Isaiah 51:1-6 Psalms 138 Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20 Proper 16
So there is gridlock in heaven. And finally Jesus himself decided he needs to sort the congestion out. He comes to the gate and decides to simplify the admission process. First up is a Baptist: “Who do you say that I am?” The Baptist starts his reply, “Well, the Bible says …..” Jesus interrupts him and says, “No, I want to know who you say that
I am – please stand aside.” The second up was a Catholic. Jesus asks the same question: “Who do you say that I am?” The Catholic starts his reply and says,” The Church teaches …” Once again Jesus interrupts him. “No, who do you say that I am?”
The next one in line is an Episcopalian. The same question is asked, “Who do you say that I am?” The Episcopalian answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus is surprised. He is impressed. And just as Jesus is about to invite him into heaven, the Episcopalian pauses and adds, “But on the other hand….”
There are plenty of members of a typical congregation that find the incarnation difficult to understand. So, as we explore the identity of Jesus, it is okay to bring doubts and questions to church. God is gentle. God can cope. However, the Incarnation is essential. To the question: how do we know what God is like? The answer for the Christian is simply this: we know because we see God in Christ, for Christ is the “Son of the Living God.”
The word church is only used three times in the Gospels, and all three are found in Matthew. The basis of the Church is this text is the confession of Peter – a recognition of who Jesus is – the Christ, the Son of the living God. The divine community is being born at this moment. In response to the confession of Peter, we have three affirmations – the source of this revelation is the divine life itself, the church will be built on this confession and the disciples who affirm that confession, and a divine community with divine life is being birthed which will have cosmic power. Peter has a hard time as a disciple, but this is Peter’s finest hour. He gets this moment exactly right.
Jesus continues to move away from Galilee, going into a more predominately Gentile area to the north-northwest of the Sea of Galilee called Caesarea Philippi. This region was governed by Philip the Tetrarch, one of three sons of Herod the Great. Philip was sixteen years old when he was given the region and he ruled for thirty-seven years. He married Salome, the daughter of Herodias, the girl who danced at the infamous scene when Herod Antipas beheaded John the Baptist.
At the time that Jesus and his disciples traveled here, Caesarea Philippi was an important Greco-Roman city, whose population was primarily pagan Syrian and Greek. To this point in his ministry, Jesus had been referring to himself as the “Son of Man” as a title to reveal his true identity and mission. Other titles that could have been his, like Messiah or Son of David, brought to mind more military and political images. These titles would have blurred his message and vision of salvation and liberation. So, his question comes near the end of his Galilean mission and he wants to know what the disciples know. He wants to know what the people have learned and understand him to be. He wants to know how the message is being received and understood.
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The disciples jumped in. They had heard several reports – that he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Each of these responses indicates a prophet in line with one of the popular messianic expectations held in Israel. This goes all the way back to Moses.
It is not enough simply to connect the Son of Man with the prophetic expectation generally. Through the instruction that Jesus has given his disciples about his identity and mission by using the title, they must now give account of whom they understand him to be. So Jesus asks them, “But what about you..Who do you say I am?”
Impulsive Peter steps forward once again as a leader and spokesperson for the group. He declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Before this, the expression “Christ” has only occurred in Matthew’s narrative; now, it is used for the first time by a person to address Jesus directly. “Christ” is a title from the Greek, Christos, which means “anointed.” We read it 39 times in the Old Testament to describe kings, priests, and prophets. In the Jewish mind, “anointed one” came to be linked to David as the anointed king of Israel. In spite of David’s shortcomings, God had promised him through the prophet Nathan that the house and throne of David would be established forever. That promise became a fixture of hope. By the first century, the term Messiah or Christ represented a kingly figure who, like David, would triumph in the last days over Israel’s enemies.
Peter’s confession is not the first recognition of Jesus as Messiah, but it is the fullest to this point. The proper sense of Jesus as the “Christ” can only be understood in conjunction with Peter’s additional statement that Jesus is the “Son of the living God.” He has a special relationship to God that sets him apart from any other kind of messianic figure. Jesus is the Messiah with a unique status as the Son of God. But Peter confesses more than he really understands about Jesus’ identity. He does not yet fully understand Jesus’ mission, because he will soon attempt to deter Jesus from his redemptive objective (remember, “Get behind me Satan!”). But, his understanding is increasing, as is that of the rest of the Twelve, as they pay attention to God’s revelation of who Jesus is and what he has come to accomplish.
Once Peter has spilled the beans, Jesus turns to him and makes a grand pronouncement about Peter. The first words contain the blessing Peter has received. Jesus is not really conferring a blessing on Peter, but acknowledging that Peter has been blessed personally by the revelation from God, the Father. Peter’s blessed condition results from the privilege of receiving revelation from Jesus’ Father. Jesus’ response is to Peter, although he is still within the circle of the disciples. Peter’s confession of who Jesus is, is an answer for the disciples as well and it provokes a charge to all of the disciples. The other disciples also have leadership roles to play after the resurrection. We read about their works in the book of Acts.
“You are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church.” We know that Peter will play a foundational role in the establishment of Jesus’ church. It is the truth of Peter’s confession or his faith expressed in his confession that is the rock on which the church will be built. It is not all about Peter, but about truth. Other passages refer to Jesus as the “rock” and the “foundation.” Jesus refers to himself as the rock on which the church will be built. In these words, Jesus points ahead to a time when his disciples, his family of faith, will be called “my church.” Jesus will build his church, but it will come about through the foundational activity of the apostles and prophets. Peter will be the leader among the apostles, but once he has fulfilled that role, he will pass off the scene.
Jesus’ pronouncement is not conferred as a unique and individual supremacy to Peter. Peter is given a special recognition for all he is and is to be, but he is never placed above or apart from the disciples. This is also born out in New Testament Church history. Peter is almost always together with the other disciples. So, it is more about knowing our strengths and weaknesses to see how we will work together as the body of Christ. It is not about one person having all the answers, we remember Peter’s denial of Jesus later on. It is not about one person’s gifts, but about all of
the family of God stepping up to offer our gifts for the glory of God in the community of faith. Jesus was empowering all of us – to be – to become the hands, and heart and feet of Christ.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. The meaning of this verse has been the subject of many debates over the centuries. Some say the keys represent the authority to carry out church discipline, legislation and administration, while others say the keys give the authority to announce forgiveness of sins. Still others say the keys may be the opportunity to bring to the kingdom of heaven by presenting the message of salvation found in God’s Word (Acts 15:7-9).
The religious leaders thought they held the keys of the kingdom, and they tried to shut some people out. We can’t decide to open or close the kingdom of heaven for others, but God uses us to help others find the way inside. To all who believe in Christ and obey his words, the kingdom doors swing wide open.
Jesus warned the disciples not to publicize Peter’s confession because they did not fully understand the kind of Messiah he had come to be – not a military commander, but a suffering servant. They needed to come to a full understanding of Jesus and their mission as disciples before they could proclaim it to others in a way that would not cause a rebellion. They would have a difficult time understanding what Jesus came to do until his earthly mission is complete.
Peter’s confession of who Jesus is has released Jesus’ identity as the Messiah/Christ, but it is still subject to misunderstanding by the crowds and even by his own disciples. Jesus realizes that the disciples need time to ponder and process all that he had done and said. They need time and sometimes, so do we. We need time to pray and ponder where and who Jesus is for us. Jesus is more than the felt board Jesus of our childhood. We need time to see, feel, encounter and respond to the love of Jesus in our lives. To see Jesus in those times of struggle, when we have lost our way and the light of Jesus’ love offers us hope, healing and forgiveness. It is then that we understand in our heads and our hearts who Jesus is for us. Then, we can decide how to share our story and who to share it with. Jesus wants us to know who he is, to name it and claim it and proclaim it. Waiting for us to voice – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Amen