The Holy Gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Now let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and Redeemer
I spent some of my younger years longing to be sure that I was doing what God put me on earth to do, as if I had only one destiny, and I might be missing it.
My parents, in their wisdom, kept reminding me that God can use me no matter where I am. I have often thought of God as the original collage artist, taking bits and pieces that don’t seem to go together, and creating them into a cohesive whole.
Think about it. If Peter is the Rock, who are you?
- Some of us are willow trees that bend with storms but don’t break.
- Or maybe we’re sand, having been worn down by those storms, but still valuable.
- Maybe we’re soil made rich by the compost of circumstances.
- Some of us may be grass, that steady ground cover that makes the larger plants possible by holding the soil in place.
What I’m getting at is the Gospel wants us to wrestle with these questions. Who are you? And who is God in relation to you?
What part does Jesus play in your life?
- A guy you see once a week in church? A fellow traveler? Comforter? Savior? Someone you don’t know very well because you just don’t have the time? Creator of a joy-filled life? Reason for living?
It’s an age-old human question: Who am I? And although it seeps in deeply to our culture now, we don’t have a monopoly on the question. For proof of the importance of identity, you don’t have to look any further than the genealogy that launches the Gospel of Matthew, where the writer lays out a historical resume to prove Jesus’ identity. The questions of identity and belonging are essential have been around a long time.
When Jesus asks his disciples the divinely existential question of who the people and then the disciples think he is, his essential question is also all about identity—Jesus’ identity, Peter’s identity, and ultimately our identity as Christians.
In the gospel of Matthew, people are always looking for Jesus. He tries to go out on the lake or up into the mountains to pray, but he can’t get away—people come looking for him. Question is—what are they looking for?
That’s really what Jesus is asking when he says to the disciples:“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And the thing is—though they are looking for “The Lord God Almighty,” they don’t know him when they see him. Amidst all the speculation about famous preachers and prophets—only Simon can see who Jesus really is.“You are the Messiah, The Son of the Living God.” Yes, only Simon can see who Jesus really is—and only Jesus can see who Simon really is—and only Jesus can see who we really are.
First Jesus tells Simon—“Don’t get the big head—You didn’t figure this out on your own. God showed this to you.” Then Jesus reveals that, just as Simon has seen the true Jesus, Jesus has seen the true Simon. He says to Simon, “And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”(Matthew 16:18)
Though we know him as Peter, his real name was Simon, Simon son of Jonah—Jesus called him Peter—Rocky. So what Jesus really said was, “You are Rocky and upon this rock, I will build my church.” Jesus has changed Simon’s name as a symbol of an important change that is beginning to take place in Simon.
Name changes are important in the bible.
- Abram become Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, and later, Saul becomes Paul.
All these name changes mark personal transformations, show that the old has passed away, and the new is being born. Jesus calls Simon by a new name, Peter, to signal to Simon that a change is taking place. But it is not a change that takes place quickly, or suddenly, or all at once. It is a gradual transformation.
When Jesus called Simon son of Jonah a new name, it was the beginning of the church. This was a signal that God was doing a new thing.
God was taking people who were willing to risk everything on faith and using those people to create, to build a new community, a community of love, a kingdom of heaven. God has called us “church,” and God is using us to build the church in this place and this time. Funny thing is, when God builds a church, God does not use materials and methods which would pass inspection in the real world.
I find it comforting to realize that Jesus recognizes the incompleteness of Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ identity. He knows Peter must experience repeated disappointment before he truly understands what kind of Messiah Jesus is. Peter’s world will still be turned upside down, but Jesus nevertheless celebrates Peter’s first HUGE step toward understanding, a step none of the other apostles are willing, or able, to take.
Peter has a front-row seat to Jesus’ work and words, but he still isn’t privy to a complete unveiling of God’s nature. In some way, this feels like good news for me. Because despite the troves of information I have access to today, I still don’t truly comprehend who God is. Peter’s interaction with Jesus tells me that though I surely will fall short of any declaration about God that will do God justice, God patiently continues to uplift me. This should resonate with me—and, more importantly all of us in the church—with a deep sense of humility.
I read Jesus’ excitement about Peter’s very partial understanding of Jesus’ nature as a confirmation of that journey. In my life as a believer, those identity questions continue to crop up: Who do you say I am? And when I tap out an answer—however incomplete, however tainted by my location or my narrow theological understanding or my human limitations—I can imagine God’s delight from the response to Peter.
God knows that we’re a work in progress. That’s why repentance is one of Christianity’s traditional practices. We need to admit our missteps and shortsightedness to ourselves over and over. Not to get God off our backs, but to accept the helping hand we’re always being mercifully offered. Besides, once we finally realize that God has accepted us all along, loving our imperfect self gets a lot easier.
In short, I suppose that we say who Jesus is by living a Jesus-shaped life. By passing on to our neighbor the love that God keeps giving us no matter what.
Who do you say that Jesus is? What stories of Jesus have you inherited? Do you need to unlearn some ideas that were passed down? What religious assumptions are you clinging to simply because they’re familiar, safe, or easy? We tend to try fitting Jesus into our own little boxes. Are we living in the gap between knowing and living into our answer to Jesus’ question?
Discipleship is a lifelong process, and growth will change our answer to many questions. In his letter to the Romans, Paul appeals to those present—and to us—saying, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Context and location are also important factors that might influence our responses, yet each of us must answer Jesus’ question for ourselves.
We can stand up each day and declare, like Peter, that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the living God,” but what difference will that make if we remain spectators? Once we allow Jesus more deeply into our hearts and claim him as our Messiah, we no longer have the luxury of being spectators. We become co-creators of sorts, we need to act; and action means living into our answer.
Living into our answer compels us to care and advocate for those experiencing injustice, racism, hunger, poverty, and any other adversity. We are living into our answer when we love one another as Christ loves us—when we offer compassion, forgiveness, hospitality, and healing to a hurting world—when we work to bring about peace and to keep hope alive.
Who do you say that the Son of Man is? If you’re not quite there with an answer, ask God to help you with that and to transform you, as you continue to discern what is the will of God in your life.