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Knowing and Following

Octave of Ss Peter and Paul, 3 July, 2011
The Very Rev'd Dr James Rigney,
Dean of Newcastle

Matthew 16:13-19

For many people, in Jesus' time and now, the demand to follow Jesus, to be a disciple, is too burdensome and too much trouble. Instead they merely want to 'know' Jesus. This morning's gospel reminds us of the intimate connection of knowing and following.

At the beginning of this chapter in Matthew's gospel the Pharisees and the Sadducees have asked Jesus for a sign (Matthew 16.1) so that they may know who he is. The sort of sign they require, like Satan's requirement that he turn a rock into a loaf of bread (Matthew 4.3), is a demand for a sign that is external to Jesus himself. But as Jesus has tried to get his followers to understand, he himself is the sign. The journey of Jesus beginning in chapter 11, through the cities of Israel marked by miraculous healings, by teaching and by controversy, reaches a climax here as he enters the region of Caesarea Philippi on the border between Israel and the Gentile world. And it is here that he asks his disciples, 'Who do people say that I am'. In response, the disciples recount the various theories that are being discussed.

[Jesus] said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God". (Matthew 16.15-16). The disciples had already identified Jesus as the Son of God as he returned to their boat with Simon (Matthew 14.32) but now Peter declares that he recognises Jesus as the Messiah, the one who alone has the power to set Israel free.

The English theologian Ian Ramsey wrote: 'How natural it is to expect to be sure in religion! Religion is, for the believer, of such obvious importance and of such high significance that it is incredible (it might be said) that God (if God there be) could ever allow any uncertainty about it.' [1]

Peter's confident answer, without any of Ramsey's parenthetical philosophical qualifications, sets the tone for many of his later pronouncements, especially those in the Acts of the Apostles.

'Know with certainty that God has made him Lord, this Jesus whom you killed...' (Acts 2.36). 'I truly understand that God shows no partiality.' (Acts 10.34) 'Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.' (Acts 12.11) All those ringing statements of conviction come from Peter in the first twelve chapters of Acts.

You might struggle to recognise the confident figure stating these things as the same man who fled into the night in Jerusalem and then slunk back to sit by the coal fire in the High Priest's courtyard and fearfully betray his Lord and friend. Peter's certainty might seem to lock him into a position that is a long way from those who are not 'so certain', may not 'truly understand', or are not 'sure'. Being 'free to believe' often seems a more attractive way to express our Christian life than being 'bound by conviction'. However, images of binding and loosing are characteristic of Peter.

In John's gospel Jesus says to Peter

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.' (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, 'Follow me.' (John 21.18-19)

That statement comes at the end of the gospel encounter between the risen Jesus and Peter on the beach. In the thrice-repeated question and answer we see the undoing of Peter's earlier denial of Jesus. This process reminds us of what the risen life of Jesus means to Peter and to us, it means restitution and restoration. Peter is unbound from his denial and set free. This is a remarkable illustration of Jesus' faithfulness even to those who are not faithful to him.

By restoring Peter, Jesus does something that even elsewhere in the New Testament seems to be thought of as impossible. In the letter to the Hebrews, for example, we read, 'For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt'. 6:4-6). But this is not what we see in the divine action of Easter. The veil of death is parted: through it a hand reaches out to Peter and he is turned from death to life. The God who had not abandoned Christ in death would not abandon Peter in his.

Peter's denial of the one he claims not to know, his restitution and his calling are all connected in the notion of following Jesus. At the Last Supper Simon Peter said to [Jesus], "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus answered, "Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward." Peter said to him, "Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times. (13.36-38)

Jesus tells Peter in verse thirty eight of chapter thirteen "Follow me". What Jesus has told Peter he is unable to do earlier, he now tells him to do. Following Jesus — for Peter — will mean death. Peter's response to Jesus' questioning: "Yes, I love you," involves the commitment of his entire life to that following. This process of following involves commitment and that commitment involves a loss of liberty.

True discipleship is evidenced by servant-hood—that is, expressing, indeed continuing, the servant-hood of our Lord, even in His absence. True discipleship is evidenced in the nature of our response to that invitation to 'Follow me'. Servant-hood is rooted in and motivated by our love for Jesus Christ. What should Peter do? What should any disciple do? Jesus' answer was two-fold. First, we must follow Jesus in seeking the salvation of men (evangelism). Second, we must shepherd the souls of those who are saved (pastoring). Servant-hood involves evangelism and shepherding. It seeks both to save the lost and to strengthen the believers.

Peter does not learn that Jesus is the Messiah through some intuitive or mystical mode of knowing. Rather he learned that Jesus is the Messiah because he obeyed Jesus' command to be his disciple.

Simon's recognition of Jesus changes who Simon is. Accordingly, Jesus gives him a new name, Peter, the rock. He tells him that 'on this rock' he will build his church. Peter becomes the first among the disciples, not because he is the first called or the most impressive, but because he has identified Jesus as the Messiah.It is not Peter's task to make the church safe and secure, or to try and insure its existence. Rather, it is Peter's task to keep the church true to its mission, which is to witness to the Messiah.

The second chance ultimately comes not through some penitential act of Peter's, but through the sheer grace and love of Jesus himself. Jesus' questions to Peter on the beach in John 21 are questions of grace, and they come with a repeated command to feed, tend, and follow. As Jesus was being crucified, Peter had three chances to follow him to his death. Instead, three times he turned his back. Now, Jesus gives Peter a renewed chance to do the same thing: follow, even if it means following to death.

Like Peter, we all have our moments of denial. However, Jesus repeatedly pursues us with the same question: "Do you love me?" he asks. We can place the emphasis on a variety of points in that question, but perhaps the key word is the last one: do you love me. In the week of this Patronal festival, may we be people who accept the call of discipleship that comes with the acknowledgement of the Lord who lived, died and rose again for us.


[1] Ian T. Ramsey, On Being Sure in Religion (London: The Athlone Press, 1963) p.1


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