21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – August 23, 2020
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 138:1-3, 6, 8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
(1) A Faith That Generates the Kingdom
If I were to ask you what Jesus did in his life, you would probably give me a version of the creed: The second person of the trinity, the Son, became man, and he suffered and died for us, and rose on the third day. And if I push, you would probably say that he did a lot of miracles to prove he was God and that he taught us God’s new law. And those aren’t completely wrong, but they miss something crucial. They miss the element that I’ve been talking about for two months now: the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ entire life is about establishing this Kingdom, he spends his entire ministry talking about the Kingdom and how the Kingdom has arrived, performing miracles that demonstrate the Kingdom breaking in, and he goes to war with the powers of the world.
And this Kingdom is radically different than any other Kingdom in the world. How does this Kingdom set itself up? Through faith. St. John, in his first letter, says, “This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith” (1 John 5:4). In other words, “faith” is the way that the Kingdom of God conquers over the kingdoms of the world. And so this issue of faith is a big deal. This issue of faith is what our readings have been about the past two weeks and what they’re about today and next week as well. We heard about Peter’s faith on the Sea of Galilee: a faith and trust in Jesus based on a free and rational interpretation of all the evidence about Jesus. We heard about the Canaanite woman’s faith: faith being the result of her encounter with an exceptional presence (a Presence that contained the “answer” she was looking for) and her adherence to this Presence.
But now we get to Peter’s great and revolutionary confession of faith: and this is faith as allegiance to a new authority, a new power, a new king. Usually when we hear this passage we think, “Oh, Peter is finally confessing that Jesus is God, the second person of the Trinity. The “Father” revealed to Peter (in a dream or something) how the Trinity works, and Peter is confessing that Jesus is God the Son, the second person of the Blessed Trinity. And because of that, Peter becomes the first pope.” But that’s not what’s going on. Peter is confessing faith in something that fulfills the scriptures. He is confessing a revolutionary fact in the fullest sense of the word. Peter is confessing his allegiance to, his faith in Jesus Christ. Peter has come to realize that Jesus is the true king and emperor of the world, God’s anointed king who has come to overthrow the kingdoms of this world. And that is revolutionary in nature.
(2) A Battle Between Kingdoms
Like I said, we’re very used to telling the Gospel story as the story of God becoming man and dying for our sins to save us. And that’s true! That is one part of the story. But we have almost completely forgotten that another central part of the Gospel is that it is “the story of the kingdom of God clashing with the kingdom of Caesar” and the kingdom of Herod —the kingdoms of the world (Wright, How God Became King, 127).
At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel what do we hear in chapter one? “In the days of Herod, King of Judea” (Luke 1:5). In chapter 2? “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (Luke 2:1). From the beginning, the story of Jesus is told in contrast with the story of this king and emperor.
In Jesus’ life, there is that famous scene where Jesus is asked about paying taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22). Jesus asks for a coin, and then asks whose image and inscription is on the coin. The image is the image of Caesar Augustus. And the inscription on the coin is Divi Filius. Divi Filius means “son of god” in Latin. The Caesar was called the “Son of God,” that was one of his imperial titles. And so Jesus’ reply (“Pay back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”) is not a separation of church and state; it is a conviction of the Jews trying to trap him that they have sold out to the wrong kingdom.
And then the famous conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate (Pilate the embodiment of Caesar and the empire). What is the accusation that the Jews bring against Jesus? They say, “‘He has made himself the Son of God.” This is not just a charge about the Jewish religion. This is a charge of insurrection, of revolution against Rome. The “Son of God” is the imperial title for the ruler, the king. And when Pilate tries to release him, he says,”’Shall I crucify your King?’ And the chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar’” (John 19:15-16). Once again, they reveal that they have sold out to the wrong kingdom.
(3) What do “Christ/Messiah” and “Son of God” Really Mean?
So with this in mind, with all of this bigger context in mind, go back to this scene in our Gospel today. The very first line is a dead giveaway: “Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi” (Matthew 16:13). Caesarea Philipi is called “Caesarea” after Caesar (the emperor) and “Philipi” after Philip (the son of Herod, the king). So immediately we are in this realm of conversation about kingdoms.
And when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” what does Peter say? “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The “Christ” (cristos in Greek) is the translation for the Hebrew word Meshiach, or Messiah—one anointed by God. Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed one.” Who is the Messiah at this time? People believed that the Messiah was the one God would send to supplant the rulers of the this world. So Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” And then he adds, “The Son of the living God.” Again, like I mentioned, Peter is not saying, “You are God the Son, the second person of the blessed Trinity.” “Son of God” is a biblical phrase that highlighted the relationship that the King of Israel (like David) had with regard to God—and remember, the king was anointed king. “Son of God” was a title applied to the king of Israel. But like I also mentioned, everybody was walking around with coins in their pocket that said, “Son of God.” And the “Son of God” was Caesar Augustus. So what is Peter saying? He’s not making a randomly inspired theological claim that Jesus is God the Son, second person of the Trinity, no. Peter is confessing, “You are the Messiah that Israel has been waiting for, here to supplant all other rulers of the world. You are Israel’s Christ, Israel’s anointed one, adopted and anointed by God as his own son. You are the Son of God, the true King, the one of whom the Psalms and prophets spoke. You are Christ and King.”
(4) The “Rock” of Peter’s Faith
Peter makes a bold confession of faith. And it’s bold because it is not just some random theological claim about Jesus being God—far from it. Peter is confessing something revolutionary in nature. Peter is confessing his allegiance to, his faith in Jesus Christ. Peter has come to realize that Jesus is the true king and emperor of the world, God’s anointed king who has come to overthrow the kingdoms of this world. And that is revolutionary in nature. Those be fightin’ words!
Jesus was not the only would be messiah in those days. There were lots of them. And they all had the same fate: death at the hands of the Temple authorities, Herod, and Caesar. Peter is making a claim that has gotten other people killed. Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus is a confession of allegiance to Jesus, to the New Kingdom he is ushering in. And it is the rock of Peter, the rock of his faith, his allegiance, on which the new community will be built. Just like Jesus had spoken before about building your house on solid rock (Mt. 7:24ff), now Jesus builds his church on rock—on the rock of faith and allegiance to the king embodied by Peter.
(5) Under Whose Rule Do You Live?
Our second reading has been from Romans the past several weeks, and the Church conveniently had us skip over the highly controversial line, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). This is the line where people think, “Just say the words ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart of hearts that he rose from the dead and you get to go to heaven when you die.” But that’s not Paul’s point. The point is what we have just been talking about.
When people would get baptized in those days, their profession of faith was not the creed. When people got baptized by Paul and the apostles, they would “confess Jesus as Lord.” Well, in Paul’s world, “Lord” was another title for Caesar. Saying that “Jesus is Lord” was a way of saying “Caesar is not”—those were deeply subversive words.
Can we confess these words? Can we confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God? Can we confess that Jesus is Lord? Do we live our lives as lives of faith, allegiance to the true King? We think of those famous stories where people like the Cristeros in Mexico would die shouting the words, “Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!” Just like the first Christians, confessing Jesus as Lord got them killed. And it’s still like that in many parts of the world.
But for us? Here in Derby, America? Nah. Will people ridicule us, dismiss us? Yeah, maybe. But usually it’s us—we are our own worst enemy. We forget our allegiance, our faith—we drift in to a malaise of nothing. WHO DO YOU SAY that Jesus is? Do you say a nice theological claim that he is God? Or do you make the bold claim that he is King? What does your life reflect?
The Kingdom of God comes on earth as in heaven when it takes root in you through your faith. It is your faith that generates the Kingdom on earth as in heaven. Who rules over you?