The Greatest Speech Ever Given – Rev. Henry Brinton (with audio)
The Greatest Speech Ever Given
August 17, 2014
“Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
That’s what Kurt Russell says in the movie Miracle, which tells the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. The team scored an unexpected victory over the seemingly invincible Russians. Great moments are born from great opportunity.
We saw some great moments in this morning’s video. They were born from great opportunity — the opportunity to answer the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?”
Jesus creates an opportunity for his disciples in today’s Scripture lesson. Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples say, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:13-14).
That’s the word on the street. Jesus — the Son of Man — is believed to be John, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
“But who do you say that I am,” says Jesus, making the question personal (v. 15). Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16).
He creates a great moment. Born from a great opportunity.
But I think that what Peter says here is more than a great moment. He makes a declaration about Jesus that changes the course of his life and the history of the entire Christian community. It begins with a few heartfelt words, spoken at precisely the right moment.
Peter gives a great speech. Maybe the greatest ever.
So what makes Peter’s statement so powerful? The Atlantic magazine (December 2013) has a list of the greatest speeches — historical or fictional — ever given. They include:
Dwight David Eisenhower’s farewell address in 1961. “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence,” he said, “by the military-industrial complex.” He was the right person to issue this warning, since he was not only the President of the United States. He had also served as a five-star general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War.
Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” These words are spoken at the right moment, when the Scottish army is losing heart in the face of the English forces. This may be a good movie to watch before Scotland votes on independence from the UK next month.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963, saying, “I have a dream.” This was the right vision for a nation in which people should be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He offers the right understanding of America as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Kevin Costner, in the movie Bull Durham: “I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.” That’s the right — what?
Hmmm …. Emotion? Philosophy? Desire?
I better leave that one alone. It’s enough to say that it’s a memorable movie speech, from a really good baseball movie.
So the greatest of speeches are given by the right person, at the right moment, with the right vision and the right understanding. All of this is true for Peter when he makes his declaration about Jesus. And it can be true for us as well.
For starters, Peter is the right person. He’s not an extraordinary person — he has the same strengths and weaknesses as the other disciples. He will protest when Jesus speaks of his suffering and death (v. 22), and he will stumble when he denies Jesus on the night before the crucifixion (26:69-75). But because Peter is so very human, so much like any one of us, he is the right person to make a declaration about Jesus.
Sarah Campbell captured Peter well in her anthem this morning. “Beautiful the mess we are. The honest cries of breaking hearts.” Peter’s honesty, and our honesty, is better than a Hallelujah.
Peter also speaks at the right moment. At this point in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is nearing the completion of his ministry in Galilee. Soon, he will head toward Jerusalem and face the suffering and death that awaits him there. But first, he needs to make sure that his disciples are clear about who he is, and what the community of his followers will look like. This time is the right moment for Peter to speak.
When he makes his statement, Peter has the right vision. He senses Jesus is no mere prophet, a man like John, Elijah, Jeremiah and others before him. No, Peter sees that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who has been anointed by God to rule (16:16). Literally, that’s what Messiah means in Hebrew, “anointed,” a title usually attached to a king. Peter considers Jesus to be his king, the one who brings the kingdom of God into the middle of human life.
As our affirmation of faith this morning, you’ll be able to answer this question yourself. “Who do you say Jesus is?” You’ll write your answer on an index card, and then place it in the basket on the Communion table. Is Jesus your Messiah, your king, your friend … or something else?
When answering the question posed by Jesus, Peter has the right understanding. He grasps that Jesus is “the Son of the living God” (v. 16), the one who shows God’s divine power and love more clearly than anyone else. In the very next chapter, Peter will hear God’s voice boom out of a cloud, confirming this understanding, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (17:5).
Jesus is impressed by Peter’s speech. So impressed, in fact, that he says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (16:17). Jesus sees that Peter’s declaration is a gift of God, and he is thankful for it.
“You are Peter,” he says, “and on this rock I will build my church” (v. 18). Jesus gives a name which means “rock,” saying that Peter will be the rock on which the Christian church will be built. If you hear some rocks being dropped into jars this morning, you are hearing the children create an illustration of Peter and the Christian Church.
“The gates of Hades will not prevail against it,” predicts Jesus (v. 18) — the church will be so strong that death itself will not be able to overcome it. Jesus concludes by giving Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” with authority to bind and to loose, which means that Peter now has authority to be the chief teacher in the church (v. 19).
These keys have nothing to do with the Pearly Gates, despite the many jokes that are made about them. In these jokes, Peter is said to use his keys to open the doors to heaven. In one joke, a big city taxi driver and a preacher show up at the Pearly Gates.
Peter welcomes the taxi driver and gives him a beautiful silk robe. He also welcomes the preacher, but issues him a plain cotton robe.
“What gives?” asks the preacher. “I’m a preacher and he’s just a taxi driver.”
“Up here we go by results,” says Peter. “While you preached, people slept. While he drove, people prayed.”
Let’s give Peter credit here — another great speech!
But here’s something you might not know — the keys of the kingdom are all about teaching. They are not about opening the Pearly Gates. Peter is given authority to teach in the name of Jesus and to share his grace and truth with the world, just as the church continues to do today.
So what can we do to follow the example of Peter in being the right people in the right moments, sharing the right vision and the right understandings?
The coach in the movie Miracle says, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” Each of us has a great opportunity to play the role of Peter in the world today, since we share his strengths and weaknesses and have similar opportunities to declare that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
We are the right people to say that Jesus is our Messiah. We are the health care providers who know that Jesus is the Great Physician, the soldiers and sailors who honor Jesus as Prince of Peace, the students and teachers who grasp that Jesus is the Truth, the politicians who see him as King of Kings, and the astrophysicists who look up to him as the Bright Morning Star.
We speak at the right moments, when a child is struggling and needs a word of encouragement, when a conflict erupts and can be defused by a message of reconciliation, when a colleague is wandering and needs a word of guidance, and when a friend is dying and needs to hear that Jesus has conquered death. “Beautiful the mess we are,” said our anthem this morning. “The honest cries of breaking hearts.” Our honesty in tough moments is better than a Hallelujah.
The right vision focuses on Jesus as king — the one who rules our faith and life. We look up to Jesus as the one who rules over us with perfect guidance, grace and love. He is the Master we serve with our time, abilities, and money; he is the Lord who gives us direction as we make decisions about relationships, careers, and family life. To say that Jesus is Messiah is to say that he is large and in charge.
Finally, a right understanding grasps that Jesus is the Son of the Living God. For me, to understand Jesus means that I “stand under” him. I look up to him as the one who is the human face of God. For me, he reveals God’s grace and truth and love better than anyone is history. I understand the Living God because I understand Jesus — every day, I try to stand under him and follow his lead. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s always the right thing.
Peter was given an opportunity to give a speech about Jesus, and it turned into the greatest ever.
He didn’t miss his moment. Neither should we. Amen.
“The Big Question.” The Atlantic, December 2013, 14.
Boring, M. Eugene. “The Gospel of Matthew.” The New Interpreter’s Bible.Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995. 343-360.