SERMON ON MATTHEW 16:13-20
Text verses: 13-16: When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
In the pluralistic world of today, our confession remains the same as
that of Peter, two thousand years ago: Jesus
is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
twenty-first century will be religious or will not be”:
these words, pronounced y Andre Malraux, a French cultural philosopher
from last century, are considered by many to be prophetic.
Still, such a pronouncement does not satisfy us.
Does it mean that the eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth centuries have
not been religious? Does it mean
that Western secularized societies are not religious?
Actually, everything tends to prove the contrary.
Our epoch has been filled with the great pagan and even demonic liturgies
of the Nazi regime, of the Communist celebrations.
Today, among many other religions, the cult of the media with its class
of clerics and great priests, is there to remind us that we live in a highly
religious society: think for
instance of the power which the TV news channel, CNN, exercises on people’s
On universities campuses, student life displays its own rites, liturgies, hymns and communal celebrations, often no less pagan than the ones I have described to you. We also witness the deep religious character of nationalisms of all kinds: all are supposed to express the essence of a given community, its deepest feelings, loyalties, values. Therefore, the pronouncement should not be: “The twenty first century will be religious or will not be”, because we know it will be just as religious as any other epoch of human history. Mankind always proved to be a religious being, simply because God created him a religious being: a being in search of communion with God, His Creator. But whether mankind finds the object of his search, and directs his heart and mind to God, His Creator, is the point we should make when talking about religion. Therefore, our question should rather be: What will be the religion of the pluralistic world of the twenty first century? Tomorrow, like today, the religious market will be open to everyone: you can shop around, mix elements of the Buddhist tradition to what you consider to be the best of Christianity; you can become a proselyte of the Sufi teaching and at the same time worship American Indian traditional beliefs, you can call upon the New-Age movement, and so on…
But as we
read again the confession of Peter in Matthew chapter 16, we become suddenly
confronted with that kind of claim which totally excludes religious pluralism:
“You are the Christ, the Son of
the living God”. Should our
own confession be the same, two thousands years after that of Peter?
Should we hold to this single and exclusive creed while surrounded by an
atmosphere of religious pluralism? If
it were only the voices of modern pagans that called us to relativize our
confession, we Christians would respond appropriately and in unity; but we have
to witness several schools of theologians who want to make us doubt of our own
confession, and relativize it as well. However,
to the most crucial question ever asked to us “but
you, who do you say I am?” our answer will be a resounding “Yes!
You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.
Why such an answer? By pure
conservatism? By lack of
imagination? Because we refuse to
see the new and wonderful religious opportunities offered to us and seemingly
much more attuned to our time? No.
Simply because except for Jesus-Christ there is nothing new under the
sun; religious pluralism itself is a
very old phenomenon. In the
religious situation at Caesarea Philippi.
of our Lord Jesus-Christ, it is not indifferent to ask ourselves where Jesus
asked his disciples the question about His own identity:
he did it in the region of Caesarea Philippi, north of that Galilea of
the Gentiles about which the prophet Isaiah had spoken, some seven hundred years
earlier: remember the words of the
prophet, in the beginning of chapter 9: “The
people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land
of the shadow of death a light has dawned”.
Actually, in Jesus’ time, few places displayed more cults, religions or
superstitions than Caesarea Philippi. The
surroundings were scattered with temples dedicated to the Syrian God Baal.
But there was more in that region than Syrian gods.
Brothers and sisters, imagine a moment the silence of the disciples, after the crucial question was asked to them. Typical of the religious pluralism reigning around Caesarea Philippi, many different answers had been given about the identity of Jesus. The disciples knew all of them. They were probably quite proud to be identified with someone of whom people spoke so highly. And after all, did it really matter which answer was the right one? Wasn’t it good enough for Jesus to be identified with the reincarnation of one of the prophets? Wasn’t it enough honour for him to be identified with the greatest of the prophets, Elijah himself, the one who was taken into heaven by God? Still today, traditional Jews, when celebrating the Passover, keep a seat open for Elijah, because if Elijah comes and seats there, then the coming of the long awaited Messiah is near… Yes, after all, all these answers were deeply religious, why not being contented with them? And finally, who could ever give the expected answer? As usual, Jesus, while referring to himself, had been speaking of “the Son of Man”. Why not simply answering: “You are the Son of Man”, because you always speak of yourself as “the Son of Man”?
But you see,
when Jesus speaks, His Spirit is at work. If
He expects the confession of His divine Sonship, that confession will come,
whether in Caesarea Philippi or anywhere else.
And it might have taken a while for Peter to speak these words, he might
have uttered them hesitantly, from the midst of an embarrassed silence caused by
an embarrassing question. But the
Holy Spirit lead him to speak them. For
we know, brothers and sisters, that no one can say “Jesus is Lord”, except
by the Holy Spirit. And neither
Peter, nor any of the other disciples, nor anyone of us could ever confess Jesus
as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, if the Spirit of God did not enlighten
our darkened minds and hearts and did not open our mouth for this confession.
“Blessed are you, Simon son of
Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in
heaven”. Does this sound like
the reaction of a relieved religious leader, pleased to hear that his disciples
still follow him? Does this sound
like the reaction of someone who eventually discovers in the words of supportive
friends who he really is? We do not
hear any relieved silence after Peter’s answer:
rather, we hear the Master at work, exposing to his disciples what his
course of action is and will be: the
edification of His Church. And this
course of action is expressed so powerfully, with such a divine assurance that
nothing or no one will be able to destroy or even delay its accomplishment:
“And I tell you that you are
Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not
overcome it. I will give you the
keys of the Kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in
heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Only God Himself could speak in that way.
And Jesus said these things to Peter precisely because Peter had been
enabled by the Spirit to confess Him as God:
confession of Christ remains firm.
So we are
brought back to our initial question: why
do we uphold this confession in the middle of our present religious turmoil?
Why do we maintain it when all kinds of voices tell us to abandon it?
We do so because we have heard a voice which is not any voice; we have
seen a Lord who is not any lord. “For, Paul writes, even if
there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are
many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the
Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one
Lord, Jesus-Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live”
(1 Cor. 8:5-6). Religious pluralism
is nothing new, brothers and sisters. It
was the share of millions of people in the
But our confession stands like on a rock: the same Spirit of the Father who revealed to Peter the true identity of Jesus, will continue to reveal it to otherwise darkened minds and hearts. On that rock, on that unshakable foundation, a building is edified, and to those who form this building, the keys of the kingdom of heaven have been given. More than ever, our confession will have to be heard in the middle of modern paganism, local and international. Our confession will have to be heard clearly and loudly in the world, because billions of thirsting men and women and children await the quenching water that He alone can give. John the evangelist reports how, “on the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him”. “Whoever believes in me…” Today the same crucial, vital, eternally vital question is posed to us: “But what about you, who do you say I am?” Two thousands years after Peter, our answer remains the same: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.