Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday 24 August 2014 - 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Confession of faith / The basis of our faith / Who is Jesus? / How then should we live?

Sentence: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1)

Collect: Pent 8:2

Almighty and everlasting God,
by your Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified;
hear the prayers we offer
for all your faithful people,
that in the ministry to which you have called us
we may serve you in holiness and truth;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthews 16:13-20


Isaiah 51:1-6

The connection between this passage and the gospel reading is obvious: the word 'rock' figures in both passages, a 'rock' which is foundational for the succeeding work of God. Isaiah looks back to a person or persons (Abraham and Sarah): the work of God is always a work among people and works from people. Israel grows from Abraham and Sarah's child. The church is built as people respond to the preaching of Peter and the other apostles.

Psalm 138

The psalm praises the Lord, who is both beyond all kings and gods, yet is not so high as to be unable to regard the lowly (6).

Marked by 'steadfast love and your faithfulness' (2), this Lord, the God of Israel is able to help the psalmist 'in the midst of trouble' (7).

Romans 12:1-8

The importance of this passage cannot and should not be underestimated.

Through 11 preceding chapters Paul has laid out the content of the gospel which is the power of salvation (1:17). Through the gospel we learn that God saves us when nothing else can and we learn that all can be saved, Gentiles as well as Jews. In response to the gospel we are freed from the wrath to come and granted eternal life rather than awarded the wages of sin which is death.

All that being so, one great question remains: how are saved people to live?

Paul now gives his answer, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to" (1a). To do what? The next words are a general statement summing up the scope of our activity as Christians:

"present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (1b).

To be fair to ourselves as readers, these words are inspiring and yet mystifying: what is 'living sacrifice' and 'spiritual worship'? We need to read on!

In the next verse Paul urges us to not be 'conformed to this world' (which speaks of living a distinctive and different style of living), rather being 'transformed by the renewing of your minds' (which, in the light of the preceding chapters, must be the work of the Spirit of Christ indwelling us).

The outcome of this turning away from the world and allowing the Holy Spirit to renew our minds is not a set of rules for each and every one of life's moral dilemmas and choices about what to do next. Rather it is the ability to 'discern what is the will of God' (2b).

Verses 3-8 (and, of course, 12:9-15:7) then give us some details about the general shape and direction of the 'good and acceptable and perfect' will of God.

In these verses the focus is on ourselves and 'the measure of faith' which God has assigned to each of us, which includes the gifts God has distributed to each of us as we are members of the one body - gifts which are to be taken out of their wrappers and used.

Next Sunday we continue into further explanation of the will of God through verses 9-21.

Matthews 16:13-20

Who is Jesus? On the answer to that question a lot turns. Everything Christians believe hinges on the answer to the question. If, for example, the answer is 'Jesus of Nazareth, nothing more, a teacher with interesting ideas on the application and extension of the Law of Moses' then there should be no Christianity, just an extra chapter, or maybe only an extra footnote in the history and theology of Judaism.

So Jesus confronts those closest to him with the question, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' (13) and then confronts them directly with 'But who do you say that I am?' (15).

Note that answers to the first question make no great demands on Jewish belief and commitment. If verse 14 is the answer to the question 'Who is Jesus?' then we are in an extra chapter or footnote to Judaism territory.

Simon Peter's answer to the second question is a wedge which driven down further through the future after Jesus' ascension, eventually, will separate Jews and Jewish Christians and drive Christianity apart from Judaism: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (16).

Why is this answer more significant than the one given in verse 14?

First, verse 14 shows that an unsettled answer or set of answers was circulating among some people.Without a settled answer, would the movement of people following Jesus have become a distinctive force within Judaism? Secondly, it is far from clear, surveying the history of speculations in Judaism re figures such as Elijah and Jeremiah, that if a settled answer such as "Jesus is the re-appearance of Jeremiah" had been agreed to, then much impact would have been made (beyond a footnote in the history of Judaism).

But the third observation is that the claim in verse 16 is significant. Expectation about the coming of the Messiah grew and grew through the pages of the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) and in the minds of readers of these sacred writings. To claim that "X is the Messiah", then to persist in that claim, in the face of persecution and even execution, was to determine that Judaism should now fall in behind the Messiah rather than continue in a state of waiting and yearning. To make and persist in the claim, as the first Christians did, was to say, "there are two ways ahead of us, following the Messiah or denying that the Messiah has yet come." Indeed the very existence of a group known as 'Christians' was to make the claim since Christ = Messiah so the Christians were (so to speak) 'Messiahians'.

So Jesus blesses the one making the statement with clarity and conviction, Simon Peter.

But the blessing raises a couple of questions. (1) Why describe Peter as 'son of Jonah'? Possibly nothing more than a variation on 'son of John' (see John 1:42), possibly Peter is being described as a prophetic figure, like Jonah. (2) What does the statement about the confession Peter has just made being 'revealed' mean for us? Does it mean that we can only believe similarly if we too have a revelation? (Certainly the confession of many Christians would be that they have not been argued into the kingdom but that some kind of revelation has occurred which has led from a state of unbelief to a state of belief). Does it mean that now the confession has been written down, we are without excuse for refusing to believe the confession? (Certainly the confession of many Christians is that the witness of Scripture, built in the New Testament around precisely what Peter says, is decisive in the pathway to faith).

So far so good. In a sense we have through verses 13-17 the decisive reason for the break between Christianity and Judaism but in verses 18-20 we have a decisive difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism/Eastern Orthodoxy! The former (broadly speaking) emphasises the person of Peter and the office he carried forward from that day, as senior apostle then first Bishop of Rome as the foundation on which Christ builds the church, with the authority of the office being ascribed to Jesus' own delegation of authority in verses 19-20. The latter (broadly speaking) emphasises the confession Peter makes, with the church being built on the basis of sound theology, on the foundation of basic truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The authority delegated by Jesus in verses 19-20 is then an authority delegated to all the apostles. The final verse, 20, is addressed to all the apostles, not only to Peter.

Without attempting to 'sort this issue' once and for all (as if I could undo 2000 years of difference in the church!) the following observations might be profitable in the run up to this week's sermon:

- if Peter, as person and office-holder, is being singled out by Jesus, where do we find supporting words in the other gospels or in Acts (noting that in the key council in Acts 15, Peter is one of the senior figures, not any kind of supreme figure)?
- if confession rather than person counts, why does Jesus then talk about the exercise of authority which can only be exercised by people rather than by a confession?
- does our understanding of this passage require an acknowledgement of the importance of both personal leadership and of impersonal confessional statements?

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