A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 27th August 2023.

Exodus 1:8-2:10, Matthew 16:13-20

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

He asks them that question. “Who do you say that I am?”

We see Jesus as he comes into the district of Caesarea Philippi, asking his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ After the disciples offer some thoughts on this most significant question, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets,’ Jesus turns to them and asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

Before we ponder this question for ourselves, we might imagine turning to God and asking God the same question, “Who do you say we are?” “How do you see us?” This congregation gathered, anticipating the baptism of Reign and Amara and Jon, how do you see the people of our community, the people across the world, in communities struggling with war and famine, some living as refugees far from home, … and not just humanity, but the creation, this beautiful planet teeming with life, but struggling for life too. Might we imagine saying to God, “How do you see us?”

We often hear the answers to the questions we ask God in stories, and often in the stories of scripture. How does God see us? Read the Exodus story. Then we will know. The Exodus story whose first verses we heard read this morning, and which we will spend time with in coming weeks, portrays the God view of humanity and creation and tells the most powerful story of God’s response. How does God see us? God’s people, utterly loved but caught in slavery. The story goes like this:

The king of Egypt says to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They build supply cities, … for Pharaoh. But the more they are oppressed, the more they multiply and spread, so that the Egyptians come to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and make their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour.

Frightened of the Israelites, the Egyptians keep them enslaved and worse, as the story continues, we hear that the king orders that all male Israelite children be killed.

The people of Israel, God’s beloved people, are in slavery.

But we hear, then, the whispers of God’s response. We hear, then, the story of the birth of Moses.

An Israelite mother gives birth to a strong baby boy and hides him for three months. When she can hide him no longer, she gets a papyrus basket for him, and plasters it with bitumen and pitch; she puts the child in it and places it among the reeds on the bank of the river. And the daughter of the king comes down to bathe at the river, and she sees the basket among the reeds and sees the baby and cares for the baby and names him Moses, ‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’

Eventually the Israelite people cry out and then God enters the scene.

The Israelites groan under their slavery, and cry out. God hears their groaning, and God remembers his covenant with the people of Israel. God looks upon the Israelites, and God takes notice of them.

At the cry of the people God hears, remembers, sees and responds.

How does God see us? Trapped at times, enslaved not by the ruthless power and violence of an Egyptian king, but by fear or sickness, by selfishness or greed, by failing to know and live as ones created and loved by God. How does God see us? Read Exodus. But we might read the first book of the bible, the book Genesis, first, so we never forget that we are made and loved by God. God created us, all things, all people and God saw that all was good. God built a relationship with a particular group of people, a relationship of love and guidance and loyalty, with the Israelite people. And it is this group of people who we see enslaved in the Exodus story. God creates and loves and builds relationship with all God has made.

That is how God sees us.

Jesus turns to us and asks, “Who do you say that I am?”

The one who made us and loves us. The one who when we make our inevitable mistakes forgives us. The one who, as in the exodus story, when we cry for help, remembers, sees and responds. Peter called him Messiah.

Each time we gather for the Eucharist on a Sunday morning, we speak one answer to this question in the words of the creed. “I believe,” the creed begins. “I believe in God… I believe in his Son Jesus Christ, …I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

I believe … I wonder if these words help us or if, at times, we find them difficult. Would we say these words if Jesus was standing here asking us his question. “Who do you say that I am?”

Are the words “I believe” about what is in our minds, about what we give intellectual assent to, or is the answer to the Jesus question more about what is in our hearts?

The EfM study group which meets in our Cathedral office on Thursday evenings read an article exploring this idea and Susie, the leader, kindly shared it with me.

This article explored the meaning of the word “believe”. Is this about having an intellectual opinion or is it about the heart? The word “credo” from which we get the word creed means “I set my heart upon” or “I give my loyalty to”, “to prize, to treasure, to hold dear.” The article states:

 “I believe in God” used to mean: “Given the reality of God … I hereby pledge to [God] my heart and my soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to [God] …In previous centuries belief had nothing to do with one’s weighing of evidence or intellectual choice. Belief was not a doctrinal test. Instead, belief was like a marriage vow – “I do” as a pledge of faithfulness and loving service to and with the other.  An understanding of belief as trust … of faith as an encounter with God.”[1]

Might we ponder the idea of belief as trust? And when we say the creed this morning, in the midst of the baptism service might we wonder that with these words we are giving our trust our hearts, not so much our minds to God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit.

Jesus asked them, that day, “who do you say that I am?” Yes, Peter, as he always does, jumps forward and names him with the name that in the Jewish faith meant the one who will come and save them, “Messiah”. He doesn’t understand what he is saying, of course. He expects all the problems to be washed away easily. He doesn’t realise that trusting in this Jesus will lead them to the cross and, for him, to a loyalty he cannot bear.

But Jesus, knowing all that, turns to him and answers the question in reverse. Peter didn’t say “Who do you say that I am?” but he might as well have. Jesus names him anyway. Peter.

“You are Peter”, he said. And that wasn’t all. “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.”

Our church, the one into whose faith we find our meaning, our place of trust, the one into which we will baptise three children, this church was begun with Jesus naming Peter. Trusting, this Peter.

Who do we say Jesus is? Who is he for us? With whom shall we entrust our lives, our fears, our hopes our loves. Who will we trust to turn to us and call us our names, ones beloved by God.

[1] EfM notes Volume B week 22 p149, 151.