Who Do You Say That I Am

Matthew 16:13-20

One of the easiest things to do, as a Christian, is read scripture for other people.  You ever do that?  I have a habit of it.  I read something (often the more challenging stuff, the judgment bits) and immediately I assume that the scripture must be talking about someone else.  The Scriptures tell us not to boast, or warn us against religious posturing, and I know all about those people!  This is not good.  Of course, sometimes we read scripture and we do hear a word that might be helpful for someone else, and of course there are parts of the Bible that are not perfectly relevant to everyone in every moment or season (part of the reason we read Scripture together).  But if we're going to say that the Bible is, in some mysterious way, the Word of God to us, then that means that one of the basic qualities of that Word is its intimacy.

We can't take Scripture seriously for very long without realizing that the God who speaks to us in the voices of prophets and storytellers, poets and pastors, is the God who chooses to be known, chooses to be intimate and personal, and that intimacy makes a claim on us.  It compels a response.  When the Spirit carries these words into our time and space, the goal is not detached analysis of an ancient document; the goal is an answer from us, some lived response appropriate to the Word-Alive. 

And so, when we hear Jesus ask a question like, "Who do you say that I am" we can't pretend for very long that that question is meant for others--perhaps outside the church; or that he was only talking to Peter, or the other disciples, at the safe distance of a couple thousand years and several thousand miles.  If the Scriptures are the Word of God, then that word is carried on the breath of the Holy Spirit who is rather indifferent to our categories of time and space, and who is perfectly content to drop the question here among us, this morning; is perfectly willing to let our answer matter just as much now as ever. 

So, let's pray: Living God, we praise you for this time and place, for this chance to be together, to hear your unexpected word among us.  Help us to hear you well, that we might respond well; help us to know you more fully, that we might make you more fully known in our lives and in this world.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight.  We pray in the name of Jesus, our rock and redeemer.  Amen.

I know I just said that analysis of Scripture isn't the goal, but I do think that a bit of context can help us hear well.  And I think that the context of this particular passage is important.  Matthew goes out of his way to tell us that this conversation, between Jesus and his disciples, took place in the area of Caesarea Philippi.  That wasn't always the city's name; once it was called Paneas.  But fifty years earlier, Emperor Augustus had given the city to Herod the Great, who--to show his appreciation--in turn built a temple to Augustus and renamed the place Caesarea.  When Herod died, his son Philip expanded the city and stuck his own name in there, so it wouldn't get confused with the Caesarea up the road.

That bit of history might not be the most important thing to know, but does tell us the kind of space in which the question of who Jesus is comes up.  This is a city that is, in its very name and architecture, a monument to some rather different sorts of words than God's, which compel rather different sorts of answers.  When Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do people say that I am," we get a list of religious possibilities--John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the other great prophets.  But Matthew reminds us that the question of Jesus' identity is not just about any one particular set of specifically religious hopes, expectations, or commitments.  It's an all-encompassing question.  It has implications not just for a handful of first-century Jews, but for all the powers and principalities of the world.  It's worth remembering that, in the end, Jesus was executed not simply for heresy, but essentially for sedition--for claiming a rule that poses a direct challenge to the powers that be.    

I think that this is a good reminder, as we prepare to respond to the next, more important question (not just who do "people" say that Jesus is, but who do we say that he is), that our answer, whatever it is, is not simply a matter of personal piety or a choice between religious convictions that are disconnected from other areas of our life.  Sometimes we are too easily convinced that our Christian faith is only an accessory to whatever else we do.  A bit of spirituality to round things out.  But the Scriptures insist that who we say Jesus is will (must!) shape not just what we do in here, in the sanctuary, but also what we do out there, in the realm of the emperors and princes and keepers of the way things are. 

In Caesarea Philippi, we're reminded that Peter's religious-sounding outburst isn't just the beginning of a particular doctrine of the Church, though it is that in part.  Peter's declaration about who Jesus is, is the foundation of God's kingdom on earth as in heaven.  If the church is to be a "colony of heaven" here and now (to borrow Eugene Peterson's phrase), it will be built not just on the words Peter says, but on the everyday lived witness to their truth wherever we are.  The hope and promise and challenge of his words, as they shape the language and life of the church, are meant to reach from Palestine to the Imperial throne; from the Epiphany Chapel to the ends of the earth--dare we believe it?

And he asks, But who do you say that I am

I think there's something strangely hopeful in the fact that Peter's answer is so improbable that he couldn't have come up with it on his own.  Somehow, the idea that Jesus was John the Baptist was an easier explanation.  Even though a whole lot of folks had seen those two together, very clearly two different guys, that seemed more likely than the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  Peter's insight is not self-evident.  This is not the way anyone expected God to show up; not the way anyone figured the Word was going to move into the neighborhood.  Our reason and cleverness are beautiful and important things, but it turns out they're not the first and only things when it comes to dealing with the way things really are, with the God whose ways and thoughts aren't our ways and thoughts.    

There's a an odd combination of deep offense and deep wonder that what we know of God has precious little to do with what we've managed to figure out through our keen intellects and steady observations, but with the simple fact that God has chosen to be known by us.  As St. Paul puts it, Christian faith is a gift.  We can only receive it; we can't earn it for ourselves.  Faith isn't an accomplishment.

And he asks, But who do you say that I am? 

What a remarkable thing to come to know that we can't answer the question accurately except that we answer it intimately.  We can't know God in theory.  We can't confine this answer to a creed or dogma that we can memorize and recite by rote.  Those things are valuable, but at the end of the day we need more.  We need revelation.  We need a knowledge that defies objectivity.  We need an awareness of the way things are that will not be known by detached observation but can only be lived, experienced, prayed and received.  We need a hope that is more than we can muster on our own, a truth we wouldn't know except that we've experienced it. 

That's the foundation of the kingdom, the rock on which the Church is and will be built.  Whatever authority Peter is given, whatever authority we might have as disciples of Jesus is not the result of anything we've done; it's pure grace.  Jesus' words remind us that what the Church is tasked with, what we claim and the gospel's claim on us, isn't something we could have or would have come up with, left to our own devices.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it, this is not the God, this is not the gospel, the good news we would have chosen.  And thanks be to God for it.  Because we need the kingdom of heaven to be more than would can ask or imagine. It needs to be more than our sincerest intentions and best efforts.  We need a truth, a love, a power that raises the dead!   

And if we allow Peter's words to take shape, by the work of the Spirit, in our mouths and hearts, in our lives, that's the hope that we have.  It's what we're drawn into: the wild and unexpected work of God, heaven's kingdom taking shape in us, resounding in our voices, rising in our prayers, all grace.  Jesus is unequivocal he's going to build his church (I will build my church) on that grace and that grace alone.  When we claim Jesus as Messiah, Christ, Son of the Living God we're not giving a polite nod to an ancient belief, we are making a claim about the way things are: we are insisting that in the end the grace of God--love, justice, and righteousness beyond our abilities--is living and active in this broken and beloved world.  And not just living and active, but foundational: this is what heaven's kingdom is built on, and nothing less.  This unexpected stone, rejected by the powerful, stumbled over by perfectionists, foolish to the wise, ridiculous to the religious, is what God's will on earth as it is in heaven looks like.

And so we come to the stunning reality of all this: Jesus wants us as a part of it.  In Peter's first pastoral letter (the first one we've got), written years after this moment, he uses this beautiful analogy that seems to recall this conversation.  He writes: Come to him [Jesus], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones let yourselves be builtinto a [sanctuary for God, through Jesus Christ].  Over and over again, the Scriptures insist that our lives really are sufficient material for the building of heaven's kingdom.  We really are made for this.  This time, this place, these bodies, hearts, and minds, are the very stuff in which the grace and wonder and love of the Living God finds form. 

To know Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, Son of the Living God, is not simply to assent to a doctrine of the Church; it's to allow ourselves to be brought in to a hope beyond ourselves, to be shaped and formed by the hope, peace, joy, and love of God in and for this broken and beloved world; it's to know that, in spite of the headlines, the grace of God will have its way in the world and not even death can stop it; not even the gates of hell will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!

And he asks, Who do you say that I am? 

I want to finish by pointing out what I think is a beautiful bit of honesty: Peter gets it right; and then almost immediately gets it wrong.  Five verses after Jesus declares that the Church will be built on Peter's witness, Peter tries to convince Jesus that the way of self-giving, crucified love might not be the best way to get this Church thing built, and the Lord turns to his fisherman friend and calls him satan.  From there, we're only a few chapters away from Peter's denial that he ever knew Jesus, and the striking image of him weeping in the dark.  This is unlikely kingdom material.  Clearly, as St. Paul puts it, we have this treasure in fragile clay pots--evidence that what we're about is not all about us.

Instead, if we're gutsy enough to join in Peter's proclamation and witness, it's not long before we realize once more that the truth we witness to is not our accomplishment.  "Arrogant Christians" should be an oxymoron.  If our faith makes us prideful, our faith may not be in Jesus Christ.  Peter the Rock reminds us that we should be keenly aware, not of how great or holy we are, but of the daunting nature of our task, to bear witness to the will and way of God in the world, that we should pay close attention to where that got Jesus.  Far from boasting, we should marvel that the God of all things, the Living God, has chosen, in His Son, to be revealed in and through us.  If we hear that promise correctly, we don't become arrogant; we become worshipful, obedient, recklessly loving, unaccountably gracious; we become living stones shaped by the wind of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.  Our authority to bind and loose will not be manipulative, will not be wielded as a weapon, but will be bound by the Law of Love.  It will be good news to the poor and set captives free!

And in the will and way of the One we follow, whose name we claim, we will be witnesses to a love we could not have mustered on our own, and wouldn't know, except that we'd received it ourselves.

Thanks be to God.