Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

27 aug 2017

9am & Choral Eucharist

Preacher: The Dean

Readings: Isaiah 51.1-6, Romans 12.1-8, Matthew 16.13-20


A simple question, do you like it if someone you don’t know talks to you on the Tube? Well, research published last week suggests that we’re more and more unhappy to engage in conversation with someone that we don’t know. If you’re over 65 then it seems that you don’t mind people you don’t know chatting to you.  But the findings from the latest YouGov poll were that less than a quarter of Londoners want their fellow passengers to start a conversation with them while they’re on the Underground. More than half of those polled prefer it when other people do not talk to them and only 23 per cent are in favour of having a chat while travelling in the capital.

I don’t disagree with the majority and it’s an attitude born of bitter experience. I can well remember the agony when I was a child of being at the bus stop with my grandma and her talking to the person in the queue next to her – as though she knew them, which nine times out of ten she didn’t.  But it was her way, of course, of hearing all the gossip from the village, hearing what people were saying and doing – and she loved a juicy bit of gossip – what people were saying about other people.

Jesus has taken the disciples away from it all.  In the north of the country, on the borders of modern day Lebanon and Syria, in the foothills of Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel, there’s located the site of Caesarea Philippi.  As the name suggests it was a Roman city named in honour of both Cesar Augustus and Philip II the ruler and restorer of the city, a place which had links with the pagan God, Pan.  It was the place where the River Jordan began, the source of the river, which continues to bubble up from beneath the rocks.

It would have been a place away from the talkative crowds, a bit of a retreat for Jesus and his closest friends.  And in that special place with the water bubbling and chuckling away Jesus asks them the question.  ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ He was basically asking them what people were saying about him.

So the disciples mention all that they’d heard in the gossip about Jesus – that he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, that he was one of the prophets.  The popular expectation was that one of these heroes of the faith would return, that even John, so recently killed, would return and that Jesus appeared to be the fulfilment of all their hopes and expectations. 

But Jesus doesn’t leave it there.  They’ve told him what other people were saying about him and that was fairly predictable as far as Jesus was concerned.  He could imagine the talk on the streets as they heard his preaching and witnessed his miracles.  But he had a much more important question, for them and for us.

The question Jesus asks is perhaps the most important in the gospels and one which must have put the disciples on the spot.  It was ok relaying the conversations and the tittle-tattle that they’d heard, the third hand accounts, the chance overhearing.  That was fine but the next question pulled them up.

‘But who do you say that I am?’

Who do you say that Jesus is?

I don’t know what brought you here today.  It feels impertinent to ask, why have you come?  It’s lovely that you’re here and in many ways I don’t care why you came, I’m just glad that you are here.

It may be though that you always come, that Sunday is the day that you go to church and come to the Cathedral.  It may be that with almost unfailing regularity you’re here.  It may be that you don’t come that regularly but you decided, for one reason or another, to come today.  It may be that you’ve never been here before and came because you’re visiting London, or were walking past, or had heard about us and wanted to see the place for yourself.  You may even not be clear why you’re here.

But that’s not really answering the question that I asked.  What brought you here today?  Was it, is it the relationship that you have with Jesus, was it the prompting of the Holy Spirit, was it that sense of deep yearning for God and hunger for the word and hunger for the sacraments?

Part of your answer will be about who you say that Jesus is. 

In the Gospel reading it was Peter, it had to be Peter, who seemed to answer for the rest of the disciples with that declaration of faith. 

‘You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

The prophet Isaiah speaking God’s words to the people talks of them in the First Reading as those ‘that seek the Lord’, those who are looking in the crowds for the one whom we await.

We too are seekers, the ones who in Paul’s words are the ‘discerners’ waiting for the transformation that comes in knowing that we’re part of the Body of Christ.  Peter accepts that personal challenge of Jesus – don’t just tell me what other people are saying about me, don’t just repeat the gossip, don’t keep me at arms length, treat me at second or third hand but tell me who I am for you, for you.

When we were launching the Doorkins book last week, Lisa, the author was talking about the way in which the cat arrived at the Cathedral and gradually, carefully made her way across the threshold from the outside to the inside, how it took time for her to trust us, to feel at home, to make her place here, to feel comfortable enough to stay.  Her arrival was described as a bit of a parable of how many of us have arrived in church and how difficult it is for many people nowadays to cross the actual or the metaphorical threshold of the church.

Answering the question of who Jesus is for you, who do you say that he is, may be a question that you don’t feel that you can answer at the moment.  But it is the question that Jesus wants us to be able to answer as we go deeper into the relationship with him that he desires for us, who are seekers of the Lord.  He wants it to be personal, because it is personal, he wants it to be intimate, because it is intimate, he wants it to be real, because it is real and life changing and wonderful.  Getting to know Jesus is what the Christian life is really about, becoming a disciple, deepening in the life of discipleship.

The reality is of course that when we feel able to answer the question of who Jesus is we may then be better able to answer the question that awaits to be asked, even at Caesarea Philippi – ‘and who do you say that you are?’

For Peter, the rock, the journey of self discovery was only just beginning.  He could make the great declaration of faith but until he wept in the courtyard on the night when he denied even knowing Jesus let alone naming him as Lord, he hadn’t really arrived at that place of deep encounter with God and himself.

Whatever brought you here today, whatever you think of Jesus, however you would name him, you are most welcome.  God wants you at this kingdom banquet, again and again and again, until we can say with confidence when asked ‘You are the Christ; I am your disciple.’