I bought a Google Home recently – it’s a voice operated speaker that lets you geek out to control your music, lights and find out stuff. It comes with a guide to let you know the kind of questions that you can ask it. One of the questions that it suggests is: “Hey Google, who am I?” Honestly, I was a bit excited about this, because I thought if anyone knows who I am, after using the internet for most of my adult life, it’s probably Google. The answer was less than exciting. Google simply told me: “You told me your name was Richard”, which was way less significant than I’d imagined. Maybe I’ll have to stick to asking this question of friends who know me well to have any hope of getting a decent answer.
I suspect that in today’s Gospel, when Jesus asks his disciples this question, it was probably more than him having an existential crisis during a bad hair day. Many Jews at the time believed that God would send an anointed king who would be the one to spearhead the movement that would free the whole of Israel from its Roman occupation and oppression and finally bring about peace and justice for the whole world. No one knew where or when this anointed king would be born, although many pointed to the writings of the prophets to say that he would be a true descendent of King David and be born in Bethlehem (eg, Micah 5).
The word for this “anointed King” in the Hebrew language was “Messiah” – in the Greek language it was “Christ.” No one could say exactly what the Messiah would be like, or how you could tell when he arrived, but many thought he would be a warrior king who would defeat the pagan overlords and establish a new properly Jewish kingdom of God.
When Jesus asks his question of his disciples, he takes them far away from their normal lives, walking for days to arrive at the town of Caesarea Philippi. He would have known the kind of answers they would offer, but he wanted them to say the answer out loud. Firstly, they offer the opinion on the street – Jesus, you are one of the wild men of old, one of the prophets who stood up fearlessly against wicked leaders to speak and act against injustice.
But Jesus was so much more than just another prophet, as wonderful and amazing as this is. He knew that his followers had grasped this, and he wanted them to own this truth by actually speaking it aloud. Peter steps forward to be the spokesperson for the group: ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.’
Jesus was God’s Messiah. He was not merely speaking God’s word against the wicked rulers of the time, although he definitely did that. He was God’s true anointed king, who would replace them and their corruption, and establish a new kind of kingdom.
Jesus wants us to answer this question ourselves. To speak it aloud ourselves. To own it ourselves.
Peter is the first to make this declaration, so he became the rock at the starting point and centre of this new community of Jesus’ disciples – all those people who have or will give allegiance to Jesus as God’s anointed king. Peter will still make mistakes and he has much to learn, but Jesus doesn’t call the perfect. Falling down and being forgiven is all part of the process of this new community of faith, this new Kingdom of God.
+ Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Help us to find time today to answer your question aloud – who do you say I am?
Sunday 21, Year A.
This is a very difficult gospel. It is hard to listen to, and hard to pray with a gospel where Jesus appears to be so sexist and racist, especially in the light of ongoing violence in so many countries around the world, all of which is based on discrimination and hatred because of difference. We can hope that he had a smile on his face when he said such a terrible thing to the woman – but we will never know. We might remember the great line of St Teresa to Jesus – well, if this is the way that you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few of them.
The only way that we can make sense of this passage is by looking carefully at what Jesus says to his disciples and the woman – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” His mission was not to heal all of the sick people in the world at the time, or to drive out all of their demons. His mission was to reawaken Israel back to it calling as the covenant people, chosen by the Lord as the promise-bearers for themselves on behalf of the whole world. If we forget the centrality of Israel (as the Christian church often has) we forget something that is at the centre of the mission of Jesus. We also think that the church exists only for ourselves – but both Israel and the Church (and thus the sacraments and the whole life of the church) exists for the sake of the whole world. But this was only true after the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But this woman, with her deep faith and profound compassion for her daughter, could not wait until after Easter. She wanted to bring God’s glorious future crashing into the present. That is why Jesus can say to her that you have great faith.
We are also invited to be the promise-bearers of God’s covenant people – to bring the great things of God alive in all the small daily decisions that we make.
Sunday 20, Year A. Matthew 15:21-28.
The Gospel begins with Jesus sending the disciples off in their boat, while he sends the crowds home. Just before this passage, he had heard that his friend and cousin, John, had just been executed by the ruthless tyrant Herod. He wanted some time alone. He needed some time alone. So he went off in their boat to try and find some space to pray and think and grieve – just to sort himself out. Instead, when he arrived at what he thought was going to be a deserted place, it was full of people. I think I would have turned the boat around and found another place to go – but Jesus had compassion on the crowds, and teaches them, heals them and then as the final act, he feeds them too.
No wonder he still needs that time alone.
So he prays. And he prays. Not just for a few minutes, but for hours. From the afternoon, until the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, the disciples are in trouble, out in the middle of the lake. A strong wind has arisen and the waves were beginning to break over the little boat.
I love the next line: ‘about three o’clock in the morning, Jesus came toward them, walking on the water.’ And what did the disciples make of all this – rightly I think ‘they were terrified.’ It isn’t every dark night that you see someone – in the middle of massive storm-tossed waves – just casually strolling about on top of the water. And so they screamed out in terror. To which Jesus, as he so often does, calls them to “Don’t be afraid” – although I am not sure that would have really helped given how totally bizarre the whole situation is at this point.
And then Peter pipes up. We should be used to Peter saying something a little left of centre. He seems to have that special knack of saying – or doing – something that is kind of weird – yet still wonderful. But his question is right up there alongside his other one-liners. What was he thinking? “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.” To which Jesus naturally just says – sure, come! So, Peter just totally casually hops over the side of the boat – and joins Jesus – walking on the water. As you do.
Well at least for a while. The Gospel doesn’t tell us how far Peter got – but it seems to have been far enough that he was well away from the boat. But once he takes his eyes away from Jesus and begins to look at these massive waves that are blowing all around them – the natural consequence happens. He sinks and begins to drown under the waves and water, managing at least to cough out a “save me, Lord!” Which Jesus immediately does and takes Peter by the hand and helps him back into the boat, greeting him with the gentle rebuke – “why did you doubt me?”
We have so often focussed on the mistakes of Peter – but perhaps he is just meant to remind us of what we are all like. Perhaps the problem with Peter was that he needed to test Jesus by getting out of the boat and giving this whole walking on water gig a go. Perhaps he is gently rebuked because he was meant to just stay in the boat all along. Especially in this Gospel, the boat is a symbol of the church – the Christian community that struggles to make sense of everything that is happening around us. But even when we are being tossed around by the wind and the waves, perhaps the secret is just staying together in the community, trusting that even when Jesus feels like he’s absent, he will always be there when we need him. He will always stretch out his hand to save us, and he will always calm the waves and the wind and see us safely to shore.
+ Jesus, help us to keep our eyes on you despite the wind and the waves, and help us to be a community where we can stick together and grow in your love.
Sunday 19, Year A. Matthew 14:22-33
Have you ever had an experience that was so sublime, so magical, so amazing – that you struggled to share all its details even with a close friend? Maybe the event wasn’t even all that weird or far out – but all the elements came together in a way that you know that mere words or photos are just not going to come close to even beginning to share the full impact of what transpired in those incredible days or moments.
I suspect that the event that we listen to today from Matthew 17 is like this – only a thousand times more amazing. When the different gospel writers attempt to describe what happened – and even more so to share the emotional and spiritual impact of what happened that amazing day – they are struggling at the limits of human language.
We are told that Jesus is transfigured before them – literally, in the Greek language, he writes that Jesus is meta’morphosed (meta=change; morphe=form, so a change of form, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly). When the disciples look at Jesus, he glows with a transcendent glory that is reserved for the heavenly beings. Jesus is joined in this splendour with Moses and Elijah – not only to represent the “Law and the Prophets” – but because they were both prophets who were rejected by the people; advocated for God, the covenant and the Torah; worked miracles and ultimately were vindicated by God as representatives of the heavenly world.
But I suspect that Bishop Tom Wright is correct, when he invites us to meditate upon the transfiguration scene – by holding and contrasting in your mind the scene of Calvary and the crucifixion of Jesus. Here on a mountain-top in Galilee, Jesus is revealed in glory; there, on the hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus is revealed in shame. Here, his clothes are shining bright; there his clothing has been stripped by the soldiers. Here, he is flanked by Moses and Elijah as two of Israel’s greatest heroes; there, he is flanked by two brigands, as a sign of how far Israel had fallen as a result of its rebellion against God. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness falls upon the land. Here Peter cries out about how wonderful it all is; there, Peter hides in shame after denying the Lord. Here the voice of God booms from the cloud declaring that Jesus is my beloved son; there, it is left to a pagan Roman soldier to declare in surprise that this really was God’s son.
Perhaps this moment of glory can only be appreciated and understood when we can also see the glory of the cross. The three disciples who accompanied Jesus to that high place that day – Peter, James and John – were rightly surprised by the sublime power, love and beauty of God. But we also need to discover a way to recognise that same power, love and beauty in the voice of Jesus when he calls us each day to take up our cross and follow him as disciples.
This is the Journey Radio recording text. Available here.
Play MP3 (10am)
6 Aug – Feast of the Transfiguration (replaces Sunday 18A). Matthew 17:1-9