A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A – Pentecost 13 – Matthew 16:13-20
Today’s scripture centers around what might be the most important faith question we’ll ever answer – the one Jesus asks his disciples – “Who do you say that I am?”
I believe this is our defining question. How you answer speaks volumes about your theology and your faith. So my goal this morning is to set the context of where this question came from in scripture, and to set you on a quest to wrestle with it yourself. Ideally, this is not new, and you’ve been chewing on this question for years, and you’re wise enough to know that we need to keep it on the front burner – because our ever-evolving answer – and what we do with that answer – defines our faith and our church.
Let me say it bluntly: if we can’t answer this question, well, and deeply, for ourselves, then we’re just a service club.
So let’s look at it – Matthew 16:13 – Jesus 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.”
Jesus is asking, “What’s the buzz about me? – Who do people think I am?” Notice the answers he gets – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah – all significant prophets – all held in high esteem – all associated closely with God. So the people apparently think really highly of Jesus. He’s respected and revered.
Matthew 16:15 And Jesus says, “Ok, that’s cool, but who do YOU say I am?”
The Greek emphasizes the you. It’s personal. It doesn’t matter what the crowd thinks, or what your denomination thinks, or what your minister thinks. What do you say? – Who’s Jesus for you? I think this is why there are so many denominations. Our answers vary greatly, they’re very personal, and they’re very important to us.
Is Jesus your Lord? Saviour? Friend? Master? Teacher? Shepherd? Guide? Hero? Example? Is Jesus God? Is Jesus human? Both? Is Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life? Is Jesus the ONLY way into heaven? Is Jesus alive? Was Jesus ever really alive? Was he a miracle worker? Was he a prophet? Was he just a good, spiritual guy with a nice message about loving one another?
Whatever you might say, it can’t be someone else’s answer; it has to be your own. If we’re put on the spot I think our typical ‘mainline church’ first reaction tends to be to turn to books or theologians. That’s all well and good, but if that’s all that informs your answer to “Who do you say I am?” it’s just conjecture. It’s a second hand faith. It’s faith by numbers – “many experts agree…” or “the UCCan believes…” or “my church says…” or like the disciples, “some say…”
But Jesus doesn’t ask that. He doesn’t seem to give a rip about what “they” say (whoever “they” are) – Jesus asks “Who do YOU say I am?” It has to be personal.
It can’t be just an academic, intellectual question. It isn’t “what have you learned about me?”, or “what are you supposed to say about me”, but “who am I for you!” And here’s the beauty part. Here’s the bit that drives atheists nuts and would probably put a whole pile of churches right out of business if they understood it. There’s no one answer!!! Your answer has to be your answer – your heart’s answer – not someone else’s opinion.
What was Simon’s answer?
Matthew 16:15-16 “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
It seems weird that Jesus made such a fuss over this. I mean, all the disciples had made similar confessions before – in the boat when the storm came up they all affirmed “You are the Son of God” – so what’s the difference here? Why’s Simon’s confession of faith considered so noteworthy?
Maybe it’s not the words but the heart that says them. Maybe Jesus looked deeply into Simon’s eyes and saw something that he hadn’t seen before, because perhaps Simon had experienced something new – something unique – a revelation…
“You are the Messiah” – we throw that word around a lot in church – Messiah. It means “the anointed one. It’s a recognition of the fullness of God embodied, incarnated within Jesus of Nazareth. That’s what Simon saw in Jesus (although, I suspect that he didn’t say THE Messiah but more like “you are MY Messiah”). It required a leap of faith – not logic, or insight, or wisdom, but revelation. When we start to get a hold of Jesus’ question “Who am I for you?” and we begin to see through the eyes of faith, and to articulate our faith, and really lay our hearts open before God, an amazing thing happens – we’re blessed.
Matthew 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.
Such things can only be revealed to us by God. And it’s unique, but not exclusive – meaning that it was received by Simon as a personal experience, but his wasn’t the one and only experience of it. This same gift, this same revelation, is available for all who would seek to follow the Way of Jesus, and are ready to risk opening themselves that much to God. It’s insider knowledge that God reveals to those who are willing to receive it – but like lifting a curtain, or flipping on a switch, the thing being revealed is already there waiting to be recognized.
Matthew 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.
There’s tons of good stuff in this one verse. Who does it say will build the church? Jesus! Not the disciples, not Peter, not us – Jesus! Literally, in Greek, Jesus says, “I will build of me the church.” This church is built of “the stuff of Jesus,” and Jesus is really built of “the stuff of God”. Our job then isn’t to build anything – it’s to be faithful, and open, and willing to let God work in us – to let Jesus build us. “You” are Simon Peter! – and upon YOU Jesus will build, not some amorphous thing called the church, but upon you Jesus will build himself.
The Church isn’t built on the literal person of Peter, nor on his magic phrase, as though if you say the right combination of words God will reveal everything to you. It’s built on his archetypal willingness to make the leap of faith – on the transformation of his heart. Peter is his new name – The name Peter is so common now we’ve lost the vivid imagery that Jesus used here. It was a pun. ‘Peter’ wasn’t a name then. The Greek word was ‘petra’ which is their word for ‘rock’. It was more like a nickname. Jesus called him ‘rock’, or maybe it was like Rocky?
Getting a new name in the bible is always significant – like in the Hebrew Scriptures when Abram becomes Abraham, or when Jacob becomes Israel – it’s a symbolic new beginning in God. Simon, son of Jonah, had become someone new. Jesus sees Peter’s new heart and new courage to confess his faith as the foundation of a new community of followers of Jesus. It’s more than a fancy title, like Reverend, it’s a new identity. You see, answering the question “Who is Jesus for you” changes you.
Verse 18 also gives us the word ecclesia – “I will build my ecclesia on you”. Ecclesia means “called out”. It’s an assembly of those who have been called out and set apart. Ecclesia gets translated in English as ‘church’. Church isn’t a place, it’s a movement! – a movement of God’s Spirit held commonly by a group of people who know who Jesus is for them.
Peter’s transformation is a model for us. The truth of his confession is revealed to him by God, and he becomes a new person symbolized by a new name (a new identity in faith – a rebirth), and that transformative movement of the Spirit is what Jesus will build in all who dare to allow God to be the centre of their lives.
With confession comes blessing. When we open up, when we let down our guard, then we’re able to receive God’s blessing. God reveals Godself to us – we become changed – we are made new by God’s transforming love. If God’s love in your life doesn’t have the power to fundamentally change you, why would you want it in the first place? And being transformed, we are commissioned into a life of service – a life of grace and gratitude – of us receiving God’s incredible blessings and then responding with the way we live our lives. Our eyes are opened. Our lives are forever changed by the revelation of God, and we are called out into the world to share the experience.
Matthew 16:20 Then (Jesus) sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
This bit always used to bug me. Why not tell? Why keep it a secret? I thought that we’re supposed to be all about sharing the Good News. Well, we are, but maybe what Matthew is trying to say is this. Maybe, in a way, telling people who Jesus is for you is pointless. People need to have a personal experience of God’s revelation in order to understand.
I can tell you about the love I have for my wife, and family, and paint a great picture of how precious and life giving it is for me, but that won’t help you to really know what love is. You can’t paint that by numbers – you’ve got to experience it for yourself. So getting into heated debates and arguments about who Jesus is, and trying to prove that your version of the revelation is correct, is an exercise in futility. It’s too personal; Jesus has to be experienced first hand. Now that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about it, of course you should! How can you not talk about the thing that has absolutely transformed your life? How can you not talk about your very identity? But know that it’s yours, and not necessarily someone else’s.
I can’t give you my relationship with Jesus, but I can’t stop telling you about how cool it is to have one! I can’t reveal God’s love for you and God’s plan for your life – only God can. All I can do is jump up and down and say “it’s so great, it’s so awesome, you gotta try some of this, you’re gonna love it! Check it out for yourself.”
And for those of us who’ve been at this for more than a little while – our challenge is to challenge one another to continuously explore this question. God, Christ, and Spirit may be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow – but you ain’t! In many ways you’re a different person in every season of your life – so your answers are constantly evolving, transforming, deepening. Who is Jesus for you in this season?
It takes a while to know who Jesus is for you. You gotta really get to know him – follow him around for a while – let his grace and presence work its way inside you and start to rearrange your life a bit. Then when you’re ready to make the leap of faith, ready to trust in God, ready to submit yourself to God’s will and way for your life – (and if you’ve already done all that, then when you’re ready to leap and trust and submit ever more deeply) – God will begin to reveal Godself to you in increasingly wondrous ways – and who Jesus is for you will start to come more and more into focus, and you will be blessed and transformed.
I can’t give you the answers. I can only give you the questions.
Jesus asks, “Who am I?”
You should ask yourself, “Who am I?”
And while you’re at it try this one: “Who am I in Jesus?”
Now go, and answer. Amen.