Yr A ~ Pentecost 12 ~ Matthew 16:13-20
So which is it? At the start Jesus says, “Say!” Say who I am.
Then after Peter gets the courage to say, Jesus says, “Don’t say!” Don’t tell anyone!
And then in the next chapter he tells them not to say anything until he’s gone – then say!
Now my job is to help us make sense of this in the next 18 minutes. In the end hopefully you’ll say, “How surprising! Is that really true?” In other words, you’ll say, “You don’t say!” And I’ll say, “Yes, I do say! And so should you!”
Got it? Say, don’t say, say! That’s the sermon! Here we go!
Matthew 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
Here’s a little detail we might miss. Caesarea Philippi is a Gentile city – not a Jewish one. But ‘son of man’ are like code words referencing the book of Daniel from the Hebrew Scriptures that served as a cue that the subject at hand was about the end of times and the Messiah or the Christ. That’s curious because it’s not part of Gentile folks’ spirituality – and yet clearly it was a phrase people knew.
So this is Jesus asking his followers about a theological trend. This is not Jesus talking about himself in the third person. He’s just alluding to some theological water-cooler talk, and he’s asking the disciples who they think, or who they’ve heard, belongs in that tradition.
16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
That all makes good sense. John the Baptizer was pretty apocalyptic in his manner and speech. And Elijah and Jeremiah were both larger-than-life, doom and gloom kind of prophets. So, you could read that as the disciples saying that Jesus is the embodiment of those people – but I prefer a different interpretation.
16:15 (Jesus) said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Inflection is everything here.
Now, if I read that: But who do YOU say that I am? It sounds like he’s referring back to the Son of Man tradition.
However, there’s another way to read it.
He could’ve said it like this: But who do you say that I am?
With that emphasis he could be separating himself from the apocalyptic tradition. Who do “they” say the son of man is – and – who do you say that I am? – like maybe he’s trying to establish a new tradition.
Obviously, this is the interpretation I think is better. And it sets up the last verse of this passage in a more understandable way for me (we’ll get to that in a few minutes).
Jesus is offering the disciples a chance to think for themselves here – to discern for themselves who Jesus was apart from the limits of the tradition.
This is the first big “say”. Before we go too far down the road of calling ourselves a Christian person we’re going to have to start wrestling with who Jesus is. I’m not sure that wrestling ever stops, but until it starts we won’t have very much to say at all.
This discussion with the disciples is really interesting. Jesus knows that in spiritual circles all sorts of things get talked about. He takes it head on. He asks the disciples to say what they’ve heard about the latest spiritual trends.
I’m not convinced that he’s trying to fit himself into the “son of man” tradition, but it’s clearly the hot topic among the people and the disciples and they all chime in with opinions.
We’re all full of opinions about intellectual, abstract, spiritual matters. We love to talk about our pet theories and theologies.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it’s essential. We do well by talking about these kinds of things. Jesus wanted to hear what the disciples were thinking about the popular spirituality stuff that was swirling around the people.
And then he did a really Jesus-y thing – he made them go deeper.
He went beyond the surface level stuff of pet theories and asked them to open their hearts a little and say something real. Something deep. Something vulnerable.
He asked who they thought he was. That’s personal. Can you imagine looking at the person beside you and asking them who they think you really are? That’s intimate! Apart from the fads and theories, who did they really think this person teaching, leading, and inspiring them was?
I bet it got really quiet. The story reads like it happened instantly, but I bet there was a long uncomfortable pause between the moment they were rapid-firing their theological theories and the moment someone actually dared to say something deep. Simon Peter, always the one to leap into the fray, dared to go first. “Who do you say that I am?”
16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Instead of identifying Jesus as the traditional ‘son of man’ icon that Daniel 7 promised, Peter says that Jesus isn’t just the son of man but the “son of the living God!” He sees beyond Jesus as a political figure or even a prophet and names Jesus as being one with God, being born of God’s Spirit, being one who is uniquely anointed by God (which is what Messiah literally means).
It was a remarkable confession of faith by Peter!
The other disciples probably bugged out their eyes and said, “You don’t say!”
And Peter answered, “Yes, I do say!”
16:17 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.
It wasn’t tradition, or scripture even, or the teaching they’d all learned that revealed this to Peter – it was his own inspired discernment. It was a revelation from God (or of God). It was a supreme spiritual insight that transcended the usual abstract theological norms. Jesus continues:
16:18 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.
Here’s where some Greek will help us. Peter is a nickname. His real name was Simon. Peter, or Petros in Greek, literally means ‘rock’ – it’s the word for rock. So his nickname is kinda like “Rocky”!
Up until this point Jesus had called him Simon, but now he declares “You are Peter” – you are Rocky – you are the rock! – And on this rock I will build my congregation. (Yeah, I know it says church, but technically the word ecclesia means assembly or group – so it’s church as in people not church as in institution.)
Some interpreters suggest that what Jesus is referring to is not Simon’s character being rock solid necessarily, but that his faithful, spiritual insight is a strong foundation.
So it’s not just on Peter himself that the church will be built but rather it’s on a faith and spirituality such as he was claiming and demonstrating that it would be built on.
I find that fascinating!
The church will be built not on heroes but on faithfulness! On people who will say!
To people with that kind of rock-strong faithfulness and spiritual insight Jesus says:
16:19 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.”
That just says that to people of great faith will come great spiritual power.
And then we get the part that usually bakes people’s brains.
16:20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples NOT to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
In theological terms this is called the Messianic Secret and it gets a lot of attention. I’m going to offer what I think is a simpler way to understand it.
The challenge is in the language.
The word Messiah was a word that carried many different meanings for people. Some associated it with a violent revolution, some with the monarchy, some with divinity. Many Jews were breathlessly awaiting a Messiah to lead the way and solve their problems. They were waiting for the legendary Son of Man to come and kick butt.
But Jesus was a very different kind of figure. If Peter went around saying he knew the Messiah people might get the wrong idea. Or they might come to Jesus with expectations that would obscure his real purpose – that not only was he the son of God but so too are we children of God!
Does that make sense yet – about why NOT to say? Here’s another piece for that.
You can’t convince someone of something that needs to be experienced first-hand.
And you can’t describe the indescribable without diminishing what you’re trying to describe.
We know this from food, or music, or love – all things that defy description and require a truly personal experience before you can really “get it”.
So don’t just go around telling people how great God is and how wonderful Jesus is – don’t say – just let them see it changing your life and help guide them toward discovering it for themselves.
And that’s the third part. We are called to say! – to evangelize! But the way that has historically been done was precisely why Jesus said Don’t Say! The “saying” of evangelism is not about bashing people over the head with your opinion or convictions – it’s about an invitation to come along for the journey.
It’s like this:
If you’re warm and people around you are cold then telling them about how great warmth is, and describing to them the intricacies of heat won’t help anybody.
Instead, try giving them a hug!
Maybe they’ll feel your warmth and wonder how you got warm?
Then you can share how wonderful it feels to be warm, and you can show them the way to where you warmed up.
And then it’s up to them.
That’s evangelism. That’s the kind of saying that Jesus calls us to.
Ok, let’s go back and put it all together.
We begin by wrestling with who Jesus is and come to a point where we form an opinion, an insight. Or, more accurately we receive a revelation as the Spirit moves our hearts and minds to a place of deeper experience and understanding about Jesus.
In classic terms we’ve called that a confession of faith. A declaration of how you see things.
It’s kinda like getting married. A wedding is a chance to stand up and say out loud something very personal. And yes, the saying it out loud part matters!
In spiritual terms it’s not just about what you’ve heard, or what you’ve read, or what you’ve seen even – it’s about what you personally and experientially know and that you’re ready and willing to “say” it out loud. If the last time you actually did that was a few decades ago at your confirmation time then I strongly encourage you to give this some attention.
Besides, your understanding and experience is constantly changing so it stands to reason that your confession about Jesus is going to constantly change too.
You are under no obligation whatsoever to say what Peter said, or what I might say. But to be a follower of Jesus you do have to “say”.
And then don’t tell anyone! Don’t say!
Well, actually we should say “Don’t JUST say.”
Don’t fall into the trap of trying to convince someone that your particular amazing, life-changing experience ought to be there’s.
After all, you didn’t just rely on someone’s description – you had to wrestle for yourself and experience for yourself. You’re never going to argue or cajole anyone into God’s kingdom.
But you might share some warmth.
You might shine a light.
You might inspire.
You might lead the way.
You might create an opening.
You might drop some hints.
You might, through your character, and actions, and yes even your words, move someone to “come and see” for themselves.
Don’t say how, but do say why.
Don’t say what, but do say who.
So say, then don’t say, but do say.
“Ah!” you say, “You don’t say!”
Yes, I do say. And so should you!