The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      27th August 2017
Who do you say that I am? (Matt 16.15)
Handley Stevens

Since Trinity Sunday our readings at the Parish Eucharist have followed the story of Jesus’ public ministry in St Matthew’s gospel.  One of the great themes of that gospel is the story of how Peter emerged as the natural leader of the disciples, the rock upon which Jesus would found the messianic community of God’s people, to which the Old Testament looked forward. 

To-day we come to one of the great turning points in Peter’s story, closely linked to that of Jesus’ own mission.  Matthew tells us, in the very first verse of his gospel, that this is the story of Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham.  In other words he sets out to show us that Jesus is not only the promised Messiah, but also the inheritor of the promises made to Abraham and to David.  So we as readers know where Matthew is coming from, but within the story the disciples have to make that discovery for themselves.  They have witnessed many acts of healing.  They have been impressed by the radical vision of Jesus’ teaching, notably in the Sermon on the Mount.  They have seen how Jesus, moved with compassion for the hungry crowds, could feed several thousand people by blessing and distributing one child’s gift of his picnic of loaves and fishes.  They have been so awe-struck by his sudden calm appearance in the storm on Lake Galilee that they have worshipped him as Son of God. 

The foundations have been laid.  But none of the disciples has put two and two together.  Noone has yet been inspired to grasp that Jesus is the key figure at the very centre of God’s plan for the world’s salvation. Now it is time for them – and for Matthew’s readers - to take the next step.  Jesus begins by asking the disciples what people are saying about him.  Some are whispering fearfully that he might be John the Baptist, recently slain by King Herod. Or he might be one of the great Old Testament prophets, even perhaps Elijah whose return was promised in Malachi’s last verse ‘before the great and terrible day of the Lord’.  Meanwhile even the sceptical scribes and Pharisees are asking who he could be, though they are looking for faults in his behaviour to prove that he couldn’t be the promised Messiah.

Clearly there was much speculation going on, but the jury was still out.  So Jesus draws them on.  Who do YOU say that I am?  And Peter, led as ever by his generous heart rather than his puzzled head, blurts it out:  You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God (v 16).   He at least has taken a gigantic leap of faith, and landed on the truth. Now Jesus can begin to teach the disciples what it really means to be Messiah – which is not at all what they are expecting.

I expect we shall come to that next week.  To-day we should pause to reflect on the leap which Peter has made.  We should ask ourselves whether we have made that leap, or are ready to make that leap with him; and we should note how Jesus responds to Peter.

Perhaps the best way to measure the leap that Peter has made is to look at the others. Who do they think Jesus is?  The scribes and the Pharisees have been fussing about his failure to comply with the purity laws.  Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  For they do not wash their hands before they eat (Matt 15.2).  There is no salvation in rules like that.  Jesus rubs it in by citing a case where following traditional rules has encouraged people to give money to the temple building fund, even if it means depriving their own aged parents of the support they need.  The rules are worse than useless. The scepticism of the scribes and Pharisees has also led them to ask Jesus for a sign of his authority, but all he has offered them is the sign of Jonah, who promised a devastating destruction if the people of Nineveh failed to repent.  The sceptical scribes and Pharisees would have to recognise their own need for a change of heart before Jesus could show them such signs of his power as Peter and the disciples had been privileged to witness. 

Then there were the crowds who thought Jesus might be a prophet.  They were curious about him, they came to listen, as thousands of people were doing, discussing with one another what this new young preacher and miracle worker might be about.  We can readily understand where they were coming from. There are plenty of people around us today, who are ready to acknowledge the pull of something spiritual, even to come to church from time to time, sensing perhaps the special atmosphere which pervades places of prayer and worship, but reluctant to dig deeper, or to take the risk of engaging more fully with the open-ended demands of committed discipleship. 

And then there are those who like Peter have been drawn close enough to the person of Jesus to make that leap of faith, to see in him the fulfilment of God’s plan for a world open to the realisation of his loving purposes, to recognise that Jesus is none other than the promised Messiah, the Son of God.  

Who do YOU say that I am?   You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.  When that is what you and I say, not merely with our lips but with our hearts, it entails a willingness to respond to the endlessly generous love which has reached out to us with that same unconditional, whole-hearted trust and commitment that inspired St Peter.

The leap of faith that Peter made that day was but the beginning of a demanding but wonderfully fulfilling new life as the recognised leader of the little band of disciples who would become the Christian church, reaching out from Palestine to the very heart of the Roman empire.  It wouldn’t be easy.  His own life would end in martyrdom.  But it would be deeply satisfying.  And the same will be true for us as we exercise our different gifts within the community of God’s people which Paul teaches us to see as the body of Christ, that body which has the power to transform the life of the communities to which we belong. 

Now, as then, Jesus asks his disciples: Who do YOU say that I am?

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