“Who Do People Say I Am?”#2

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 08318

Sermon Notes (Sunday January 31st, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor


Who Do People Say I Am?”#2

Isaiah 54:15-17; Matthew 16:13-20


The story is told about a young man who wanted to join the membership of a local church.  The Elders of the church met with him to examine his life and his faith.  An Elder asked the candidate, “Tell us what do you believe?”  The young man answered, “I believe what the church believes.”  Frustrated with his answer, another Elder asked, “So what does the church believe?”  The young man thought for a moment and replied, “Basically my beliefs and the church’s are almost the same.”


Today we continue our meditations on Matthew chapter 16. Unlike this young man who wanted to join the church, Jesus wants us to make sure we are not confusing His identity. So, He asked His disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” “Who do you say I am?” Friends, we are often tempted to create our own version of Jesus who will comfortably fit into our own lifestyle. Two Sunday ago I highlighted two things: (1) Jesus’ question must be answered and (2) half convictions are never really enough. As we dig deeper into Matthew 16, please allow me this morning to highlight two more important observations:


First: The District of Caesarea Philippi

In order to better understand the importance of Jesus’ discussion in Matthew 16, we should consider the location in which Peter made his confession, Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a pagan Roman city about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, just at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon. The city was given its name by King Herod the Great’s son, Phillip, when he came to power. So it was named after: Caesar Phillip.


Two temples stood in Caesarea Philippi: one to honor and worship Caesar, the great leader of the Roman Empire, and the other to honor and worship Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks. This city was basically considered the Sin City of its day, and most Jews would have completely avoided going there. So, as you can see, this is not the place you might expect Jesus Christ, the Jewish Rabbi who was said to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to take His disciples to and ask them to confess whom He really is. We might think that the Jerusalem Temple or at least one of the synagogues would have been a better place.


And yet, it is quite intentional that Jesus took His disciples to Caesarea Philippi to reveal His identity to them. In the Roman Empire, people were often forced to worship the emperor or the gods of the empire. Many of the leaders were even given titles such as “Savior,” “Lord,” and “Son of God.” Moreover, in Caesarea Philippi, there was a cave where Pan was worshipped with a spring that flowed from it. The spring was thought to flow from underground – a place the Greeks referred to as Hades, and where the gods would spend their winters. And the source of the spring was called the “Gates of Hades,” the same phrase Jesus speaks of in our text.


Caesarea Philippi, therefore, is the intentional place for Jesus’ identity to be revealed. It is here in the midst of this imperial and pagan center, where Jesus asks His disciples who they say He is, and Peter answers that it is Jesus – not the Caesar or Pan – who is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! It is this Jesus Christ, who will be the ONE who saves the people who are suffering from this oppressive empire and who is worthy of worship. And not even Rome, or Pan, or Jupiter, or any other gods or imperial worldly powers will be able to prevail against Him!


Second: Jesus Renames Simon Son of Jonah

In Matthew 16:16-18, we read “Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Jesus renames Simon. His Greek name is Petros which in English means “rock.” Simon is now a “Rock.” Whenever we re-center our lives on Christ we become a new person. Every time the lines of our lives converge on Christ we become rock-like. We become the foundation, the rock, on which rests the church, the new ark that holds and reveals the presence and glory of God. With all its frailties Jesus chooses human life and relationships to be the rock on which He builds His church. Jesus’ words, “You are rock and on this rock I will build my church,” are words of life. They were for Peter and they are for us here at the Elmer Presbyterian Church today.


The more we re-center our lives on Christ, the more effective we become in our communities and in the world. Re-centering is our life’s work and it is not easy work. It means we must continually let go of what we thought centered our lives and move to our true center; the Messiah, the Son of God, the living one.


The opportunity for re-centering is hidden within the ups and downs of our life. It is something we do over and over and we don’t always get it right. Look at Peter. He is the one of little faith sinking in the water. He doesn’t understand the parables. He argues with Jesus and ends up being called Satan. He falls asleep when he is supposed to be praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He denies knowing Jesus. Through it all, he was being shaped, formed, molded into the rock Jesus knew him to be. Ultimately Peter was crucified for re-centering, following, and loving Jesus.


When we keep re-centering our lives on Christ, bringing Christ into the core of our lives, Christ keeps building up His Church. As we live up the fullness of our faith, “the gates of Hades will not overcome us.” I believe expanding our missions to a far land, to the land of Egypt, is actually a victory to the Kingdom of God over the gates of Hades. In Isaiah 54:17, Isaiah writes, “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the Lord.”


Friends, Jesus is always pushing us to go deeper, to look within and discover who or what our life is centered on, and then to re-center. “Who do you say that I am?” Don’t just answer Jesus’ question. Go live the answer. Discover the “rockness” that Jesus knows you to be. Live with hope in the midst of despair. Love your neighbor as yourself. Though the gates of death open to you, know that they cannot prevail. Care for the poor, feed the hungry, and defend the oppressed. Offer forgiveness despite your anger. Pray when you are too busy to pray. Love your enemies despite your fear. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him. Practice generosity in a declining economy. Re-center even when it feels like you cannot stand up. Do these. Be the rock. Be the rock on which Jesus’ church stands before the world. In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

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