Here is the sermon I preached at Festival High Mass on Sunday.
Isaiah 51.1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20
+ In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Amongst those of you who know me, few of you will be surprised to hear that, for me, the highlight of this time of year is the International Book Festival. It doesn’t matter what else is going on amongst the crowds and busyness and noise and hustle and bustle of Edinburgh in August, every time I set foot in Charlotte Square, I breathe deeply and think to myself, ‘These are my people. This is my tribe.’ Even at its busiest, it is like a quiet cove of gentleness by a great refreshing sea teeming with inspiring debates, captivating conversations and new books and authors waiting to be discovered.
It is an erudite meeting place where words are worshipped, and religion and philosophy and politics and popular culture all mingle with delight.
It is a Sanctuary of Great Thoughts, a Shrine for Imagination & Intellect, a Temple to Ideas.
If we were to look for a contemporary setting for today’s gospel reading, we could do worse than to situate it at the Book Festival. Because Caesarea Philippi, the location Jesus chose to ask his disciples about the rumours circulating about the Son of Man, was a place where the very stones were steeped in religion and philosophy and politics and popular culture.
We can picture Jesus standing in the midst of his followers:
‘So, disciples, tell me who do people say that the Son of Man is’. And the disciples thumb through their Book Festival programme:
’Well, now, Jesus, let’s see … On Monday at 10.30, at that spring which is the source of the river Jordan — you know the one? — there’s someone talking about you being John the Baptist.’
‘On Thursday evening at 7, over by the Greek god Pan’s cave, someone else is claiming you’re a pretty formidable philosopher.’
‘Saturday afternoon at 3, there’s a talk about the stories you tell and the way they shape our understanding of morality. That’s at one of the temples dedicated to Baal. Odd place to have it, but whatever…’
‘Oh, and here’s another one: next Tuesday, at the temple Herod the Great built in honour of Caesar Augustus, some guy will speak about how you’re just a figment of our imagination, a character in a fairy tale. Yeah, I’ll bet Herod’s son wishes that were true! ’
As they hand him these answers, they look up expectantly, waiting for his reaction.
Jesus nods slowly. ‘And you. What about you? Who do you say that I am?’ And he looks at them with that unflinching gaze of his.
With a sentence, the substitution of a couple of words, the question becomes far more personal, far more difficult, far more dangerous. It is no longer about ‘people’ and ‘the Son of Man’.
And maybe the disciples realised that this was the point of no return. That in answering this question, there would be no going back. Maybe there was silence as they puzzled over the answer, thinking through its possible consequences. And then Simon Peter speaks up: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’.
Preachers like to talk about Peter’s flaws and how surprising it is that he gets it so right this time. His imperfections seem to make us feel a little better about our own. And if God can use Peter, Petros, stone, to be the Petra, rock and cornerstone of his church, well, that’s pretty remarkable, right?
But I wonder if our lectionary compilers have a rather wicked sense of humour. Because they’ve paired this gospel passage with the bit from Isaiah:
Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.
And if we stop to think about it … Well, it was Abraham who hedged his bets by having a child by Hagar before Isaac came along, and Sarah who laughed in the face of God’s promise. And yet they too received new names as they were drawn into God’s wild plan for his people. So Peter really is just a chip off the old block, the same block God has been stubbing his toe on again and again throughout the ages.
It’s the same block Jesus will nearly trip over in next Sunday’s gospel reading when Peter goes back to failing to understand: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Jesus will command him. ‘You are a stumbling block to me.’
But that is the same block that God is shaping, chip by agonising chip, stone by tiny stone into Christ’s beloved church. And there, at Caesarea Philippi, in that place crowded with complex history and belief and imperialism, that first stone was placed and the foundation laid.
And ever since, Jesus has asked the same question of his followers. Who do you say I am?
In today’s Sanctuary of Great Thoughts, Shrines for Imagination & Intellect, and Temples to Ideas: Who do you say I am?
As we stand amongst the stones of political and economic and religious systems which drive people deeper and deeper into poverty and oppression and exploitation: Who do you say I am?
When we look around at the ruins left behind by war and occupation: Who do you say I am?
Our reading ends with Jesus sternly commanding his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: Do not tell anyone that I am the Messiah.
And in this context, it seems an odd thing to say. But next week, we will hear that after Peter’s confession, Jesus began to show (not tell, show) his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the authorities, be killed and be raised.
Jesus is the Son of the living God, Peter confesses.
And the living God does not reside in temples and shrines and institutions.
The living God is the God who stands before that pile of awkward old stones — Abraham and Sarah and Peter and all of us chips off the old block. And then when the time is right, calls each of us by name, looks us in the eye and hands us the gift meant for us: gifts of grace, compassion, prophecy, ministry, generosity, all the gifts Paul lists and more.
I do not dwell in stones, God says. You are my people. Now Go. Live. Be my body in the world.