Sermon – Eleventh Sunday After Trinity

Rev. Nathaniel Athian Deng Mayen
Matthew 16:13-20

Audio from Anchor podcast

Dear beloved brothers and sisters, the gospel reading today invites us to appreciate our collective identity, the Church as the inheritance of God, in which we find our eternal rest. 

Who are you? This is a very common question, especially from the people who want to put others down. It calls into question the whole essence of a person: human ancestry, country of origin, attitude, or ability to react against injustice and oppression…The stakes are even higher and more pressing when you are a foreigner, an immigrant, a refugee, a person with disability, a person of Aboriginal descent, or any other person that is different in the dominant culture, whom a lot of people have little understanding about their identity and loyalty. Jesus Christ takes on all these oppressed identities: He comes down from heaven. He is not of this world. He is a refugee.

We should reclaim our Christian identity and talk freely about it because there is no salvation outside the Church. This is a bold claim in our politically sensitive modernist society, so allow me to explain what I mean by the Church being our eternal collectivist and prophetic identity that is prepared for us by God before the beginning of the world.

The Church is where we are given our a new name in baptism, when we affirm our loyalty to Christ: “in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven” (“The Catechism,” Common of Common Prayer, 544).  

Jesus asks the disciples to tell Him who other people and the disciples themselves think Jesus is. Jesus actually identifies himself as a ‘Son of Man’ first before He can ask about others’ perception of Him. This self-identity invokes His incarnational identity as the seed of woman, because the Messiah was sometimes designated by such an identity in the Old Testament (Psalms 80:17; Daniel 7:13). Other qualifiers come to the forefront. Christ is truly and really man. Christ speaks of himself according to his outward appearance and the prevailing opinion of men about him as a mere man, born as other men have been.

The disciples mentioned John the Baptist. John was a threat to the Herodian dynasty and his coming back to life would be disaster. John had called for justice for others. Elijah was also mentioned because Elijah was understood as an extraordinary person prophesied by Malachi to come in his power and spirit before the great day of the Lord, before Messiah (Matthew 11:14). Jeremiah was mentioned because Jeremiah was the anticipatory liberator (Deuteronomy 18:15) for Jews from the oppression of the Romans, just like Moses saved the Israelites from Egypt (the alternative reading to Isaiah is Exodus 1:8-2:10, the rearing of Moses in the royal palace).

After the disciples have wrestled with what other people say about Christ, Christ turns to them and ask what they think of Christ. Pay attention to the general question that contains ‘Son of Man’ (“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”) and the specific question that contains ‘I am’ (“But who do you say that I am”?) The second invokes Christ’s divinity, while the first probes his humanity. Both are true is a sense because Christ is a man of two worlds.

The primary point is that there is some progression of knowledge from general familiarity to specific familiarity. Peter comes out more knowledgeable on account of God’s revelation: “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Mat. 16. 17). 

It is not enough for the disciples to believe in and follow Christ. They must also confess Him because believing in and following Christ come with additional identity that they have to wrestle with against other competing loyalties. From Peter’s confession, we find a summary of Christian faith: (1) Christ is the Son of the living God; (2) there is a God, and that God is only one, eternal God; (3) Christ is the living God: He has life in himself and is the fountain of life to others; (4) God is distinguishable from the idols of the Gentiles. God reaches out of His love to give life to others, rather than destroying life, as the gods do; (5) Jesus is the true Messiah, promised by God and prophesied of by all the prophets from the beginning of the world; (6) Christ is one with God and with humanity; and (7) Christ is a man but not a mere man. He is a divine person, the Son of God; not by creation, as angels and men are, nor by adoption, as saints and martyrs are, nor by office, as the magistrates and earthly kings are, but by nature, being God’s own Son, His proper Son, the only begotten of the Father, of the same nature with the Father, being one with the Father, and equal to the Father in identity (compare these with our three Anglican Creeds – Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Creed of Saint Athanasius).

Because there is truth in the confession, Christ finally reveals the goal of joining divinity with humanity: to found a victorious, resilient, prophetic and collectivist Church, the inheritance of God, among the disciples and in the world. This Church is the assembly of the first among equals, the congregation of men and women separated or set apart from the nations of the world, among the Jews and Gentiles, according to the will of God. They are the elect of God whose names are written in heaven. The material from which this Church is built is imperishable. 

When I said that there is no salvation outside the Church, I intent to say this Church, this inheritance, for both the Jews and Gentiles, is the foundation for our salvation. My view of the statement, “Then (Jesus) sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah,” is that Jesus Christ wants each person to first experience God personally before they could join the diverse Church, the inheritance of God. The time of His death was already planned by God in creation for the salvation of humanity. No hostility with the Romans, the Scribes and Pharisees, and other enemies could shorten or prolong the plan of God. The diverse, prophetic and collectivist Church requires each of us to identify and join in. 

As a Jieeng person, I grew up being taught my identity, to count my genealogy and my ancestors to the last non-animate Soul before the relationship with the divine ends in sea or infinity: Atïïptïp Atubuwïïr: 1-Athian 2-Deng 3-Mayen 4-Athian 5-Mayen 6-Athian 7-Mayen 8-Athian 9-Aguer 10-Joh 11-Achuoth 12-Ngon 13-Ken 14-Nyang 15-Atiiptip 16-Atubuwiir. Mind you, every human genealogy ends in sea, whereby the Soul (Atïïptïp or Tiëp) is the last part that joins the human essence with infinity, that which is beyond human comprehension.

The ancestry tells about where we come from and where we return, at least from the Jieeng worldview. We come and return to the Creator, who is beyond human understanding. Prophet Isaiah comes close to counting Jieeng genealogy. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug” (Isaiah 51: 1). You see, there is a reference to the rock in gospel of Matthew. The source of life is the Lord, and we should listen to Him. 

We begin to see emergence of a unique narrative that explains the dependence of human beings on God for both existence and justice. While individual salvation is a free gift from God, we must actively participate in the salvation economy through relational and collective efforts to serve others and join in the inheritance prepared for us. The Church is universal of all things ordained by God in Christ “by means of the Stone which the builders rejected, and which has become for the Head of the corner, in which corner as it were two walls coming from different quarters were united” (Augustine, Exposition of Psalm 79. 3).  

The Church not only represents a larger vision for our prophetic and collectivist understanding of faith that is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also comprises of the saints, the martyrs, the discerning believers, and the sinners who have the greatest opportunity to repent and be reconciled to the loving God in the redeeming power of Jesus Christ and through the witness of the Holy Spirit. This acknowledgement that we are all sinners who have different stages in our faith journey confirms our apostolic faith that has been handed over to us through faithful discipleship. It also comforts those of true faith to continue in their quest for true love and eternal life and persuades those who might be not know the Lord to turn from their ways of life to God because through repentance the unbelievers have the chance to partake in the blessedness of the Elect. Augustine uses the image of the Church as the inheritance of God to explain the intent of salvation since creation and invites us into the collectivist and prophetic Church, where we will be permanent dwellers: “This Church then, this inheritance of God, out of circumcision and uncircumcision has been congregated, that is, out of the people of Israel, and out of the rest of the nations,” (Exposition of Psalm 79.3). In his Exposition of Psalm 5, Augustine equally defines the Church as the inheritance of God: “God (is) said to be our inheritance…He feeds and sustains us: and we are said to be God’s inheritance, because He orders and rules us. Wherefore it is the voice of the Church in this Psalm called to her inheritance, that she too may herself become the inheritance of the Lord” (Psalm 5.1).

Jesus Christ employs similar understanding of the faithful, represented by Peter who correctly identifies Christ, to be the inheritance of the kingdom of God. The Church is the inheritance of God because it is the gift of the heavenly Father, in right of adoption, as the children of God, through free divine grace and favour for us.  

Therefore, to understand what the Church is and what we become out of this collective identity, let us join in praise of God for the inheritance of the kingdom, acknowledging that the Church is the inheritance of God, through adoption and grace of God in Christ Jesus, who reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever, and whose love endures from generation to generation in the Church and in the world. Amen.