The text for Sunday continued our journey through Matthew. It’s a passage full of theological meat. Who is Jesus? What is the church? What are we, the church, to be about in the world? Thoughts after the jump…
Our story starts when Jesus and the disciples stop in Caesarea Philippi, at the border between their home and the rest of the world, in the shadow of the Roman empire and Jesus asks: what are other people saying about me?
Apparently Jesus was also not immune to the desire to know what others thought of him.
We hear that folks thought Jesus was probably one of the mighty prophets, returned: John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah. A prophet was a person mighty in word and deed, who had insight into who God is and what God’s about. They looked at Jesus, and this is what they saw.
It’s interesting that was the prevailing opinion then because it probably still is. We wouldn’t say prophet now. We’d say teacher. But it’s the same idea. Jesus was an extraordinarily good, spiritual teacher. How many of us have heard friends say that? I’m guessing at least some of us have thought that ourselves on occasion.
Jesus isn’t quite content with that answer, though. But who do you say I am, he asks his closest followers. Peter, who is something of a mix between overachiever and just plain hyper, pipes up first. Speaking for all of them he says, You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
It can be difficult to wade through this language, can’t it? Messiah, that’s an old word for something like a savior-prophet, right? We try to bring the image forward and we’re stuck with something like a cross between Martin Luther King and a guru. The greek word for Messiah is Christ, literally, anointed, which points to this king business. Kings were anointed. But even king seems like an abstract concept for us. I mean, Prince William is great, but him being king someday–who cares? These images of political and spiritual authority seem ancient.
Authority is so diffuse in our day and age. The cardinal faith of our time is that what is true for you, might not be for me. That rules our interfaith conversations, our cross-cultural excursions, all of our talk of diversity and multiculturalism. And so when it comes to questions of spiritual or social authority, there are almost infinite answers.
New Testament scholar Dale Bruner suggests new language for Peter’s confession. Rather than Messiah and King, he offers up the possibility of the word, Answer.*
Who do you say I am? And Peter replies, You, Lord, are the Answer. In a world of countless truths and claims, you are the Answer. Not in a simplistic way, or cheap sense–the way we joke about the correct response to every question in Sunday school is Jesus. But in the sense that when we ask how shall we live, how shall we relate to each other, how shall we love, what is the meaning of life, how will we respond to suffering, for all of these questions, we look to Jesus. The highest, truest, most faithful answer of all is fully revealed in Jesus. You, Jesus, says the disciple, are the Answer.
Bingo, says Jesus. You got it. And then he adds something else. Flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you, but God in heaven.
Thank goodness this is included. It captures our reformed understanding of faith beautifully. Faith, trust in God, and whatever understanding we may have, are given to us. You can’t go out and get them. When Jesus says flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you, he means no human taught you this. No human figures this out by themselves.
Now if you’re of a fairly rational bent this may be making you uncomfortable. Empiricism is the faith of our age; we trust what we can see and reason out on our own. But Jesus is talking about a different kind of knowing–it’s like how you know that you’re in love. No matter what anyone says, you just are.
I am deeply convinced that we cannot reason, argue, read, deduce, or work our way into faith. Faith is a gift, it is a leap that we suddenly find we’ve made, it’s waking up and through no work of our own, life looks different. Peter did not read a really convincing argument about who Jesus was. He and the disciples didn’t sort it out together. The Spirit moved in his life, and as if he put on a different pair of glasses, he saw Jesus clearly.
This has huge implications. For one it asks us to set down any pride we might be carrying around about how orthodox our beliefs are, or how righteous our faith makes us. In some corners of Christian life it is said that in Christ God did God’s part, and now it’s our part to believe. God sends the water but not the bucket.** And then, some of us who seem to have solid buckets have a tendency to be proud of them. Jesus here is categorically arguing against that. God sends both water and bucket. We cannot construct our own buckets. Whatever faith we might have, a little or a lot, firm or shaky, it is a gift from God.
Here’s another implication of this whole faith is a gift thing. Maybe you’re feeling a little uneasy right now. You’re thinking I was okay with the whole Jesus was a great teacher part. But this part about Jesus being the Answer to everything–I’m not so sure about that. If I want to be part of Jesus’ community do I need to talk myself into believing that? Or maybe I need to pretend I do.
Here’s the thing. Peter made this confession after he had walked with Jesus for quite a while. He grew into this confession. It wasn’t a litmus test for entry into the community. That’s true for us as well. This is the full confession of Christian faith, but we’re not expected to have this perfect, complete understanding of Jesus immediately and at every moment. In fact, in next week’s text Peter’s going to mess up–so badly that Jesus is going to call him Satan. So, you know, in this following Jesus business, we win some and we lose some. And that’s okay. The point is to keep walking in the right direction, and when we find we’ve headed the wrong way, we turn around.
Here’s the other thing. That desire to walk in the right direction–it’s a gift from God. In Christ, God made a fundamental move toward us, and Christ, as the new person, takes that first step back toward God for all of us–even those of us who don’t feel like we’re anywhere near God or ever could be. In Christ we not only are given life but faith as well. All of us. Even those of us for whom Peter’s confession sounds flat and improbable.
If that’s where you are this morning–in a place where faith seems utterly foreign, take heart. Our faith is our inheritance in Christ. It cannot be taken away from us, and despite the cliche, we can’t lose it. We can only grow deeper into it, root down further into the ground of our being. We do that by asking God to be with us, and by practicing. Olympic athletes run laps and prodigies play scales. So too, we gather and pray and sing and praise and practice our faith. Perhaps what feels like an absence of faith is really pointing to a misunderstanding about faith. Faith is not an intellectual assent to a set of tenants. It is an orientation toward Jesus, a trust and a desire to trust more–and it is always and only a gift from God who loves us.
And there’s more. Jesus doesn’t just stop when he tells Peter you’re right. He says, “You are the rock on which I am going to build my church. And even the gates of Hades will not prevail against you.”
Now, if you grew up in a staunchly catholic or anti-catholic home, you have heard reference to this passage in arguments about the papacy. We’re not going to re-fight the Reformation this morning. What I will say is this: one, this passage is not about popes. Not even a little bit. And two, today, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians all agree about that. Jesus was talking to Peter, the specific person, about the confession he made.
Setting that aside, let’s listen again. Jesus said, I am going to build my church and even the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. This is one of only a couple of places where Jesus mentions the church, and here’s what I think’s noteworthy:
First, it is not Peter’s church or the disciples’ church, but Jesus’ church. Likewise, this, here, today, is not our church. It is Christ’s church. As we think about where the Spirit is calling us in the coming years, we will do well to keep this in the front of our minds.
The question is not what should we do with our church, but what is Christ doing in our midst with Christ’s church?
Second, the church is not something created by a bunch of bureaucrats long after Jesus died. Rather, the church is a community that Jesus called together, that Jesus established on the strength of Peter’s faith. And what is Christ’s community to be about? Who are we, all these years later?
We’re not just a group of people who like each other. Although we’re certainly that. We’re not just a group of folks who like to eat together and do a little volunteer work. Although we’re that, too. But we’re part of something more.
We are part of Christ’s church, a community that Jesus called into being. First and foremost we were called into being on the strength of a confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Answer. Even today, by God’s grace, we share that confession together. As individuals, our confession may waver some days. We are all still growing in Christ. But as a body, we hold that confession with abiding strength.
This is our story and our song: in Jesus we have met one who has changed our lives. We have met one who showed us who we really are and who our neighbors are. We have met one who has led us try to love God and each other more honestly and deeply. And we have met one who has given us the faith that there is nothing, nothing at all in all of the world that we need fear. Because our watchword and our sword is love.
And love, we will soon enough see as Jesus walks toward Jerusalem, love may be put to death, but it does not stay dead. Love moves ever forward, and rises even from certain extinction. And that’s what Jesus is getting at here with the whole gates of Hades bit.
This community Jesus calls is on the move. We are people who are propelled, summoned, drawn ever forward by love, love that lays down its life, love that saves even the most wretched sinner, love that is a force in our world. And, Jesus says, that love is taking over, and will reach into every nook and cranny of life and death. There is nowhere that it will not go. Not even the gates of Hades will stand against the relentless forward motion of God’s love in Christ. There is no hell too dark, no sin too grave, no death so final that love will not, at the end, win out.
Who are we? We are a community that follows Jesus. We confess that love incarnate is on the move. It’s on the march, in our lives, in our world, even and most especially in places of death and destruction. Our task as a church is to march with that love. To walk with it into our neighborhood, into the streets fanning out from Bethany, into the food bank at Mason Methodist, into the soup kitchens downtown, and the corridors of power where decisions are made. We walk with that love into each others’ homes and the lives of strangers, we walk with that love as we raise our children, tend our parents, sit with the dying, and one day face our own death.
We walk with that love in every moment of our lives as we bear witness to what we have seen in Christ–a love that suffers and does not deny pain, a love that joins the least and the last in their poverty and multiplies what little we have into abundance beyond belief, a love that can even die, but does not stay dead, a love that is, indeed, the Answer.
By God’s unending grace, we join the community who in countless times and places have confessed Christ, and on the way we find that not even the mighty gates of the land of the dead can prevail against the inexorable force of that love. The death that lives in our own hearts, the death that stalks the poor and would deny the humanity of so many, the death that comes in countless forms in our lives, none of it can prevail, because, friends, because this love has swallowed up death, has been to that tomb and cleaned house and three days later leapt up high. That love that is always moving, always calling us out, always propelling us forward, that love is why we’re here, and why we live. That, friends, is the Answer upon which we stake our lives. That is the great good news we have to share. May we share it faithfully.* Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 2, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 122. ** Bruner, 125. by Sarah W. Wiles August 21, 2011 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA