St Michael’s and St Barnabas 21st August 2011
At first glance it might seem odd that Jesus chose to take his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was in the far north of Israel, in the territory now known as the Golan Heights. It was a remote, pagan area in the vicinity of a spring which even today still supplies the river Jordan and where for several centuries a temple to the goddess Pan had been situated. The town of Paneas had itself recently been renamed Caesarea Philippi by the son of the Herod the Great in honour of both himself and the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. It was not the kind of area where you would find many Jewish people, and any self-respecting Rabbi would surely not risk becoming unclean by visiting that place.
Yet it is at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus asks the pivotal question that forms the heart of Matthew’s gospel: Who do you say I am? For some time now the disciples of Jesus had been living close to Him. They had walked with Him, eaten with Him, shared their homes with Him. They had listened to His teachings. They had seen His miracles. They had watched as lepers were cleansed, enormous crowds fed, demons driven out. But Jesus knew that if they were to be effective followers, a time had to come for them to make a decision about who He was. Because, you see, Christianity is not a spectator sport. It’s not just knowing about Jesus, what He did, or what He said. It’s about deciding to follow Jesus and to enter into a living, personal relationship with Him.
So why then did Jesus chose Caesarea Philippi as the place of decision? I believe the answer lies simply in the fact it was well away from the disciples’ comfort zone. After all, it can be all too easy to declare Jesus as Lord in the safe, familiar places. There is little cost to following Jesus in the comfort of your local church or the privacy of your own room. But it’s out there – where Jesus is little known and increasingly little respected – that we need to stand up and be counted as Christians. Out in the workplace, in the shopping malls, in the classroom, places where we rub shoulders with those with different values, different attitudes, different beliefs. That’s where Jesus calls us to follow Him, that’s where we are called to live out our relationship with Him.
How then do we do this? Well, as we shall see later, James gives us some typically forthright advice. But I just want to focus a little longer on our reading from Matthew’s gospel, and notice a couple more things from this encounter at Caesarea Philippi. The first being, that Jesus’ initial question is not: Who do you say I am? but rather: Who do people say the Son of Man is?
Now let’s be clear – Jesus wasn’t unaware what people were saying about Him. He knew all about the Jewish traditions of Elijah or another great prophet returning. He also knew the thoughts of men’s hearts as they listened to His teaching. Nor was Jesus was like some modern-day politician anxious about his popularity ratings. He wasn’t worried by public opinion or whether His message was adequately focused on His target audience.
But what Jesus was concerned about was sweeping away all the myths and second-hand opinions about Himself. If the disciples were really going to make a decision to follow Him, it had to be on the basis of their own personal confession of Him as Lord. Not on the basis of what other people thought or said about Jesus, but of a real, live encounter with Him.
Because that’s the only way any of us can begin to follow Jesus. We may have heard about the Christian faith from our parents or our teachers. We may have seen a TV programme about Jesus of Nazareth or visited some websites discussing who He is. But no matter how much we have picked up from others, we still do not become followers of Jesus this way. We have to read the story of Jesus, examine the evidence and then make a choice for ourselves. Lay aside what others have said to you, and come face to face with Jesus. Because the most important thing any of us can do is answer for ourselves the same question that Jesus asked the disciples at Caesarea Philippi: Who do you say I am?
It may be that someone here this morning is wanting to find out more about Jesus of Nazareth. It may be you have a friend who is starting to ask questions about your faith. It may be that you want to have a fresh encounter with Jesus after many years of following Him. May I remind you that on 7th September we are beginning a Christianity Explored course, Wednesday afternoons at St Barnabas, and Wednesday evenings at St Michael’s, every fortnight. And even if you can’t be there, please do pray it might equip all those present to grow in their love and knowledge of Jesus.
Who do you say I am? It is no exaggeration to say this is the important question any of us ever face. But why? Why is it so important we know how to answer these words? Well, the second point I want to draw out from our passage in Matthew’s gospel comes in verse 18 where Jesus says: 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.
Now over the years it is fair to say Christians have disagreed about this verse. Some notice that the name Peter means rock and therefore say that Jesus appointed Peter as the rock on which an institution called the church was to be built. According to this line of argument Peter in effect became the first bishop or pope, from which all further bishops and popes derive their authority.
But I have to say, I have several problems with this argument. First of all, and most importantly, the church is built on the rock of Jesus, not Peter. Jesus is the corner-stone and the foundation of what we do, not any mere human being. Secondly, I would need a lot more convincing from other parts of Scripture that Jesus really meant to build an institution with traditions and rigid lines of authority. And thirdly, I think here Jesus is making a play on words. Yes, the name Peter means rock. But the rock to which Jesus is referring is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The church, you see, builds up and grows as men and women come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. If she tries to build itself up on any other basis, maybe tradition, maybe clever theology, maybe as a kind of social club it will fail and falter.
Earlier on in Matthew’s gospel we have another teaching of Jesus about building on a rock. Do you remember the wise man who built his house upon the rock and the foolish man who built his house upon the sand? I’m sure if nothing else, you can remember the old Sunday School song about it. But I wonder if you can remember the point Jesus made at the beginning of the story: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Building the church on the rock means recognising who Jesus is, listening to His teaching and putting it into practice, There is really no difference between the story of the wise man and the words Jesus spoke to Peter.
And that being the case, we can start to see why it is so important to answer that question of Jesus: who do you say I am? Jesus isn’t looking for a theoretical answer. He isn’t interested in us knowing all the right facts, or having purely a personal faith that stays within its comfort zone. He’s looking for people like you and me who not only say He is Lord but make that confession the basis, the rock of their daily lives. Out in the workplaces, the shopping malls, the classrooms, wherever we may happen to be.
So how then do we do this? Well, we can’t cover the whole of the Christian life at the end of single sermon, but let’s turn to our reading from James and see two important areas he covers in his typically forthright, down-to-earth manner.
The first, in chapter 4, verses 13-17 is the whole area of decision-making. Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Is James saying it is wrong to make plans for our lives or make definite goals we want to achieve? No, but the question he would ask all of us to face seriously is this: where does God fit into our decision making-process? When it comes to the nitty-gritty issues of where we live, the work we do, how we earn a living, we can so easily leave God out of the picture. As if somehow our faith is restricted to only particular areas of activity, or we are free to confess Jesus as Lord over the situations that suit us.
That, my friends, is not building our lives on the rock of Jesus. It’s rather basing our decisions on our own desires and preferences, and then maybe – if we remember – praying afterwards that God would bless the path we have chosen. And as James goes on to point out, it ignores the plain and simple truth that the whole of our life is in God’s hand, and that He is sovereign over all things. Hence his words in verse 15 where he advises: Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
Now I guess in theory many of us know this. We know we ought to prayerfully submit our plans, our hopes, our dreams to the Lord. But it’s tough outside the comfort zone. When your employer suddenly makes you an offer, or an unexpected business opportunity comes up, it can take a lot of courage to act out of love for Jesus. I know that when I was working as an accountant I bottled it several times when instead I should have made a stand. Yet just because something is tough, doesn’t mean we should necessarily avoid it. As James goes on to say in verse 17: Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
Harsh words, you may say, yet James is so right. Because if we are serious about being disciples of Jesus, if our greatest desire is to confess Him as Lord, then we need to put our faith into practice where it matters most. And if you’re not sure how you could possibly do this, or are worried about the consequences if you make a stand, remember this simple fact: you are not alone.
God doesn’t simply lead you out into the world and leave you there on your own. He gives you the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead and to guide you, particularly in this whole difficult area of decision making. He gives you the support and encouragement of the church, and we should know each other well enough to pray for another and support one another in the tough choices we face day by day. And if today there is someone who struggling with an important decision in their life at the moment, let me encourage you to come forward at the end of the service and we will pray for you. Please be assured – you really are not alone.
And then there is the whole question of money-making, chapter 5, verses 1-6. Now it’s easy to read James’ fire and brimstone kind of preaching and somehow believe it doesn’t apply to us. Rich men fattening themselves for slaughter, not paying the wages of those who mow their fields? That sort of thing doesn’t happen today, does it? Well, I’m not sure I can quite so easily dismiss these verses after what’s been happening at Home Park over the past few months.
But seriously, let’s think a little more about these rich people. Commentators are divided over who exactly they were, but one thing is certain: they provided living proof of John Wesley’s famous saying that: The last part of a man to be converted is his wallet. They still followed the world’s principle that what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is open to negotiation. If someone pointed out to them they were getting rich by not paying their labourers, they would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Everyone’s doing it, aren’t they?”
Well, that may be the case for most people, that may even be the case for most Christians – I really can’t judge. But if we are serious about building our lives on the rock of Jesus, that kind of attitude has to go. We are not free to hoard our wealth like these early followers of Jesus, or get ahead at the expense of others. Because Jesus is Lord over our money. He demands an account of how we use it. And if you ask how exactly you should use it, then I suggest you read something like Luke’s gospel where Jesus teaches again and again what we should do. The world says: “Hold on to what you have and you will be rich”. Jesus says: Sell your possessions and give to the poor(Luke 12:33).
Because in the end the way we use our money is the acid test of whether we are obeying the two greatest commands Jesus gave us, to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to Love your neighbour as yourself. (Matt 22:37,39). We can never hope to obey Jesus’ teaching if we are merely following Him out of duty or habit. Yes, we may confess Him as Lord in the safe, familiar places like our church or our home. But outside of our comfort zones, where it actually costs to be a disciple, do we put no-entry signs around certain areas of our lives and keep Jesus out?
On the other hand if we follow Jesus because we recognise He first loved us and gave His life for us on a cross, then we will ready to obey Jesus in all things. Jesus will be our greatest treasure, our passion, our prize. We will be willing to submit our plans and our decisions to Him because we are eager to discover His good, pleasing and perfect will for our lives. We will be willing to offer Him our money and our possessions, because we recognise that they already belong to Him and we want Him to do with them as He sees fit.
So in fact both our readings from Matthew and James lead me to one simple question I want to ask all of you this morning: what kind of Christian are you? Are you following Jesus simply because of what others have said or taught you? Are you following Jesus out of duty or habit? Or are you following Jesus because you know how much He loves you? And let’s not just pause to answer the question now. Think about it also when you go back home, when you return to work tomorrow, when you find yourself outside your comfort zone.
You see, Jesus wants to be the rock on which you build your whole life. But He can only be that rock if you truly love Him and are willing Him to trust Him absolutely in all things.