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.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
So some questions we’ve been asking ourselves for months: How do we keep faith in the time of COVID? And struggle for racial equity? And weather economic crisis? And stay hopeful (or even just sane) amid such a toxic political culture in an election year?
Just now it feels like so much threatens to tear us apart. Anoyone in positions of leadership, and many not, sometime feel the pressures of the day more keenly. I know many of us wrestle with these questions—and bear the mental strain of trying to answer them—regularly. These questions have pushed me to read and see our Gospel reading a little differently this year.
Instead of focusing on the naming and claiming of Peter as the rock and connecting that to our naming and claiming in Baptism I felt pulled to go a different direction this weekend. Today, I want to instead take some time to bask in Peter’s insight. I want to acknowledge the truth of Peter’s epiphany and celebrate his confession. I want, at least for a single Sunday sermon, to recognize his accomplishment.
Except…it’s not his accomplishment. Not really. “Heaven and earth have not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, but rather “by my Father in heaven.” Revelation, it turns out, comes from God. And only from God. Always.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus puts the question directly to his disciples. After asking what the crowds say about him—the onlookers and “hangers-on”—Jesus directs the light on those closest to him. “Who do you say that I am?”
- It is a probing question that forces us to ask where we stand with Jesus and how far we are willing to travel with him.
- It is a question that gets to the heart of the matter. Who do we believe this Jesus to be?
How we answer these questions makes all the difference in the world. It does not change the reality of who Jesus is; but it does shape and define who we will be. Because our confession regarding Jesus shapes the way we live as church—as a community of disciples.
- If we believe Jesus to be a wise teacher, then we may believe that discipleship or Christianity is merely a matter of adding this to a list of principles or propositions.
- If we believe Jesus to be a great moral example, then we will understand Christianity to be primarily about our adherence to a set of ethics or ideals.
But what if we really live and believe that Jesus, our companion and friend, is the Messiah, the Son of the living God?
The words we find in verses 17-19 are unique to the Gospel of Matthew. Only Matthew links Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, with the church. In fact, this is one of only two occurrences of the word church in the Gospels. So for Matthew, the church, the community of Jesus’ followers, is somehow related to the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus puts the question to his disciples—the church, the ecclesia, the gathered community—asking them where they stand, who they are, and how they will live.
In reporting their response in this way, Matthew is suggesting that the church is a body of believers that is grounded upon and lives out Peter’s confession. Church is the community of the Messiah, the fellowship of the Son of the living God. It is not a social club, a religious institution, a moral society, or a building. Church is a people whose life together is defined by the reign of God manifest in Jesus the Messiah and Son.
But affirming this about Jesus does not mean that we fully understand the implications of such a confession. Saying the right things does not always equate to living them out. We can say the right words about Jesus and still not know their full implication for our lives. The disciples certainly did not appreciate fully what such a confession might mean. Peter himself would discover that saying the words, uttering the confession, as important a first step as that might be, is not the same thing as living the words or embodying them in the life of the kingdom.
Following Jesus is a holy adventure, and it often left the disciples dazed and confused as the hard road of discipleship opened before them. It is a way of life that demands active faith, not just belief. As Peter would discover, discipleship means that one day we might be led to places we’d rather not go.
Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is our daily, prayerful struggle with God in which we learn the full implications of being the church, of being a people whose life together is shaped by the confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). This can be a difficult journey. Being friends with Jesus is not easy; the way this confession leads is costly and demanding. But it is also a great gift; the way of Jesus leads to full and abundant life.
In asking “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus invites the disciples, and us the Church, into relationship, to walk with him on the often hard and demanding road of discipleship. Through this question, Jesus invites us to let go of our attachment to all the other “lords” that demand our allegiance—ideas, ambitions, and relationships—and to become friends with him.
In making this confession we are saying that we want our lives, our witness, and our ministry to be defined by Christ’s life, witness, and ministry. We are often guilty of projecting our own ideas about the nature of discipleship onto Jesus, shaping our confession rather than letting it shape and give content to our life as church. That is because Jesus says things we don’t want to hear about the nature of his messiahship and the character of those who would be his friends: things like “Go sell your possessions”; “Hate your mother and father”; “Take up your cross”; “Deny yourself.”
And here’s the thing: just as I said earlier that revelation comes from God, the same is true of faith. All of which offers a different slant on our questions above. It’s not that they aren’t real or genuine or appropriate questions. They absolutely are. It’s that we don’t have to take final responsibility for answering them, or at least not for procuring the faith, hope, and courage that we may feel are in short supply. Because the faith we seek, the confidence we long for, the courage we hope to find and to share—these are gifts from God. And…God loves to bestow such gifts.
Which means that after acknowledging the challenges and weariness and stress that we all may be feeling…after lamenting how long it has been since we’ve gathered together in person…and after wondering how we will get through all this and keep faith—all, again, genuine and appropriate feelings worthy of expressing—after all this, let us remember that God, creator of the heavens and the earth, the One who brings death from life and creates from nothing…this God is still at work. God is still at work sustaining us in faith, creating in us hope, stirring us to acts of courageous generosity.
“Heaven and earth have not revealed this to you,” Jesus says to us as well as Peter, but rather “by my Father in heaven.” God is still at work. More than that, God shows up in a variety of ways to create faith, hope, and love during challenging, even—and maybe especially—in unprecedented times like today.
- In the notes and phone calls that have taken the place of hospital visits.
- In the communal kindness and responsibility to wear masks in public.
- In the donation drives that so many of us are holding.
- In the imperfect, often fledgling, but vital work for greater racial equity and justice in which we are engaged.
- In the willingness to forego those things, like in-person worship, that typically sustain us out a sense of love for our neighbor.
As we come to understand who this Jesus is, we may believe that embodying Peter’s confession is frankly impossible. And it is, unless we also acknowledge that we are never alone. Christ walks the way before us and alongside us. Just as he did with Peter, Christ continues to come to us, to dwell with the church, pulling, prodding, guiding, nudging, calling, and being with us.
“Who do you say that I am?” This is the heart of the matter for us as the church. How we answer this question, with our lips and with our lives, defines the shape of our life together. We make this confession, not by heroic acts of will, but by grace, by a transforming relationship with the God who has come to us in the flesh and who joins us on the road even now. This confession is not our possession; it is not the result of our cleverness or the fruit of our brilliant deduction. It is a blessing to be able to say, and even more to live, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has described Christ as “another name for everything.” So expansive and all-inclusive is the Christ that nothing is beyond the divine breath, touch, and presence. What if Jesus showed up in our own nation’s capital, in the shadow of halls of power, of nations’ embassies, of businesses and transport and asked all of us to respond: “But who do you say that I am?” Context and location are important to answering this question, which is why I can’t answer it for you, yet each of us must answer Jesus’ question for ourselves. For me, the answer is more in line with the views of Fr. Rohr, the Apostle Paul, and the largely unsung women who clearly recognized the cosmic scope of the Christ…You are the Messiah! What about you? What is your answer to “Who do you say that I am?”