Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Trinity: “The Keys of the Kingdom” preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey on Sunday, 27 August 2023 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson (Romans Ch 12: v 1 – 8; Matthew Ch 16: 13 – 20)
Had you been here on the night of 28 October 1437 you would have seen flames in this part of the Abbey, the result of something of a riot. Tensions between the townspeople and the monks had reached fever pitch, for there had long been an uneasy relationship between the two groups. The reddening of the stones here from that fire is a testament to that difficult time.
The Saxons named Sherborne, scir burne which, as you may know, translated into “clear stream.” A good supply of drinkable water was certainly worth celebrating in a name which identified the location. However, the monks diverted the stream to provide themselves with plenty of fresh water and this became yet another bone of contention between them and the townspeople especially when the Abbot introduced a charge for extra water! Our place names have a meaning which goes back into the distant past.
So it is that our reading today mentions the area of Caesarea Philippi to which Jesus and his disciples were heading though the gospel does not say that they actually entered the city but visited the villages nearby. It was named Caesarea in honour of Caesar Augustus by the tetrarch Philip II in AD14 and became known as Philip’s Caesarea to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast. A spring feeds the River Jordan. The remains of the city today can be found in the Golan heights not far from Mount Hermon where it is thought that the transfiguration took place, about which we heard a few weeks ago. But Caesarea Philippi was a decadent place where the Greek god Pan was worshipped and it was said that no pious Jew would enter such a city.
It was in that area then, though not in the city itself, that Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was. It is St. Peter who declares that he is the Messiah. The word means “anointed one” and the Greek translation is Christos – that is, in English, Christ. In the OT priests and kings and sometimes prophets were consecrated to their office with the use of oil, a symbol of plenty. Oil was used at the coronation of our King though not poured from a ram’s horn as happened to King David.
The Messiah was a kingly figure and, perhaps for that reason, Jesus appears to have been wary of the title. You can understand why, for it attracted a variety of interpretation and the times were often chaotic – a ferment of unrest and revolution. A series of revolutionaries claimed to be the expected Messiah over the years – many during the lifetime of Jesus himself. Their rebellions were stamped out by the Roman army and the Messiah/leaders executed. The times were turbulent and claiming the title Messiah was therefore risky and could give rise to terrorist expectations.
When St. Peter makes the great confession then and is given the keys of the keys of the kingdom Jesus has to explain what it all means. In the verses following today’s gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples that suffering and death await him. On a human level that was not an unreasonable prophecy when you factor in any confrontation with the authorities at that time. There are countries today where dissent has similar results. If you take a particular line and condemn what is evil you will know the likely outcome to be imprisonment or death.
But there is more to it than that for Jesus. He has recognised it as his “destiny”. Clues to help our understanding of this are to be found in parts of Isaiah especially some of the chapters following Chapter 40. These sections have been called “servant songs”. Isaiah speaks of God’s special person, not as a grand king lording it over his fellows, but as a suffering servant who endured pain and hardship on behalf of God’s people. God’s servant is to endure shame and insult. So that is to be the destiny of Jesus. Peter, encouraged no doubt by his perception of Jesus as the Messiah and by the words of congratulation and promise that Jesus gives him, is horrified and expresses that horror in no uncertain terms. This is not Messiahship as Peter and the disciples perceive it – not suffering and death – that was the way of disaster. Jesus must succeed; he must be king and lead the people in glory to the new kingdom. Later James and John ask to be the chief ministers in the new administration: – they too had a very different picture of the future from the one Jesus was predicting and found that his message did not fit in with the ideas of Messiahship that they had grown up with all their lives.
I think that it was for this reason that Jesus was wary of such an insight passing to a wider circle who would then misinterpret it. The expectation of a Messiah had a wide and varied characterisation. It would have been all too easy for Jesus to have been overwhelmed by people looking for a military leader, or one they could make their king. The earthly power and glory would prevent him doing what he felt God had called him to do and would separate him from the ordinary people. He was walking a tight rope. So he needed to help the disciples understand what being the Messiah meant – suffering and death. This obviously did not tie in with St. Peter’s picture at all and he seeks to move Jesus into quite a different direction.
But I wonder if the words of Peter were not in fact tempting for Jesus. Jesus speaks to Peter with all the vehemence that he uses in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry as he rejects the tempting offers made by Satan. Perhaps he was so hard on Peter because his words had such an appeal. And why not? No one welcomes suffering and death. We are perhaps too used to the idea that Jesus had to suffer and die and so we think of it as inevitable. But at the time Jesus must have wanted to be spared such a fate. We remember Jesus’s words in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed “Take this cup from me”. It is human to want to be spared times of hardship and anguish.
But the Christian hope pursues a different trajectory. We see too often the presence of evil in the world where the innocent suffer because of the actions of human beings. The suffering and death of Jesus were God’s way of dealing with evil for they were followed by the resurrection as the creative power and love of God broke into the situation and changed it most gloriously, giving hope to innocent victims. This link between suffering, death and resurrection is drawn out time and time again in the letters of St. Paul and other epistle writers. Today’s epistle uses the language of sacrifice and calls upon us to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice. Jesus suffered undeservedly and yet because he put God first in his life and did not seek to avoid even pain and death, so the greatest of all blessings came to him and through him to us.
He could have avoided what lay ahead. He could have taken the easy path, put his own safety first and God second. But he did not. He put God first and remained true to him no matter what happened and no matter where the path led. And so came the conquest of death and promise of new life.
That is the example and inspiration that he gives us. “for anyone who loses his life for my sake, will find it.”