This is an edited version of the sermon preached at by the Revd Duncan McLea, Rector and Team Leader of St John’s Parish Wynberg, at the Consecration of The Revd Canon Margaret Vertue as Bishop of False Bay, on 19 January 2013.
You can also read more about the consecration at http://ray-wordpix.blogspot.com/2013/01/time-for-england-to-follow-africa-says.html#!/2013/01/time-for-england-to-follow-africa-says.html
Ezek 3:4-11, Psa 23, Acts 4:8-13, Matt 16:13-19
Thank you your Grace for the honour and responsibility you have entrusted to me to preach at this significant event and milestone in the life of our Province, this Diocese and of course in Margret’s life and ministry.
A little while ago my daughter wrote me a two line email. ‘Dear Dad, It says in 1 Corinthians 14:34 that woman should be silent in church, but they are not are they. How do you understand this text?’ My reply, for which I asked her forgiveness, ran to 20 pages, as I tried to explain how we read and understand Scripture in its original context, draw out the principles of what God was saying in that context as the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the human authors, and then applying the principle, the warning, the command, or whatever in our context today.
The subject of that email is not what I need to address here today. For the church of which we are apart through careful study of Scripture and theological reflection, and following due canonical process has opened the way for Margaret and before her Eleyna to be Bishops in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. This is a move I welcome and celebrate. If it is any help I have posted my reply to my daughter on my blog ‘Duncan’s Diary’.
But it is important that whenever the people of God gather to worship and pray, and especially when we come together for an event such as this, that we submit ourselves to the Word of God and allow the Spirit to speak to us freshly through the Scriptures. In the Sovereign providence of God this service is taking place when the church remembers the Confession of Peter, and the Archbishop asked that these be the readings for this service.
So I take as my text the Gospel Reading, Matthew 16:13-20, the record of the conversation that takes place between Jesus and Peter at Caesarea-Philippi, as Simon son of Jonah makes the Great Confession, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’, and as Jesus responds declaring that on this foundation he will build his church. So our theme is The Confession Peter. But a subtitle for this passage could well be, ‘Essential lessons for a church leader’… not an inappropriate theme for an occasion such as this as we gather for Margret’s consecration and enthronement as the second Bishop of the Diocese of False Bay.
As we look at this passage I want to draw your attention to four statements Jesus makes and draw out four lessons for church leaders.
(1) Who do people say the Son of Man is? – vs 13
(2) Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven – vs 17
(3) I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it – vs 18
(4) I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven – vs 19
Let’s pray: Come Holy Spirit of God and open your word to our hearts and minds, and open our hearts and minds to your word; that we may see the living word of God – Jesus Christ, our Messiah and Lord. Amen.
So, four lessons for church leaders. Here is the first …
(1) It is all about Jesus
It is as simple as that, but not quite as simple as that. Lets dig into the text a bit. Why does Jesus ask the questions, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Jesus was not suffering a moment of self-doubt and looking for human affirmation. Asking questions is in fact a very rabbinic way of teaching, and Jesus taught in the rabbinic tradition. Asking questions was a way a way of moving your pupils from knowledge to understanding – from head to hands – from theory to practice.
So what does he want them to understand – to grasp – what change is he looking for? He wants them to understand, yes, who he is, and then what the implications are for the way they live. And up to that point that they had not ‘got it’. It was vitally important that they – that we – get this.
But note that this is not an isolated exchange. This question does not come out of nowhere. What is the context of this passage?
Flip back a few pages to Matthew 14. The chapter begins with the beheading of John the Baptist - which illustrates starkly the cost of being a disciple. This is followed in chapter 14 verse 13 by the feeding of the 5,000 - a dramatic demonstration of Jesus’ power to provide, as well as an invitation to trust him. This is followed immediately verse 22 by another opportunity to learn trust. Jesus comes walking across the water to the disciples in their boat in the middle of the lake. He invites Peter to let go of the feeble fragile failing security of the boat and trust him. Peter takes a few steps; sees the wind and waves and begins to sink. Jesus reaches out his hand and caught him and they climb into the boat and the wind and waves are still. ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’
That is Jesus asking another question, note. Why did he doubt?
You see Jesus is pushing them to try to get them to understand who he is and what that means for them. He gets him into the boat and the wind and waves died down and they worshipped him… Truly you are the Son of God.
Ah, they have got it. But have they?
Chapter 15 - they are given opportunity to write a sup in the Galilee School of Discipleship Course 101.They failed first time round. Now there is a second chance. They are once again in a deserted place surrounded by a large crowd - 4,000 hungry people this time. And Jesus expresses his compassion for the hungry crowd. He says he does not want to send them away hungry. (That was the solution the disciples came up with last time you remember.) You have to see the humour in the narrative as Matthew records the disciples response: ‘Where in a remote place like this could we get enough bread to feed such a crowd?’ Come on! They have just witnessed him feeding 5,000; walking on water; calming the storm. And now a chapter later they are all mixed up again. The sign they had witnessed first-hand; the worship meeting on the boat … the message had not got through to them.
And Jesus knew this about signs - however dramatic they may be, they don’t convince or convert us. Hence his refusal to acceded to the demands of the Pharisees and Sadducees for a sign at the start of chapter 16. Signs don’t convince or convert us. It takes more than – if you like – ‘flesh and blood’. It takes more than human effort, well resourced and planned programmes that deliver on time, be they to feed or heal people, or even change the weather. Bread and miracles won’t do it.
And we in the church can get so caught up in our plans and programmes, our institutes and institutions, … all well-meaning and lovingly conceived, ... sacrificially funded as they be… but have we forgotten who is at the centre of it all?
Do you get the picture? To be a leader in the church of God we have to come back to this essential and fundamental lesson. It is all about Jesus! It is that simple. But then it is not that simple.
For it is not what the latest popular opinion polls say about Jesus, or what we think Jesus should be, or what we want Jesus to be. It is about the Jesus revealed to us in Scripture - in the Gospels. It is all about Jesus who Peter recognises to be God’s Messiah; who invites his disciples to trust him; who has compassion on the hungry crowd; who invites us to get out of our boats – to let go of our fragile, feeble, frail security and step onto the water and take his hand. It is about a relationship with him, who wants to draw us into an ever-deepening understanding of his love.
It is that simple. But it is not that simple, because there is always more. This is not the end of the story. They had their worship meeting – ‘You are the Son of God’; Peter got the confession right – he got the formula right – but he had not yet understood the implications. In just a few verses on we see how he had ‘not got it’. How dangerously wrong he was in his understanding.
In verse 21 – the verse following our Gospel reading for today – Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and all that awaited him there in terms of suffering and death - the cross. That was at the heart of what being the Messiah of God was all about. The way of the cross is the way of salvation. Without the cross there is no salvation. Peter, on a high as the newly recognised authority on Messiahship, tries to coach Jesus out of choosing this path. And he gets the sharpest most damning rebuke that anyone gets from Jesus. ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have the mind and concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’
A Messiah who avoids suffering is no Messiah of God. The Gospel without the Cross is merely a human programme. It is not of God. It is a stumbling block. Worse than that, it is evil. In effect Jesus says in his rebuke of Peter that the Gospel without the Cross is Satanic. Peter had got the formula right, he had the proclamation right, he had got the confessional statement right, but he had misunderstood who Jesus really was. But there is still more.
This may be Peter’s Confession, but it was not Peter’s Commissioning. That comes much later. That comes when Peter meets the resurrected Jesus is asked another question. Not, ‘Who do you say I am?’, but, ‘Peter, do you love me?’ And Peter is able to answer out of his brokenness and aware of his own limited resources and expressing his dependence on and surrender to Jesus: ‘Jesus, you know I love you.’ You know the limits of my love. You know me.
He was, at the moment we can say, ‘Anchored in the love of Christ’. Peter had got to that point. We need to get there too. So, ‘Who is Jesus?’ It is important that we get the confessional statement right. It is imperative that we understand the centrality of the cross. It is essential that we know our selves being wooed and drawn into an ever-deepening place of intimacy with Jesus. It is an ongoing journey for us all of putting our trust and faith in him who comes to us in the middle of the storm, in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night and says, ‘It is I’.
It is all about Jesus. That is the first lesson. Here is the second …
(2) The Father is on a mission
God the Father is on a mission. In response to Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah of God, Jesus responds… (vs 17) ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
God the Father is on a mission. And that mission is to reveal his Son Jesus, the Messiah of God, to the world. Mission is at the very heart of God. And the heart of that mission is that people should come to know and see Jesus for who he is – the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. This is expressed of course so definitively in that key text which, being brought up on the Prayer Book, I knew as one of the ‘comfortable words’… that our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him. ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’
And we see in our text that there were any number of ideas and theories floating round as to who Jesus was:
- John the Baptist: Some say that is who you are Jesus … the fearless political aesthetic activist that took on Herod.
- Elijah: Some say you are Elijah, Jesus. Why Elijah? Last verses of the OT predict the return of Elijah (Mal 4:5 & 6). At the Passover Seder there is an empty chair left for Elijah – there was an expectation that he would come at the end of time. He is not the Messiah, but he would be a forerunner making way for the messiah.
- Jeremiah or one the prophets: You are spectacular Jesus. You are important. You are amazing. But you are just the curtain raiser. You are not the real deal.
And is that not our context today? There are many who honour Jesus and his teaching. Respect the principles he taught and lived by. But they are not at the place of saying he is the Messiah of God. Friends, if that is missing from our ministry and mission as the church we may be on a mission, but we are not the Father’s mission. We are, dare I say, on a ‘flesh and blood’ mission - a human mission. But it is not the mission of God to which we Anglicans commit ourselves to in our mission statement … Anchored in the love of Christ. Committed to God’s mission.
From our New Testament Lesson today we have Peter’s defense before the Sanhedrin for the healing of the beggar at the Temple gate. When asked by what power or name he did this, he responds (Acts 4:9) ‘If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.’ And he adds, verse 12, ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.’
That truth is under attack. Michael Cassidy in his recently published book ‘The Church Jesus Prayed For’, explores the prayer of Jesus for the Church in John 17. It is an invitation to explore praying for the church in the way Jesus prayed for the church. He looks at the ten things Jesus prays for those who the Father has given him and who will believe in him through their message. The first of these is truth, and vitally, the truth about Jesus.
Jesus prayer is ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth’ and ‘Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’ Dare we not join Jesus in praying for his church in the way he prayed for it? Dare we not join Jesus in praying that God’s Church be sanctified in the truth – the truth of God’s Word incarnated in his Son Jesus? This prayer stresses unequivocally the central uncompromising truth - Jesus is the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.
As the liturgy we use today expresses it: we gather to set aside one who will be tasked with amongst other things … ‘Interpreting the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, … of banishing error … and leading God’s people in mission to the world’. While this is a role and task assigned particularly to those called to serve as Bishops, we for our part as clergy and laity in the church must encourage, pray for and support our bishops and share in this task with them.
We want to say to you Bishops and Bishop-elect Margaret, we want you to lead us and serve us in ‘interpreting the truth as it is in Jesus Christ … of banishing error … and leading God’s people in mission to the world’. We are right behind you. We do, and will pray for you.
Margaret is one who knows the essential value of, and sets an example for us all in her dedicated disciplined life of prayer. People of this Diocese, learn from her and follow that example so that what was said of Peter and John may be true of us all. For in the Acts reading Luke continues the narrative … (Acts 4:13ff) ‘When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.’
Ordinary and unschooled you are not Margaret, but we covet for you that essential character of a Bishop that we covet for all who serve in the church; that we may be those who are seen and known to have been each day with Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. In essence that is at the heart of God’s mission. That is what we as Anglicans in this Province commit ourselves to: To be … Anchored in the love of Christ, Committed to God’s mission, and thirdly - Transformed by the Holy Spirit.
That all leads to the third lesson for church leaders that we draw from this passage.
(3) The mission of God is nothing less than the transformation of the world.
And God is going to do this through the Church, founded on the Confession of Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah of God. Jesus said, (vs 18) ‘And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death (of hades, of hell) shall not overcome it.’
To appreciate the impact and relevance of these words we need to set this passage in its historical and geographical context. At this point Jesus has journeyed with his disciples up north from Lake Galilee and they have arrived in the region of Caesarea Philippi. It is the northern most part of Israel with a great pagan gentile history. In Old Testament times it was called Ba’al Hermon because the god Ba’al was worshipped there. In Hellenistic times it was called Paneas because the god Pan and his worship had replaced the ancient Ba’als. Pan was the half-man half-goat god of fright (thus ‘panic’). Today it is called Banias which is an Arabic derivation from Paneas. In New Testament times the city had been renamed - Caesarea Philippi. Philip Herod chose the name to venerate the Roman Emperor Caesar and link his name to the Emperor’s. A politically shrewd move one might say.
As for its geographical context Caesarea Philippi was the location of one of the largest springs feeding the Jordan River. A tourist attraction still today is the large cave in the cliff-side that is the mouth of the spring, with a pool of water in front of it. One can still see carved into the cliff face above the cave opening, a number of porticos in which shrines were placed to various gods. These shrines were where the people came and did homage to asked for protection and help. These gods they believed controlled life and gave them security, happiness and comfort.
At one level it is an attractive geological feature. At another it spoke of a cauldron of pagan occultic activity and associated bondages. In the 3rd century B.C., human sacrifices were cast into the cave as offerings to the gods. The cliff face towering above them with this array of gods and idols engendered an ominous sense of foreboding. In many senses it represented ‘the gates of hell’. The cave opening was a vivid symbol of the entrance into the realm of the dead - the gates of Hades.
It is in this location that Jesus says, ‘I will build my church, and the gates of death … the gates of hades, of hell … shall not overcome it.’
Now we know about the politics of renaming cities and roads, don’t we? And we know about making sacrifices to gods/idols that we look to give us security, comfort and pleasure. We may not cast our sacrifices into a cave but we pay subscriptions to DSTV, ADT, and we try to buy protection and happiness. And we know about bondages that keep people captive – grinding poverty and unnecessary unemployment. Who of us could survive on R150 let alone R65 a day? We know about HIV and AIDS, scandalous inequality and self-seeking corruption, gender violence and fear, absent fathers and moral decay.
In many ways we live in a society not that dissimilar to Caesarea- Philippi: beautiful on the outside, a wonderful tourist destination with impressive geographical features and lush countryside; but a cauldron of spiritual, political and economic powers keeping people in bondage and throwing too many into the realm of the dead.
But note this. Let me ask you the question. At that time, in the course of a battle, were gates essentially offensive or defensive weapons? Defensive. Gates were used as a defense against the advancing opposition. So if Jesus says, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail’, that means that the church of Jesus the Messiah is on the offensive. It is pushing into the territory occupied by the enemy. It is moving against this spiritual, occultic, political, economic, systemic opposition to the rule of God symbolised by the gates of hell.
The Church of Jesus Christ is on the offensive, against all that seeks to hold captive and in bondage those made in the image of God. That is the promise in this text which we can take hold of today. The gates of hell and all that they represent will be blown apart. God’s Kingdom will advance. It will come on earth as it is in heaven. We dare to pray that and believe that. Theologians call this realised eschatology. It is about anticipating and living into the future that is secure and sealed.
Let me illustrate this with a story. Those who know me know that I love watching rugby. You will recall the Boks played a series of three matches in the UK towards the end of last year. The final game of the tour was against England at Twickenham and as it turned out I was conducting a wedding at the very time the match was being played. So I set the video recorder to tape the game hoping that no one would spoil it and tell me the score before I got home – so I could watch it live as it were. Well towards the end of the reception some one knowing my love of rugby came bounding up to me and said, ‘We won!’ Too late! The result was known. We what that meant was that on Sunday afternoon I got myself a cup of tea and sat down in relaxed fashion and with no stress at all watched the game. The game was exciting and went this way and that, but I could watch it with relaxed confidence. I knew we would win, it was just a matter of how. That is realised eschatology.
Darrel Johnson in his excellent book on Revelation tells the story of a group of seminary students who used to play basketball in the gym. They left their bags at the side and they noticed that the janitor was paging through one of their books. It turned out to be the Bible. When the students asked him what he was reading he it turned out to be Revelation. ‘Why?’ they asked. ‘I always read the last chapter of a book first to see if I will like it.’ ‘Do you understand what you are reading they asked?’ ‘Oh yes’ he said, ‘I do.’ ‘So what is it about?’ Looking furtively this way and that, he leant forward and said in a whisper, ‘Jesus wins.’
That is the promise of this text. The mission of the God in his Son Jesus is nothing less than the total transformation of the world. Nothing short of bringing all people and the whole of creation into what Paul describes as ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’.
And the church of Jesus Christ, founded on the confession of Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah of God, will advance and take back that which has been stolen by the enemy. The gates of hell will not prevail. Jesus wins! That is point three. And to conclude – point four is….
(4) Get going!
Jesus says (verse 19), ‘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 bed loosed in heaven.’
Now much ink has been spilled by commentators trying to get at what exactly Jesus said in the original language, who he was addressing, what he meant and what are the implications for the church today. But what is the impact of these words for us, ‘I will give you the keys … what you bind will be bound … what you loose will be loosed’? To cut to the chase: there was amongst many Jews the expectation that the messianic kingdom would come climatically without any human agreement or action. Jesus announces something different. The keys of the kingdom are entrusted to Jesus’ disciples. They must proclaim the Good News, bind that which is destructive, loose those held in bondage. There is a physical and a spiritual dimension to this. It involves earth and heaven.
Yes, God the Father is on a mission. Yes, Jesus is building his church, but the church of Jesus Christ is not an audience. It is a group of ordinary people who like Peter and John have been with Jesus, who with Peter confess that Jesus is the Messiah of God, who are given authority to bind and loose, who know them selves as loved, who are commissioned to feed the sheep. The mission of God is not a spectator sport. Get out of the stands and onto the playing field.
I recall the day I got my drivers license. For the first time my father gave me the keys of the car and said I could unlock it and go for a drive. Here are the keys. Go for a ride. So the fourth lessons for church leaders, which I draw form this passage is simply this – get going!
So Margaret, my sisters and brothers in Christ, I offer you from our text for today these four lessons for church leaders.
It is all about Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah of God who went to the cross and who invites us to put our faith and trust in him and in him alone.
The Father is on a mission. God is on a mission to reveal Jesus his Messiah to the world.
The mission is nothing short of the total transformation of this world. There are no ‘no-go-areas’. The gates of hell will not hold the church of Jesus Christ back.
So get on with. Out of the stands and onto the playing field.