This is the sermon I preached today at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The gospel was Matthew 16:13-20.
Caesarea Philippi is beautiful. It is lush and green with a spring that is a source for the Jordan River. Situated at the foot of Mt. Hermon, which is the only place in the land where you will find snow, in which my then young children played.
It is not by accident that Jesus and his disciples find themselves there. Pastors Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy describe the scene:
Caesarea Philippi, [is] home to all sorts of crazy, pagan, awful stuff…our world, …our country, …our community, [can make us] feel overwhelmed and disgusted. Even at those times, our job as a church is to confess Christ… whether it is popular or not…our confession…is that he is the Christ, the anointed savior, son of the living God. (Pulpitfiction.com)
Martin Luther's view of the situation is this:
Jesus takes occasion to reveal himself to the apostles. He shows what Christ really is, how we shall regard him, and what we shall believe concerning him. For everything depends upon having a correct knowledge of Christ. (Luther, Luther’s Explanatory Notes on the Gospels)
Jesus poses a question. “Who are people saying that I am?” The Greek language used to compose the New Testament hints at a continuous, ongoing process, rather than a singular event. These words remind me of the song from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a happenin.” Jesus already knew what people were saying. He didn’t need the disciples’ answer, but he wanted them to think intentionally in this place surrounded by gods and dead politicians about the word on the street.
The answers are typical of that day. John the Baptist makes us think of Herod and how he thought Jesus might be John come back to life. This speaks to resurrection. Elijah is part of the mix because he did not die, but was taken up into heaven in a chariot. No one is sure about the mentioning of Jeremiah, except that perhaps because of his prophecy to give the people a new covenant, which did come through the Lord Jesus. As the weeping prophet, did it maybe pertain to Jesus’ coming sorrows; his torturous death?
Jesus has another question. “But who are you saying that I am?” If the disciples knew what people, in general, were saying, weren't they likely part of the conversation? So…what was your input, disciples? The “you” is plural like “y’all” or, as the Pittsburghers say, “y’ins.” Jesus was asking the disciples as a whole, so why does Peter answer?
It's not like he's the anxious kid in the classroom who knows the answer and raises his hand higher and higher, so the teacher will pick him. Peter is the representative of the disciples, and not only in this case. It was the case earlier in this gospel and continues. He speaks for them all.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” A few weeks ago, when we heard about Peter and Jesus walking on water, the disciples’ response was, “Truly you are the Son of God.” The confession of Jesus being the Messiah, though, was a new piece of information. This is the first time in Matthew that happens.
Jesus blesses Peter. Peter got it right! This results in Jesus blessing Peter for being open to divine revelation. It was not Peter's brains or intuitiveness that brought him to that conclusion. It was a God-job, and Peter was blessed because of his openness.
Not only that, but it is this confession of Christ’s identity upon which the church was built and Jesus promises that the gates of Hades, the gates of death, will not prevail against it. Christ builds the church. Peter was given the keys, and so are we to be the caretakers of the church. This includes the binding and loosing, which has been interpreted in many ways throughout history. It may refer to the behavior of the people of God. For sure, God has called us to set the captives free, for this is one of the things the Messiah would be doing, and we do in his name. As Luke records from Jesus’ first public message in his hometown, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).
Although Peter knew the right answer concerning Jesus’ identity, it does not mean that he always got things right. Here Jesus blesses Peter, while later in this chapter, Jesus calls Peter Satan.
The turning point of the story is rather that Jesus would build his church on the cracked foundation of a flawed disciple. What a powerful witness to the church that could open up a powerful moment in a congregation’s life!… The story doesn’t simply end triumphantly, however, but with a charge for the church to live according to this new kingdom. The church is not to simply stand in victory but is given the power “to bind and loose,” perhaps unleashing the power of forgiveness and grace in the world or heralding the prophetic role of the church in fighting oppression. (Drew Dyson, Abingdon Preaching Annual 2020, p. 100-101)
We have another question to answer, “Who is Jesus to us?” It’s all nice in the abstract. Jesus in the church, in a picture on the wall, in scripture, in the catechism, but the question Jesus is asking now is, “Who am I to you?” Jesus wants to personalize this for us. He wants us to internalize the question and to be open to divine revelation, as Peter was. Jesus wants a relationship with us, which began in baptism.
Does Jesus make a difference in our lives? What does this mean for us? Following Jesus may take us to places we’d rather not go: to hospitals to nurture the sick and dying. I have to admit that lately, that’s been a very hard piece of my calling, especially when the person has drifted into dementia. We may be called to march in protest of unjust policies toward minorities, to feed the hungry, to release those unjustly imprisoned. Or Jesus may lead us next door to safely visit with neighbors and share God’s love; the message of Jesus.
No matter where Jesus may lead, if we follow him it will be a wild ride. With all its highs and lows, following Jesus is a wonderful adventure. We’ll never be the same. Amen.