Getting Ready for Sunday by the Rev. Andy Johnson

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Proper 16

The Gospel passage for this week (Matt. 16:13-20) contains quite a few rabbit trails on which clergy can and have gone on numerous adventures. One could easily focus on Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the foundation of the church, the spiritual battle with against the gates of hell, or the ever-popular giving of the “keys of the kingdom” to Peter. Each of those items is worth time and discussion. However, if we lose the context in which they are found, we will likely miss something. Andin a tradition that doesn’t just read the Gospel lesson, this week’s lectionary provides yet another angle from which to consider Matthew’s gospel.

Each of the Synoptic Gospels locates Peter’s confession somewhere between one of Jesus’ feeding miracles and the Transfiguration. Up to this point, the disciples and others have seen Jesus perform miracles and heard him teach, but no one really knew who or what Jesus was. Although Jesus wasn’t exactly hiding, he did not fully reveal himself until Peter, James, and John are with him on the Mount of Transfiguration. That Peter makes the connection that Jesus is the Son of Man, the Son of God, and the long-awaited Christ is truly a gift of faith given to him by God. Jesus says as much in Matt. 16:17. Here is the turning point in Matthew’s gospel, just before the high point of God’s revelation to mankind on the Mount. It is this confession which provides the immediate context for the next few verses. But before we get there, what about those other lectionary passages?

Isaiah 51 begins with a call to all people who seek salvation, directing us to consider the God who founded and grew the nation of Israel from a single man named Abraham. But Isaiah wants us to not only remember what God has done, but what he promises to do. He will indeed provide the salvation we long for, but not through anything that is a part of creation or bound by it (v.6).  Similarly, Paul is also looking both backwards and forward in the end of Romans 11 when he considers salvation and the future of Israel, marveling at how God has imprisoned all of us in disobedience such that deliverance can only be through him. Ultimately, Paul mimics Isaiah and declares that everything has its source and its end in God.

Between Isaiah and Paul, Peter’s confession and the establishment of the church find their place. God gives Peter that the awareness of Christ as the source of the salvation and hope for the world. This confession and revelation, that Jesus is the Christ, is offered back Peter (and the church) as the foundation of a faith that cannot be overcome by any physical or spiritual forces. It is with this revelation that Christ entrusts Peter and shares with him the administration of binding and loosing (the “you” here is singular). Later, we see this administration in action in Acts 10 regarding what can be eaten and Acts 15 regarding the requirements for Gentile believers.

All of these readings have Jesus as the promised Messiah and Savior as their primary connecting theme. Let us therefore join the Psalmist this week who gives thanks and praise to the God who loves us and glorifies his name and Word above all things.

Posted by The Rev. Andy Johnson with

Faithful Name Calling

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There’s quite a lot of name calling in this week’s gospel reading from Matthew. Name calling is not generally the sort of thing we associate with Jesus, and this particular example feels harsh: he called a woman a dog (at least by implication). While he didn’t mean this with the same sense borne by the English idiom, it still wasn’t a sweet thing to say, and don’t we all like our Jesus to be sweet? 

There are other names used in this passage too. The woman used “Lord” and “Son of David.” These are personal titles, names that apply to Jesus individually. They reference Jesus’ power and authority, as well as his messianic role and his fulfillment of Israel’s story. With the names she used, the woman was acknowledging something specific about Jesus and asking for him to step powerfully into her life.

Jesus used several names too. There’s “lost sheep” and “children,” in addition to “dogs.” These are not personal titles. They are collective names, metaphors used to describe the contours of salvation offered by the God of Israel. With the names he used, Jesus was not saying anything specific about the woman herself. Rather, he was explaining how God’s favor and grace came first to his chosen people of Israel.

Jesus was speaking to a key theological issue, namely the relative positions of Israel and the Gentiles in the plan of salvation. In contrast, the woman — who was a Gentile herself — was simply speaking to Jesus. Speaking directly to him, she overcomes the collective categories. What happened in this story is that promised blessings made to God’s chosen people, “the house of Israel,” were made available to a Gentile though the one person Jesus.

Jesus’ ministry beyond Israel did not negate God’s promises to the people of Israel, it was rather an extension of those promises. That’s why Jesus was so explicit about the sheep and children (the people of Israel) and the dogs (the Gentiles). He went to some length to explain that the blessings and power in His name were a fulfillment of God’s work among his chosen people. God had not changed his mind and chosen new people. God had not gone back on his promises. What was different in this story is that now, through faith in Him (v. 28), even those outside the covenant with Israel could receive God’s blessing.

This week’s reading from Romans explores similar themes. Paul was writing some thirty or more years after Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman. In that time, many Gentiles had embraced the good news about Jesus Christ, and many Jews had rejected it. Paul was struggling to account for that — how could this be so, if the Israelites were God’s chosen people? Had God rejected Israel? By no means, Paul writes. The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

Our churches today are nearly entirely Gentile, so much so that the “Jew and Greek” distinction means very little to us. We hardly see the world through Jewish categories of identity, and so we don’t often spend our time anxiously wondering about the relative positions of Israel and the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation. But it does matter very much that the Father kept his promises and sent his Son, born of the house of David, to the people of Israel. It matters because God’s promise of salvation to us Gentiles in the name of that Son is only worth anything if God keeps his promises.

That Jesus would emphasize the priority of Israel to the very face of a woman in deep suffering is a reminder of how serious God is about the promises he makes. No, it’s not really a sweet a story; but Jesus is more than sweet. Jesus is faithful.

 

The Rev. Andrew Van Kirk

Posted by The Rev. Andrew Van Kirk with

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This is a blog of essays meant to prepare parishioners for an upcoming Sunday reading.