Pentecost 12 A: Pausing to Give Thanks

Matthew 16:13-20

Dear Partner in Preaching,

This week’s reading probably ranks among my least favorite lectionary editorial choices – not because it’s not a great story and, for that matter, an important story, but because of how the lectionary divides it into two parts, disrupting, if not subverting, what feels like the narrative integrity of the story. In short, it’s just really, really hard for me to read this week’s praise and affirmation of Peter apart from next week’s reversal and rebuke as he gains far more insight into the depth and cost of his confession.

Then again – don’t you love it when the text and/or circumstances make you rethink your assumptions J  – then again, perhaps this editorial decision is not only faithful to Matthew’s construction of the scene but also to our life in this world.

As for Matthew, it’s clearly important for him to give Peter this moment in the sun. He’s inherited a far sparer account of Peter’s confession from Mark (8:27-30) that leads, in turn, more quickly into the lengthier description of Peter’s confusion (31-38). Matthew offers both more description and more praise – “blessed are you!” “on this rock I will build” “Hades will not prevail” – perhaps because he is grounding future pastoral or priestly or teaching authority or communal identity in and on Peter, the rock on which Jesus will build his church. And so pausing after these verses seems to give Peter his due in a way that accords with Matthew’s construction of the scene.

But it occurs to me that this pause to recognize Peter’s confession might be important for us to consider as well. Peter will go on to completely misunderstand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, he will later resist Jesus’ intention to turn himself over the authorities, and he will eventually deny and desert his Lord. But for now… for now, in just this moment, he confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And that’s something for which to give thanks.

There is so much going on in the world right now, Dear Partner, that needs our effort and work and passion and commitment. We are being called – in our individual lives and communal lives – to confess Christ – the suffering Christ who sided always with the vulnerable – in both word and deed. At one and the same time we that know there is so much more to do than we seem able to do and that even our best efforts and most heartfelt attempts will fall short, not living as deeply or truly into our confession as we should, and at times getting confused or scared about what that confession means.

And yet there are moments when we confess, when we do something right, when we perceive more of God’s purpose than previously, when things come together if only briefly, and when we sense God’s spirit at work in us and among us. And at those moments, it makes sense to pause and give thanks.

One of the key lines for me in reading this familiar passage this time around is Jesus’ additional declaration about Peter’s confession: “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (v. 17). God was at work in Peter. Yes, he would screw up mightily, but in this moment God was at work – and God would be at work later, too! – and that is always cause for celebration and thanksgiving.

So this week, Dear Partner, perhaps we might look around our communities and see what is going right. Notice and name where God is at work. Lift up, celebrate, and give thanks for those things where we sense the presence of the living God. The visitation program to the senior center nearby. The VBS week that drew more kids from the church and community than we’d imagined. The quilts our seniors made for Lutheran World Relief. The excitement of the youth group for the service project planned this fall. Big or small, obvious or easy to overlook, there are places in our lives where God’s presence is manifest and our confession is clear.

This is not for one moment to overlook all that still needs to be done, the important issues of the day, the vital nature of our confession in deeds as well as words, or the many, many who need us to stand up for them more boldly than previously. But it is to assert that the living God is at work in each of our communities and in each of our lives, and if we can’t sense and celebrate and give thanks for God being present in small things, how are we ever going to claim God’s power and providence in larger things?

Gratitude is a powerful thing. Or, perhaps more accurately, gratitude is an empowering thing. And this reading gives us a chance to give thanks that we might be open to what God will do with us and for us and through us next.

So help your people to see God at work in their lives and in your community this week, Dear Partner. Help them see and sense and hear their own confessions. Not perfect. Not fully understanding or living into what they confess. Not absent confusion or fear when it comes to living out that confession. Yet confessing nonetheless, speaking and acting in ways that are only possible because they are empowered not by flesh and blood but by God.

And the same is true with you, Dear Partner. God is at work in you and through you, touching lives beyond your reckoning. For your words make a difference, helping people speak and give thanks for confessions they didn’t know they could make. Continued blessings on your proclamation and life. And my gratitude for your good work.

Yours in Christ,

PS: A somewhat different take from three years ago, in case you’re looking to go in another direction.