Sermon – Matthew 16:13-20
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Thomas Jefferson had a book which he called ‘Morals of Jesus.’ It was his own creation. He took the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in English, French, Latin, and Greek. Then he cut them up into sections and laid out the sections side by side, arranging them in the order that he thought the events happened, deleting any multiple narrations of the same event.
But Jefferson cut out any section that was related to the miracles of Jesus, because he did not believe that miracles could happen in a universe which was governed by natural law. It is not that he didn’t believe in a God, he just believed that God set up the universe with immutable laws which could not be broken. The stories of the miracles of the Gospels seemed to Jefferson to be remnants of an irrational past.
But that’s not all Jefferson did. He cut out all the sections which had to do with Jesus being the Son of God. He viewed this as superstition which was not really about Jesus’ actual purpose, which, for Jefferson, was to show us the way to salvation by living the life which God intended for us to live. For Jefferson, Jesus was a teacher of eternal truths. But you will look in vain in his version of the Gospels for the angels and the shepherds, the wise men, the resurrection, and even today’s story about Peter saying to Jesus, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.’
For Jefferson, Jesus was a great moral teacher. For many people of Jesus’ time, he was a prophet who spoke to tell of what God was going to do. But for Peter and the disciples he was God’s action for his people and for the world. Yes, he taught eternal truths, yes, he spoke of God’s will. But this did not go to his true identity – his identity of Messiah, anointed one, he who brings in the kingdom of God – and the Son of the living God, who reveals the Father to us.
This God is far different than Thomas Jefferson might have thought. This God is also far different than the people of Jesus’ time thought. This God is also different than Peter and the disciples initially thought. But Jesus will reveal his Father to us on the cross. And faith that he is the Messiah (the Christ) and the Son of God is the belief that creates the Church and makes it one.
I often like to call our attention to the fact that on any Sunday the vast Church worships around the world. We are not simply a few people in one room; but we are part of the great Church of every people, nation and language which worships the Triune God. In India, in China, in Venezuela, in Germany and Sweden, in Ethiopia, in Japan, in every country in the world and every city and town in the United States, the Church gathers to worship. And what unites us is not our people, nation, or language, not our worship style or even that we agree on how we ought to live our life together – it is our faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah of Israel. It is upon this rock that the Church is built. It is upon this rock we stand for our individual futures and the future of the Church.
Where does this faith come from? We can be grateful that Thomas Jefferson, while not believing in the miracles of Jesus or his divine Sonship, did strongly believe that faith could not be forced on anyone. His ‘Bible’ was for his personal use and not a text which he published or tried to have enforced. He strongly believed that no government could prescribe, require, or enforce faith. That is something he shared, actually, with Martin Luther. And, ironically, with Jesus himself.
For Jesus says to Peter, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’ For Jesus, faith is not a matter of our intelligence, our wisdom, our will. It is a gift of God. St. Paul says, ‘No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.’ The Holy Spirit creates whatever faith we have. We should never say, ‘I don’t have enough faith,’ for this is to discredit what God the Holy Spirit has done. And if we desire more faith, we ought not to try to produce it within ourselves, but we ought to ask the Holy Spirit.
Jesus calls Simon ‘blessed.’ And we are blessed, for God has given faith to us, in whatever size and shape it comes. And because God has given us the Spirit, we are children of God. Jesus is the Son of God by nature, begotten of the living Father before all ages. We are the sons and daughters of God by adoption, begotten of the Holy Spirit in time and for eternity. We rejoice that we are blessed, with Peter, to believe with him that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz,
St Stephen Lutheran Church
August 23, 2020