Great built a temple to Caesar Augustus there. Then it became a recreation area for the Roman army. This is an area close to the border of Lebanon. The Jordan River has its source here. So this is an area which has held temples to many gods and is a center for the occupying army. It reverberates with the echoes of religious and secular power.
But here, God’s shalom will be renewed, a very different kind of kingdom.

Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is? They answer, “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But then he asks, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter immediately says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Wow! Jesus blesses Peter for this, and then he says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  There is a pun here. The Greek word for Peter is Petros, meaning Rock. The Greek for rock is petra, so the sentence would go, “You are Rock, Petros, and on this rock, petra, I will build my church.

For centuries, this passage was used to justify the prominence of the Roman Catholic Church. Tradition says that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, and the Bishop of Rome became very prominent, as Rome was the center of the empire.  But now, after years of ecumenical scholarship, we can read this passage as indicating the kind of faith we are called to show. Jesus is asking each of us today, “Who do you think I am?”

We also need to be clear here that Jesus did not mean the church structure we have today. In fact, I think he might look askance at all this hierarchy. The New Testament in written in Greek, and the word translated as “church” is the Greek ecclesia. The Aramaic word is quahal, meaning a fellowship and harking back to that original fellowship, that covenant community which was formed as God’s people made their way from slavery to freedom in the wilderness. This is especially meaningful to us as we gather in faith in the post Christendom era, and it makes that important link between us in what may seem a wilderness and God’s people in that original journey of liberation.

As Paul says so eloquently in Romans and other places, we are the Body of Christ. We are here because, in our own ways, each of us has answered that question of Jesus,  “Who do you say that I am?” In our own ways, in our own words, or perhaps without words because it is so difficult to express, we are here because we want to follow Jesus.

Many of our contemporary theologians are pointing out something which I think is very helpful. They are saying that faith is not so much about what we believe on a cognitive level but rather what we do. It’s not a matter of intellectual assent as much as it is a matter of discipleship. Does Jesus mean something to us in our lives? Do we want to follow Jesus? Do we want to try to be like Jesus? My answer to these questions is a very clear Yes, and I think your answer is the same. Otherwise we would not be here.

Then the next question is, Do we want to be part of a community of people who want to follow Jesus, who want to have the values of compassion, inclusiveness, healing, and justice-making that we see in his ministry? Again, I think most of us would say, Yes, we do. We want to build a community like that. That’s why we are here.

Well, that’s what Peter was saying, and that’s what all the disciples were saying and doing.

It’s worth thinking about, and it is worth finding some quiet time to think of our answer at this time. Jesus is asking, “Who do you say that I am?” And, as we form our answer in words, if we are able to do so, we also know that it is our feet and our hands and our hearts and our spirits that give the real answer as we carry his compassion into every aspect of our lives.

Amen

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