Who is Jesus?
Over the last several weeks and months, we have been journeying through the Gospel of Matthew. Since Pentecost, we have been journeying with Jesus, walking alongside of him and the disciples and we have listened to the parables and opened ourselves to his teachings. We heard him preach the sermon on the mount, tell parables such as the weeds and the wheat and the mustard seed, we were in the crowd of 5000 and we ate and had our fill of bread and fish. We witnessed him walk on water and encourage Peter to do the same. We listened as the Canaanite woman challenged him and learned the lessons of justice that ensued. And, we learned that what comes from our hearts is more important than what rituals we participate in to show faithfulness. It has been an incredible journey so far – and our text today brings us to the cusp of a turning point.
Today, we will hear for the first time in Matthew’s Gospel mention of Jesus, the Son of Man, as the Messiah, the anointed one they have been waiting for. The text for today and the text for next week are the turning point in Matthew’s Gospel, where we shift from learning from Jesus as a teacher and begin to ponder his identity not only as Son of Man, as Teacher, but Son of God, Messiah and for today, we will listen as Peter, the first of the disciples to speak and name him as the Messiah, does so inspired by God, rather than with physical, earthly evidence. We will explore together what we have learned about faith and who we believe Jesus to be. We will begin to ponder why and how the seeds of faith Jesus had been planting along the way will necessarily grow with deep roots of sustenance and security to support the tall branches that will delight in the soft breezes of joy and love and also endure the winds of pain and death in our lives. So, let us now turn to the Scripture, Matthew 16:13-20 and listen for God’s Word for us today, as we delve into the first part of this shift from Jesus as teacher to Jesus as Messiah.
Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, as we ponder and listen to your Word, may we be startled by your love. May our hearts and minds be open for what you have for us to hear this day and carry it with us into the world. Amen.
Matthew 16: 13-20
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And 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. 18And 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. 19I 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.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
So, Jesus is on the move. Throughout most of Matthew, at least, the parts we have been exploring this season, Jesus has been in the region surrounding the Sea of Galilee – venturing from town to town, traversing the countryside, healing, and teaching of God’s love, teaching of the gift of faith. But now, Jesus is beginning to move. As I mentioned before, we will begin to see a shift and that shift is represented physically and spiritually. Physically, we see, today, that Jesus is moving towards the places known to be seats of imperial power. In our text for this morning, Jesus travels up to the district of Caesarea Philippi which is located way up in the north of Israel – one might consider it a border town, in fact – and is named for Caesar, emperor of the Roman Empire. And it is in this place where we hear the first mention of Jesus as the Messiah.
Jesus opens the conversation with the disciples and he asks them who the people believe the Son of Man – or, Jesus – to be. The disciples respond with a diversity of responses – perhaps representing the diversity of communities they had travelled through on the way to this particular place. Some believe that he is Elijah or Jeremiah or John the Baptist or another prophet – the image in my head of the disciples discerning who the people think Jesus is, is something like the doppelganger game – they imagine each of these different groups identifying him with someone they already know because he looks like, or, is like them. “Oh that guy? He’s probably just the next Elijah or Jeremiah – definitely not the Messiah, he’s no different from the other prophets – he’s just like them.” We tend to look for the familiar, something to relate to, when we encounter new things and new people and these varied answers of previous prophets is a testament to this. But, then Jesus asks them who they thought he was.
At first glance, it would seem that Jesus was a bit full of himself in this scene – like Jesus was fishing for a compliment. What do people say about me? Do they love me? What do you think about me, O my entourage? But, I’m not convinced that Jesus is asking the question for his own benefit. Nor is he attempting to orchestrate or manipulate his future to fit into the paradigm of the Messiah. Here, Jesus is asking them who they believe he is for their benefit – for our benefit. Jesus is hoping that the disciples, the ones who have spent all this time with him, who have journeyed and experienced all the ups and downs, have also been caught up in the power of his love and life. He is hoping that the confessions the disciples offer about Jesus aren’t simply words of praise and honor, but rather are words of power that help root them in the love and possibility that Jesus offers – because he knows what is ahead and that they are going to need these deep roots to endure. Simply stating ones belief in Jesus is one thing – but, in this scene, we capture a glimpse of the desire that Jesus has for us to know more deeply, the gift of hope that is the love of God, living in the world, and not simply this man they call teacher.
“Who do you say that I am?” The word ‘you’ here is in second person plural tense. Meaning, Jesus was asking them as a group – this faithful group of disciples who have followed him along the journey, who were witness to the healings, who listened to all his teachings, who asked questions when they didn’t understand – he asked this group, who do y’all think I am? And, Peter is the one that speaks up. Peter has a habit of being the first to speak – of being quickest to respond. And, Peter says to Jesus, on behalf of the disciples, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
In this moment, Peter names Jesus as the Messiah. Now, mind you, up to this point, Jesus hasn’t really done much to prove his messianic status. According to the Scriptures, the messianic markers have much more to do with what lies ahead for Jesus than what has been experienced thus far and yet, Peter makes this bold claim in this moment. Peter offers a confession of his faith – an anticipatory confession. Peter is looking forward, rather than looking back, when he answers Jesus’ question. He embeds his hope in what the Messiah is yet to do – he shares his expectations of what he believes Jesus will be and do. And, it is this upon this claim, this confession, that Jesus declares the foundation of the church. The rock, which Jesus refers to in response to Peters’ confession, is not Peter himself, but it is Peter’s testimony which has been inspired by God, in faith. Peter didn’t simply give lip service and praise Jesus for the sake of praise – Peter shows great faith. Jesus recognizes in Peters words that Peters hope is not exclusively in his bodily experiences – that Peter said this not because someone else told him to say it or that ritual or tradition created this a habit for him to say. Instead, Jesus hears in this moment Peter’s great hope in the living God. Peter believes in a living God who will vanquish the darkness, who will let justice roll down like waters, and who will usher in a peace beyond understanding – and, as he makes this confession that Jesus is the Messiah, he announces his hope of what the living God has yet to do in the world. This hope is our rock. This hope is what this church is built upon and this hope is our legacy too.
I’m often asked by non-practicing Christians, or people of different faiths, about who Jesus is – why is he important to me? So, I did a little crowd-sourcing and I asked my Facebook friends to answer a question for me. I asked them what it was, specifically, about Jesus, that is important to them. And, the lot of their answers were similarly themed. On the whole, most respondents spoke of Jesus’ humanity –it was important for them to know that God, in Jesus, wept and had a sense of humor, that he struggled and that he wasn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers, or anything, really, to pursue justice. Jesus demonstrated the power of humility, and he showed that strength is found in honesty and truth-telling, and that humanness is not something to be ashamed of.
And, finally, my friend Scott said, “Amazing abs. But after that, I would say the fully human, fully God part. That Jesus was what we can all be, which is, human beings that are fueled by the unconditional love of God that dwells within us, rather than being fueled by the world around us, and our propensity to see our worth as extrinsically determined by the opinions of others. The peace that comes with this realization of intrinsic worth can move mountains.”
And, as I ponder this question myself and read through all these responses, I come back to this text and marvel at Peter’s response – ‘who do you say that I am?’ Jesus, you are more than what I could have ever imagined. You, are more than the sum of the lessons you have taught and the healings I have witnessed. You are more than a creative teacher, more than a voice for justice; you are more than a compassionate provider, you are more than a lover of my soul. You are more than a Son of God – you are evidence of a Living God and that is more love, more hope, more grace than I could have ever imagined. For Peter, there was no doppelganger for him to compare Jesus to – his hope has never been stirred so powerfully, his confidence had never been more sure that the God he believed in was the God of Life, a living God, and Jesus was this Divine presence among us. Opening himself to the possibilities that could be, Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and his hope is in what Jesus can and will do in the world into the future.
Jin S. Kim, pastor of the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, MN, stated in his commentary for this text that for him, “The underlying lesson is that the church is as resilient or fragile as each of us in our own faith. The church exists daily in this tension of power and powerlessness.” Peter himself was a picture of this – in this moment, Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. He confesses that because of Jesus’ presence in the world, darkness has no chance, death can and will be overcome. But, when the going gets tough later on, Peter, is the one to deny Jesus, to waiver in confidence as he is confronted with the death and violence of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Churches are vulnerable to this tension, also, and can waiver accordingly between having confidence in God’s love for the world and succumbing to worldly fears and expectations. Communities of faith dwell in the space between being in and of the world and being a harbinger of hope for what the living God can and will do in the world.
As individuals, I would imagine we would provide as many different answers as there are people here, as to who we say Jesus is – and we may even answer differently, given the day or circumstance of the time we are asked. But, what would we say together? What would our confession be, as Western Presbyterian Church? When we turn to one another, gathering our hearts together, supporting one another, caring for one another – when we look forward and answer this question together, who do we say Jesus is? Why is Jesus important to us today and how do we show our belief?
This passage calls us to ponder our own understanding of who Jesus is in the world. It was Peter’s testimony, Peter’s evidence of hope in the power of what God can and will do in the world that is the rock upon which this church is built. And, we are called this morning to ponder our own belief. Unlike Peter, we have the benefit of hindsight for his encounter with Jesus. But, do we still look ahead and hope for what Jesus can and will do in our future? And if so, what are the consequences of believing in a living God – a God who dwells among us to foster life and not death? We, as the community of Western Presbyterian Church, are on the cusp of turning point in our life as a community and I invite you to ponder the question, who do you say Jesus is? Pray about it. Talk about it with one another. Share your thoughts with one another and be open to listening to one another. What possibilities might this open us up to? Not knowing what is ahead, may we be bold to claim hope in what the living God can and will do in this community of faith and in the world?