August 23, 2020 – Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Matthew 16:13-20
July 21, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Neal Presa
Let’s step on the stage. Enter stage left, Power as Pharaoh. Enter stage right, Power as Caesar. Then direct your attention to those seated viewing this dramatic scene, and hear the words of Jesus, “(Fill in your name, the name of your congregation, your seminary’s name, your family members), who do the crowds say that I am? Who do you say that I am?”
Power and the exercise of power are on full display especially this year. The year 2020 unfolded with only the third impeachment in US history of a sitting president. The use of police power in the killings of Black Americans. The exercise of and resistance to power and authority when it comes to health directives to wear face masks and practice physical distancing in the midst of the COVID-19 coronavirus. We see this in China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and the Philippine government’s extrajudicial killings and kidnappings of human rights activists. We see this in the Trump administration’s efforts to separate children and their families from Central America and South America seeking asylum at our border. We see the oppressive weight of political, economic, social, cultural, and ethnic power that privileges a few over the many, heightening the wealth disparities and inequalities more than ever.
This Sunday’s text is about power and those who are placed in the position of power and God calling God’s people to bear witness to that power. The Exodus text is the dramatic curtain being opened of Moses’s appearance and Pharaoh’s rise to power, who enslaved the Israelites. It’s through the subtlety of midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter that Moses, who should have met his death under Pharaoh’s authoritarian decree against male babies born to Hebrew mothers, is raised and nurtured in the royal palace to bade his time until the kairos of the exodus from Egypt.
Then there’s Jesus, walking with the disciples, and gauging Peter’s heart to compare his own sense of who Jesus really is to what the popular polls regards Jesus. I recall sojourning in the Holy Land in 2008 with a group of pastors/alums of Princeton Theological Seminary with the world-renowned Dead Sea Scrolls expert and Princeton professor James Charlesworth. Dr. Charlesworth took us pilgrims to the route along Caesarea Philippi, and the general vicinity where Jesus’s conversation with Peter would have occurred. What Peter would have seen was the magnificent structure erected to honor the cult of the Caesars, a structure that would have been gleaming like a shiny star with the sun bouncing off of its white stone. Such a towering structure proclaimed to the whole region the unmistakable declaration that imperial power is here, and here to stay, and submission to and allegiance to the power was expected and required.
Peter’s confession and the confession of every follower of Christ in every time and in every place is the simple but profound and revolutionary declaration, “Jesus is Lord.” He alone is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Such seditious words and the acts that accompany it are an open challenge to this world’s values whenever and wherever those values and actions which contravene God’s intentions of shalom, for freedom that loves and heals, for truth that sets free.
The “now what” of these lectionary texts confronts us to receive the saving freedom of God, and because of that freedom, we are to proclaim freedom to the captive, loose the chains that bind God’s people to fully live out life and faith. It’s the kind of freedom that goes against false notions of liberty which harms the wider community by risky behavior of not wearing safety masks, or not physically distancing, or prematurely gathering for in-person worship; that’s not the freedom in view here. Such freedom is a foolish risk that harms the public, threatening the livelihoods of everyone, particularly vulnerable populations including the elderly and the sick. Rather, what is in view is the kind of freedom that says, because I’m free to act accordingly, because we’re free to know and receive information, we are free to act accordingly and lovingly towards one another. It’s the kind of freedom that exercises love towards neighbor and the wider community by freely practicing self-control for the benefit of the whole.
That freedom, in both kind and in degree, is a gift from God for the people of God.