Online 10.30 23rd August 2020
Matthew 16. 13 – 20
If I were Jesus I’d have stayed where I was. At this point in Matthew’s Gospel (and in Mark and Luke) Jesus is at his farthest away from Jerusalem, 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It’s Caesarea Philippi, and I’ve been there. It’s gorgeous. Snow melting high on Mount Hermon pours down in torrents to the valleys below, and even in high summer the land is green and fertile and full of trees for shade. You’d go there on holiday. People did.
What’s said here, what happens here is glorious too. Things are understood, realised and made apparent. Here Jesus is revealed as the one who redraws everything, makes all thinking new. Here, in Matthew, the future of God’s people is opened up, and the founding of God’s called ones, gathered ones, churched ones, on the unlikely foundation of Simon the Fisherman is announced.
It’s a glorious moment, and it is one to dwell on. But we must do this with a spoiler alert too. The glorious revelation comes at a cost. God’s anointed one will not be recognised by all. God’s church will be prevailed against. This glorious place is the beginning of the journey of suffering which will lead to the Cross. The Jerusalem journey starts next week in our readings, but we need to remember this week that out of the glory of Caesarea comes the suffering of Jerusalem. There is not one without the other.
Jesus has been with his closest followers for some time now, and it’s time they made sense of what they had encountered. In Matthew they have said out loud something about Jesus being divine – after he calmed the raging storm. But it needs further work. In beautiful Caesarea he asks them direct questions. When asked what others think about Jesus, their answers reveal their world-view. They fit Jesus into an existing framework of thought and belief: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. Pigeon holes which already existed. Jesus makes it more specific. What do you think?
It’s Peter who makes the breakthrough statement. It’s an answer which opens up new levels of believing. ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. Jesus says the answer is God-given, and reinforces it by saying that this unreliable, impulsive fisherman will become one of the foundation stones of the new people of God. This is a pivotal moment.
It’s worth asking ourselves the same direct question. Who do you say Jesus is? Your image of God, your understanding of the person of Christ is, and how God is involved in every aspect of your life will determine how you act as well as what you believe – it will affect your unconscious lifestyle as well as your conscious decision making. It’s a Caesarea question.
There are deeper layers here than just the beauty. Caesarea was a place of existing beliefs too: ancient sites of the worship of Baal; a cave dedicated to the God of nature, Pan; the source of the Jordan and therefore the lifeblood of Israel; and the site of a temple dedicated to the godhead of Caesar. When we take the time to look at the patterns of our believing we do so with history, not a blank canvas.
As we take the time to do so again, we can be prepared for the Caesarea moment of revelation, of opening up, of being faced with the intimate glory of the Son of the living God, in whom all our hungers are satisfied, all our hopes fulfilled, all our sins forgiven, all our brokenness healed, all the fractures of the world restored.
As we recognise and affirm and worship and fall down before God in awe, we take our place as living stones in God’s ekklesia. Perhaps it’s fitting that today we hear words about the building of the church when we are online, outside the physical building in which we make church most obvious. The stones of Hampstead Parish Church only make sense when they are inhabited by the living stones of those who, in all our diversity and complications and unlikeliness , have come to see that Jesus is the Christ.
We have been built in new ways in the last six months. On these foundations God builds the church, and, we are promised, nothing can prevail against us. We need to hear those Caesarea words, right here, and right now.
But, however tempting, we cannot stay. Affirmed, restored, inspired, we turn with Jesus into a situation where we are called to make that hope plain, that light to shine, that healing to take effect. Get ready for next week. Our faith will only make sense when we recognise that we are called to follow this Christ: to show the world that there is healing in brokenness, that life will truly be lived when it is given away, and true riches gained when all is given up. There is a Cross to bear, and in which to glory.
Our challenge today is to work out who Jesus is, what Jesus calls us to, and how his sacrificial love will be worked out in our conscious and unconscious life. Take the Caesarea moment. And be ready to walk to Jerusalem. In each place is glory.
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