Epistle Lesson: Romans 12:1-3
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 16:13-20
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And 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. And 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. I 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
For many of us today, this may be the second time hearing this Gospel lesson since I have come here. I chose this lesson on my first Sunday here as a way of talking about identity, but I focused that sermon quite a bit on my own identity and less on the truer meaning of this scripture passage. We enter here as it states that Jesus entered into the district of Caesarea Philippi. To you and I in this day, that means very little. But to a Jewish audience in the first century this meant quite a bit. It meant that Jesus went into another Gentile land, and this time not only did he enter into any gentile land, he entered into what was known as a pluralistic religious center. In other words, this was a cultural center that many gods were being worshipped. Up on the screen today is a picture that I took while in Caesarea Philippi. This particular cave that we are looking at is the place in which they believe that the god of Pan was worshipped. The spring emerged from the large cave which became the center of pagan worship. Beginning in the 3rd century B.C., sacrifices were cast into the cave as offerings to the god Pan. Because of the amount of fertile ground and water that this place gives, it was naturally a place for many different gods to have been worshipped.
To the side of the sacred cave is a rocky escarpment with a series of hewn niches. We know that statues of the deity were placed in these niches by depictions of such on coins of the city. One niche housed a sculpture of Echo, the mountain nymph and Pan’s consort. Another niche housed a statue of Pan’s father, Hermes, son of nymph Maia. Inscriptions in the niches mention those who gave large donations. I want us today to realize the context in which Jesus and his disciples were in when they proclaimed the identity of Jesus. It was not in a safe place, it was not in a temple, it was not in around others who were like them. They were in all aspects out of their normal stomping grounds when they came to profess who Jesus was. It was not in a safe environment that they professed this name of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One who has been prophesied to come and be the savior of all. And although they were in this very pluralistic religious city, I believe Jesus asks a very meaningful and reflective question, “Disciples, who is it that people say that I am?” People you see have heard the name of Jesus, but what are they saying about him? This past week I did a very similar thing. I was hoping to get some video feed for you all so that you could also hear the responses of people, but I spent half a day up at the creamery and as people came and went, I went up to them and I asked them a very simple question, “Who is Red Valley UMC?” I received a plethora of answers, many people who were just visiting saying I don’t know, others who have heard the name, but have no idea about who we are. While it was reported to me that one woman mentioned that she had heard we were a place that people in need could come to. This is a very good question though for us to reflect on though. “Who is Red Valley UMC?” Are we a place where people come to get help? I believe so. Are we a place where we take serious our vision of “All being welcome, where Christ lives and lives are changed”? I hope so. Are we a place where people can come to to worship the living and risen savior? I do believe so. Are we though, more importantly, a gathered people who are coming together to unite in our efforts of following Christ with a passion, imitating our Lord in all aspects of our lives, and loving our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength? The other question that then follows this line of questioning, is the way that we perceive ourselves, the way the community then perceives us? What I mean by this, is we who are members here have an idea of the people that are inside our doors, we have an idea of the hearts of giving that many of us share. But is that the image that those on the outside looking in have? The Pharisees and community members had an image of who they thought Jesus was. Some people were saying that he was John the Baptist, others thought maybe Elijah or another great prophet. But it was those to whom Jesus was close with, whom God had revealed who Jesus truly was. As Jesus exclaimed to Peter “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven!” Jesus then goes on to say, one of the very few times that the word church is ever used, he says “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” But who is this church that was built from Jesus?
In this self identity issue, Paul gives the church some words of what the New Life in Christ looks like, the identity of those who are in Christ. As we heard the Epistle lesson this morning it begs of me to ask Are we as Paul states offering our selves, our bodies as living sacrifices? It’s interesting that Paul uses this terminology of living sacrifice. Because you see, in the Old Testament all animal sacrifices were killed prior to being offered. Much like the offerings that were offered to the god of Pan. But we, are a living sacrifice. As we place our selves upon God’s altar, are we not at times maybe trying to jump off the altar before the fire below us gets too hot? This offering that we give of ourselves, are we fully giving ourselves as a holy offering and one that is acceptable to God. As we claim Jesus as Lord on Sunday, do we then go out into the world to nullify our confession by being a hypocrite the other 6 days of the week. Or are we becoming transformed into what Christ, what God intended us to be, a new creation. Again, Paul does not leave out a word here, but tells us that we are to be transformed by the renewing of your minds….by the renewing of our minds. This implies two things. One, that the transformation of Christ is an active on going will on our part as we actively are renewing our minds. And two, if we are not actively renewing our minds, then we are falling from discerning the will of God. If this happens, we will no longer be doing what God desires us to do, and thus produces sin in our life. This meal that we are about to partake in, this Holy Communion, may you find it to be a time of renewing your mind and your faith. If you have fallen from following Christ as the Messiah, may this be a time of confession and renewal. If you are actively seeking your Lord, may it be a time of rejoicing as we again hear the affirmation of forgiveness, and if you have never followed Christ, may it be a time for you to come and experience the risen Lord.
Christ as we may remember from this Gospel lesson does not always appear where we believe he should, but sometimes and often at times in places where we least expect him to. But we have been promised and as we so believe, that Christ is always always, always present when we have come together to feast at His table of Holy Communion. Thanks be to God.