(This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020 in response to the Gospel reading – Matthew 16:13-20)
Location, Location, Location. It’s all about the location. I’m sure you have heard this phrase before. It means that the value of something will fluctuate based on the location. We see this pretty easily when we start talking about homes and real estate. You’d expect the price of homes to be much higher in a major metropolitan city, like New York, Chicago, or LA, as opposed to more rural areas. Or a location on a beach would be far more valuable than a location far in land. The same house that might go for $150,000 in one location, might just as easily go for $1 million in another. That’s not a surprise. Location determine value.
In our Gospel, we hear Jesus ask the question – Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Good question Jesus. Some say that Jesus was a good guy. A prophet. Someone we should follow, at least loosely. A pretty mild-mannered person.
And then Jesus asks the harder question – But who do you say that I am? Now that’s a different question, isn’t it? A more difficult question? A question with answers that say more about us than about Jesus. A question that reveals what we really believe about Jesus. A question that exposes us, makes us vulnerable.
But let’s not forget, Jesus is asking these questions at a specific location. And that location determines the value. We are told that Jesus comes to the district of Caeserea Philippi. That’s not just a location. That’s a location with great value. It’s located about 25-30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee and was near a trade route that connected Tyre (which we heard about last week) to Damascus. We know the location where Jesus asked his disciples these questions – a nearby cave that housed a great spring that feeds into the Jordan River. It was believed to be the sanctuary dedicated to the Greek god, Pan – the god of nature, fields, forests, mountains, flocks and shepherds. There were inscriptions carved into the rock with dedications to other pagan gods as well.
In addition to the religious significance of the site Jesus is at, there were also dedications to the secular authorities. Herod the Great built a temple near the spring in honor of Caesar Augustus. And by the time Jesus and his disciples showed up, Herod’s son, Philip the tetrarch, was in charge and established it as his center of governance.
As one commentary noted, “By the time the Gospel of Matthew was written, people were likely aware that the Roman commander who led the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had returned with his troops to Caesarea Philippi in celebration of their victory.”
Location, Location, Location. These questions from Jesus, aren’t just random inquires that you ask at the dinner table – they are much more. These questions are asked at this location on purpose. They are dangerous questions because of where they are asked.
Maybe it would help if we shifted from what was in the bible, to our own world in order to really grasp what is going on here.
Let’s say we were at a sporting event – a big one, like the Super Bowl. You’ve got your tickets, and you are getting ready to go into the stadium. And Jesus is there with you and he asks us the question – Who do people say that the Son of Man is? – I wonder what the answers would be. Some say you are the god who helps my team to score that important point at just the right time so we can claim victory. The god who prevents the star player from getting injured.
Now what if Jesus went further and then asked the next question at that same game – Who do you say that I am? What would your answer be?
Let’s shift gears. What if Jesus showed up while we were shopping in crowded stores and while people were on their devices making purchases online and asked the question – Who do people say that the Son of Man is? – I wonder what the answers would be. Some say you are the god of prosperity. The god who secures our economic system. The god who gives us what we ask for.
Now what if Jesus went further and then asked us right there – Who do you say that I am? What would your answer be?
Let’s shift gears and location again one more time. What if Jesus showed up with us at either one of the two political party conventions that are going one this past week and this coming week and asked us the question – Who do people say the Son of Man is? – I wonder what the answers would be. Some say you are the god of the Democrats and some say you are the god of the Republicans. Some say you are the god of progressive or conservative values. Some say you are the god who wraps himself in an American flag.
Now what if Jesus went further and then asked us right there at that convention right before either of the nomination speeches – who do you say that I am? What would your answer be?
Three different situations. Three different locations with great meaning and significance. And many different answers based on what is going on and where we are. I’m sure we could add any number of other locations and ask the same questions.
Location, location, location. You see in taking his disciples to this region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus is asking an important question. As Dr. Audrey West, a Professor of New Testament at Moravian Theological Seminary wrote about this passage, she said, “Jesus’ question—“Who do you say that I am?”—hangs in the air at the intersection of economic trade, religion, and the power of the Empire. It is a question not simply about Jesus’ identity, as if getting the titles right would earn somebody an “A” on a messianic quiz. It is a question about allegiance.
In what or in whom will the followers of Jesus place their trust? Will it be in the privileges deriving from access to opportunity and wealth? In the worship of a prevailing culture’s latest idols? In allegiance to the dominant power of earthly rulers?
Or will they trust, instead, in the One whose life, death, and resurrection reveal the mercy and justice of the living God?” Wow Dr. West, you know how to pose some tough questions.
This is the question before us. Right here. Right now. In worship. Whether we are worshipping in a sanctuary or in our homes, these locations have great significance and meaning in our lives – maybe some of the greatest significance. They don’t just represent abstract ideas and beliefs. They speak to our very identity. They lay claim to who family is for us. They are locations in which we are most vulnerable. These are the places that form our identity. And it is in our identity that we speak our words and place our hopes. It is in our very identities that we form our ideas and carry out our actions. As we heard last week, it is not what is external that determines who we are, it is what come from within and proceeds out that exposes who we really are and what we really believe.
In his book, “The cost of Discipleship,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the following, “Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship. An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, renders discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ. With an abstract idea it is possible to enter into a relation of formal knowledge, to become enthusiastic about it, and perhaps even to put it into practice; but it can never be followed in personal obedience. Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son.”
Jesus asks, Who do people say that I am?
Jesus asks, Who do you say that I am?
Before you attempt to answer, I want to point to one last piece of the story. It’s when Peter answers. He says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Right answer Peter! Good job. But before we pat Peter on the back for getting an A on the messiah quiz, let’s look at what Jesus says.
Jesus says in response, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.”
Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you. Your own experiences haven’t revealed this to you. The location where you are has not revealed this to you either.
You see, God’s revelation is not limited by our imperfection – by our senses or personalities or knowledge or experiences. God’s revelation isn’t limited like our answers to the questions Jesus asks. God’s revelation isn’t limited by the location and the significance and meaning of that location. God’s revelation isn’t limited by the value others’ place on us, on faith, on Jesus. God’s revelation isn’t limited. It’s expansive. It’s timely. It’s beyond our capabilities. And nothing can stop it. Nothing. Not our economics. Not our politics. Not our sports. Not our consumption. Not our intelligence or what we think we know about God or what we lack in knowledge about God. Not our health or our unwellness. Not even the gates of Hades can stop what God is up to.
I talk about encounters with Jesus transforming lives. This is what it’s all about. This is what discipleship is all about too. It’s not based on our own experiences. It’s not based on how much information we have about God. It’s not based on our economic level or our politics. Rather, it is God revealing Godself to us through Jesus. Not so we can grasp everything, but to be transformed.
In that conversation, Peter is transformed. Given a new title and characteristic – you are Peter, a rock. That’s not a name, it’s a title. You see when Jesus encounters us, and we are given faith, we are transformed too. Not because of anything we do, but because of what God is up to. We are given faith to make a claim like Peter did. We don’t come to the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah based on our experiences and collection of information and head knowledge.
Jesus encounters us and calls us to follow him. We are given everything we need to respond in faith – and sometimes it’s crazy. We are called to just go and follow. Not to think it through and rationalize it. But to follow. To drop everything and to go. We take Jesus at his word, and obey and follow. That’s what faith is about. We can’t think our way to conversion on our own. We can’t get there on our own, no matter what.
But we do have the ability to respond. To go to places and locations that claim meaning and value and to represent Jesus’ way with our very presence. To go to places and locations that claim authority and power and to speak of the reign of God there. To go to places and locations that demand our allegiance and to act in ways that show that our citizenship is in heaven. We are called to go to these places and locations to proclaim with our words and our very lives that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the savior.
We don’t get to put Jesus into a box and only pull him out when we want – when it’s convenient. We aren’t the ventriloquist that operates a puppet Jesus and tells him what to say so that it all matches up with what we prefer and what we believe.
No, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. No location can convince us of another truth. No location can make Jesus into something else, or something less.
Wherever Jesus is and wherever he goes, that location is transformed. And so is anyone there.
Location, location, location. It’s all about Jesus being on location. Amen.