Important Questions

Sermon – Sunday, August 24, 2014
Paradise Lutheran Church – Thomasville, PA
Matthew 16:13-20

Place and timing are critical elements to consider when asking important questions. When a couple is about to become engaged a groom usually selects the ideal place to ask the important question, “Will you marry me?” A lot of time goes into deciding where to “pop the question.” Will it be a fancy restaurant, a discreet getaway, a romantic location by the sea, or perhaps a more unusual or personal place like when my son-in-law Jackson proposed to my daughter Michele.

And timing is important. You don’t want to wait too long to ask an important question, but you also don’t want to ask too early. You want to make sure the person has all the information, or at least enough to make an informed decision. Sometimes if you wait too long, the opportunity is lost. Place and timing are critical when asking important questions.

Jesus knew this as well. He waited for the right place and the right time to ask the disciples the critical question, “Who do you say that I am?” He waited a while, years of teaching them and spending time together so that they would slowly come to know who He was. What’s interesting is the place Jesus chose to ask that important question. He chose Cesarea Phillip.

Jesus and the disciples travelled 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee to Cesarea Philippi. . It was a strange setting indeed. Cesarea Philippi was a place filled throughout the centuries with all kinds of temples to various gods. There was a giant marble temple built for Caesar Augustus and his son Philippi who were worshipped as gods, a temple to the Syrian god Baal, a temple to the Greek god Pan – god of shepherds and flocks and various other temples. It was an odd place to ask such a question – among all those other gods – wasn’t it? Jesus could have asked them on one of their many walks. He could have asked them in the temple. He could have asked them after He performed the miracle of feeding the thousands or curing the Canaanite woman’s daughter. But instead Jesus chose to ask them in the midst of the unholy false gods. It seems like quite a strange place to ask such a pivotal question, but maybe it was the perfect setting to ask the disciples back then. It was a perfect setting as people were beginning to separate with Judaism and start a new religious identity as followers of Jesus. It was a time of turmoil and anxiety. Maybe it was the perfect place to ask such a pivotal question, and maybe it’s the perfect setting to ask us – Jesus’ disciples – today.

Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” in the midst of unholy false gods. Jesus asks us to name the gods that we worship over Him, those things that seem to take precedence over our lives instead of following Jesus. He asks us in the midst of poverty and oppression. He asks us in the midst of violence and warfare. He asks us in the midst of prejudice and racism. He asks us in the middle of the violence in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Jesus asks us in the midst of the messiness and sinfulness of life, “Who do you say that I am?” It is the most pivotal question we will ever answer and it has life altering implications. Because if – like Peter – we profess that Jesus is the Son of the Living God – then our lives will never be the same. Simon was given a new name, Peter or rock, and upon that rock Jesus said He would build His church. Peter was not perfect, but Jesus chose Peter to show that God’s glory can be revealed through ordinary people and ordinary things.

We , like Peter, have been given a new identity. We, through our baptism, are to be Christ’s presence in the world. Through this gift of grace God has changed us, forgiven us, redeemed us, and sent us out to transform the world. We are each given a calling, a special purpose, to proclaim the love of God in our own unique way. As teachers, students, carpenters, farmers, plumbers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, parents, and homemakers – whatever our calling is – we are to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of the Living God in everything that we do. It is revealed in the love we show towards one another. We are the church, the body of Christ and Jesus asks us to see through the lies of the false gods who try to fill us full of fear and doom. Instead, we are to speak the truth and proclaim the kingdom of God here and now. The church of Jesus Christ is not one of violence, but peace and love. If we believe that Jesus is the Messiah – and we profess to follow Him – then we cannot go on living the way we want to, but must follow Him even to the cross – the cross that proclaims what is true. It proclaims that God’s work on earth is to be done through us.

If we profess to follow the Son of the Living God then we can no longer sit idly by and tolerate oppression of any kind. We cannot tolerate racism of any kind. We cannot tolerate violence of any kind because Jesus commands us to love our neighbors and even our enemies. It is not easy, but it is what being a Christian means. We cannot say that the violence in places like Ferguson, Missouri, or Palestine, or the Ukraine don’t affect us, because every act of violence against one of God’s children is an act against all of us. Martin Luther King Jr. said that all people “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” We are all brothers and sisters under God and what we do affects not only one another, but God as well. Jesus says later in Matthew 25:40 whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” When the oppressed cry out for justice, God cries out with them.

When we see someone suffering any kind of injustice we must act to put an end to that suffering for Jesus said that He is found in the least of these. We must speak out against racism in our schools and workplaces and communities. We must speak out for prison reform. We must speak out for policies that will bring people out of poverty into a sustainable living. We cannot be silent when our brothers and sisters are suffering because being a follower of Christ demands that we love as Christ loves. And loving sometimes means asking hard questions in the midst of unusual and difficult places.

Place and timing are critical elements to consider when asking important questions. When my son-in-law Jackson asked my daughter Michele to marry him, he had planned to ask her over a charming breakfast one weekend. But then, they had one of the worst weeks ever. There were several snowstorms in New England that weekend. They got stuck in the snow several times when driving and it seemed to be one disaster after another. Chaos and disappointment surrounded them. One evening Michele began to cry from the weight of it all. It was at that time and in that place that Jackson decided to propose. She needed some good news in the midst of all the darkness. Our world right now is in the midst of darkness and in need of Good News and Jesus is asking us, “Who do you say that I am?” How we answer that makes all the difference in the world. It will change not only our lives, but the lives of others.

Standing in the midst of darkness, in the midst of false gods, Jesus stands as the incarnation of the one true God. He stands as the builder of the church and has promised that the “gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Powerful words! Confident words! Challenging words! Jesus has entrusted to Peter and to us a daunting task. He has given us the keys or the authority to teach the world about the love of God. He has given us the keys to forgive and reconcile with one another. He has given us the power to stand against the powers of unholy gods and to proclaim the one true God and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Amen!