Updated: Sep 2
My family and I, in an attempt to squeeze all we can out of this summer, went on a short camping trip to the beautiful Conejos River in Colorado. Like Jared and his family, we own a small pop-up camper. And he’s right, setting this camper up can be a pain in the you know what. Since our 3 kids are all about two years older than Jared and Ericka’s, our oldest son Adrian, who is rather tall, was sleeping in a tent on a previous trip. In order to save us all this hassle for a short trip, Cory decided to rent a larger camper. No pop-up. This was simultaneously the best and worst decision he could have made. The best because we really enjoyed the bigger space and amenities of this camper. The trip was a full success. The worst, because there is no way we can go back to the pop-up camper now, we’re spoiled. So now we’re eying a bigger camper.
This was also our first camping trip we went fishing. We did not catch a single fish, but we had a blast trying. Exploring the riverbed, finding garter snakes, building little dams, and hiking, it was all fun. What was no fun were the mosquitos. As soon as the sun began to set by the river, they swarmed me. One early evening it was so bad I soon gave up and walked back to our camper. Mosquitos are so small, so tiny. And they still made me flee the otherwise beautiful scene. It reminded me of a saying by the Dalai Lama: If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.
And I think we can often feel like we don’t count. Many of us think that we are just too small to ever make any difference. It is as if we are asking ourselves: what makes you think you can affect any change? Just who do you think you are?
Who do you think you are? It’s an important question, but we have managed to make it sound snarky and we leave no doubt that the answer is negative. Yet, it can also be a wise thing to ask yourself this question of identity. It’s an important tool for a successful life to kind of take inventory of yourself. Questions of identity are important. Questions of identity are also at the center of the Gospels. More precisely questions about the identity of Jesus Christ and what this means for us, for our identity as Christians.
Before we get to that question though, I’d like to set the scene of today’s Gospel reading. Because the location here is important! The location of this event is Caesarea Philippi, and that is no accident. This town is home to a lot of religious hustle and bustle. It is said there were no fewer than 14 Baal temples. There is a great cave nearby that is said to be the birthplace of the god Pan. That cave is also believed to be the source of the famous river Jordan. But the biggest and most splendid building is the great temple built from fine white marble to worship the godhead of Caesar. No one could visit Casearia Phillipi and not see this polished temple, reminding them of the overwhelming power and self-declared divinity of Rome. And here of all places, amongst all these gentiles and their very real impressive and oppressive earthly powers, here he asks first who do the people think he is, and then who his disciples, the people that know him better than anyone else, think he is. It is as if Jesus is not only demanding a comparison between him and these powers. No. He is asking this question of identity to see if his disciples understand who he is well enough to know that any comparison is always going to be in Jesus’ favor.
The people say that Jesus is one of three options: John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah. Being compared and likened to these prophets is certainly flattering given their profound role in the Jewish faith. But, all three prophets John, Elijah, and Jeremiah share this one thing in common: they are said to come back to be the forerunners of the Messiah. Meaning Jesus can’t possibly be the Messiah himself. Only the forerunner. That’s the people’s voice. Now, the all-important question: who do his followers say he is? Peter answers without hesitation: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
This truth, first spoken by Peter, is significant and of great consequence. Because among other things, it means that everything the disciples have experienced with Jesus, everything they have learned from this Messiah through their limited senses of sight, sound, taste, and touch, is not simply knowledge or experience revealed through “flesh and blood.” It is, in fact, a revelation directly from God. Jesus’ words and actions are God’s words and actions. Easy to see then why Jesus is so delighted when he hears this answer. He says:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
This is high praise indeed. And I’m so glad that it’s Peter. So often Peter’s passionate words got him a rebuke rather than a praise. Jesus says a lot here, let’s unpack it.
He says “flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my father in heaven”. Because Peter is right, Jesus is the Messiah, his actions and words as righteous and instructive as God’s. God has indeed revealed this to Peter. In that moment, Peter is the first person on earth to see and confess this truth. Peter’s faith has made him the first member of God’s Church. And it is that faith, that makes Peter “the rock Jesus will build his church on”. Peter is the rock, but in a different sense, I believe, than I was taught in my elementary Roman Catholic school. Because God in Jesus is The rock and The foundation of the Church. Peter is the very first stone, he marks the very beginning of our church. He was the bravest and most faithful disciple, and on that day the Church was born through him. This first stone, this rock consists of pure faith. The other disciples will soon follow suit and add their faith. As it is today, God’s Church consists of the faith of people who confess Jesus Christ to be the Son of the Living God. People who strive to follow his way, to walk in his footstep. People who everyday give it their best shot, to act and talk like Jesus, because we know to do so means following God’s way for us.
It is the Church, all of us then, who alongside Peter and the disciples and every Christian that was, is or ever will be, we have “the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
What exactly does this mean? To bind something here means to forbid it. And to loose something means to allow it. So, whatever we forbid and allow here on earth, will impact heaven, will impact God. Today (At the 8am service today) we get to renew our Baptismal Covenant in celebration of the baptisms of. This Covenant is a great reminder, that when we proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, when we seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbors as ourselves, and when we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being, then we allow, we loosen God among us on earth, much to our own and God’s great joy. Of course, when we dehumanize a people or make unjust laws, when we think we get to pick and choose who our neighbor is, we bind God away from us. Resulting in pain and suffering for God and His people.
When we with faith proclaim that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, we accept it as our call to invite, to loosen God on earth.
Which brings me back to my mosquitos and the question of who do we think we are to affect change? Who are we, are we really too small and insignificant? Think about this: God’s Church was started by only one small rock of faith, and every faith that followed built God’s Church till now and will forever. With every faith added, with every confession that He is the Messiah, we loosen God here on earth. And although I can’t bring myself to think kindly about mosquitos, I do know that no act of faith is too small. Every kind word, every encouraging smile, every big hug, every patient explanation, every time we acknowledge one another as neighbors, every faithful act reveals God among us. This is who are, who we strive to be.
There is power in faith, a power that resonates into the highest heavens.