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Proper 16A, Tr 1 (Trinity 9, 21.08.2011)
Exod 1.8-2.10: Moses in the bulrushes
Ps 124: Our help is in the name of the Lord
Rom 12.1-8: do not be conformed to this world; one body, many members
Matt 16.13-20: Caesarea Philippi (930)

Gracious Father, revive your Church in our day, and make her holy, strong and faithful,
for your glory’s sake in Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Two examples of Jewish tradition of Old Testament images being used in Matthew)

          Several weeks ago when I began to write a sermon for today, I mistakenly chose last Sunday’s readings.  So you can imagine my surprise, not to say, alarm, when last Sunday the Gospel was read and I realized my error. 

          That sermon was largely concerned with why we need the OT.  You might hear it in three years’ time if I am on deck then.  Even so, I would like to show this morning a couple of examples of how enriching and explanatory is the underlying use of the OT in the NT, especially as seen through the eyes of Jewish tradition.

          Our OT readings for the past weeks have been from Genesis and have been concerned with the story of Joseph.  Now we have finished Genesis and have started Exodus.  At the end of Genesis Joseph dies, but makes his brothers swear that when God brings them out of Egypt to the Promised Land, they will take his bones with them.

          Today as we begin the book of Exodus we are starting the next phase of the story.  This begins with the birth of Moses, his rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, and his being raised in the Egyptian royal court.  Eventually, as we all know, the Hebrews escape from Egypt , supposedly taking Joseph’s bones with them, although this is never mentioned as such.

          When we think of how the first Christian writers such as Paul and the evangelists use the writings of the OT in witnessing to Jesus, we often find them using quotations, but they also use the scriptures in a much subtler way.  And Joseph is such a case in Matthew’s Gospel.   It is in Matthew that Jesus’ father is given a name, and the name is ‘Joseph’.  Like Joseph in Genesis he is responsible for taking his family to safety in Egypt, and then he and they come up from Egypt, attested to by the citing of Hosea, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’.  It is more than Joseph’s bones that come up from Egypt ; it is the whole of Israel in Jesus as God’s Son, which is what God has called Israel to be when he told Moses to go tell Pharaoh to let my son go.

          You know how Muslims memorize the Koran; well, this is what Jews did in Jesus’ day.  So the mere mention of ‘Joseph’ would have evoked a host of scriptural echoes and traditions associated with Joseph in a way that is next to impossible for us today.

          Incidentally, it was our own Phyl Eaton who pointed me toward the full meaning of Joseph in Matthew’s story of the infancy of Jesus.

          And now to today’s gospel which is the familiar story of the incident at Caesarea Phillipi where Jesus asks his disciples who do people say that I am?  Ending with ‘But who do you say that I am?’  This is followed by Peter’s double-barrelled confession, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’.  Now ‘Son of God’ is what the disciples in Matthew have already confessed Jesus to be in the earlier story of the walking on the water.  What is new in Matthew is the confession that he is the Messiah, and this they are strictly told not to tell anyone.

          For his confession Simon is given the nickname Petros, for which the English is simply ‘Rocky’, as in the two great 20th Century Italian American boxers, Rocky Marciano and Rocky Graziano.

          Why use a name like Rocky?  Because it links Simon to Abraham, and in Jewish tradition Abraham was viewed as the Rock God looked for on which to found the world.  Abraham was held to be the great exemplar of faith, the one who by faith acquired both this world and the next, the one who was ready to die for the hallowing of God’s name, and, not least of all, a proselyte and a maker of proselytes. 

          So Simon, showing Abraham’s faith, is the exemplary rock on which Jesus is said to found the Church.  It is quite a mantle to place on his shoulders, but there is no doubt that, despite his evident faults, Peter indeed was a primary, or even the primary leader of the Christian community in the first generation.

          There is a big difference between Matthew and the earlier Mark in this story.  In Mark Peter (representing all of the disciples) is very obtuse and rejects the possibility of Jesus being a suffering Messiah.  This is because in Mark’s Gospel the only way that the disciples will understand is to follow Jesus, that is, by going in the way of the cross.  In Matthew, by contrast, the disciples know full well who Jesus is.  What they are lacking is the fullness of trusting obedience.

          Thus in Matthew Jesus alone is pistos, ‘faithful’, and shows pistis, ‘faith’. The disciples are said by Jesus to be oligopistoi, ‘incompletely faithful’ (6.30; 8.26; 14.31; 16.8), and show oligopistia, ‘incomplete faith’ (17.20). It is striking that it is only disciples are said to be ‘doubting’ (14.31; 28.17), and both times it is when they see Jesus in stories concerned with the resurrection.  So seeing Jesus in Matthew does not in itself generate faith.

          So where does that leave us?  After this sermon we are going to reaffirm our faith, which is where we are in today’s gospel, but it is in the week ahead that we shall show our faith.  May we all ask for the grace to grow in the depth of obedient trust that we may be rock-solid like Peter and Abraham.