August 27, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
Peter knew something that Jesus wanted all of his followers to know. Who do you say that I am? The answer had been obvious at least since the time when Jesus walked across the water to the boat where the disciples were. According to that story, once Jesus got into the boat and the wind stopped, the disciples all said that he was truly the Son of God. That was back at the end of chapter 14. But the way Matthew tells the story, the readers of the gospel knew since the very first words in the whole book. Up there, in chapter 1, verse 1, Matthew writes that his book is “An account of … Jesus the Messiah.” By this time, here in chapter 16, everyone was supposed to know, but Peter was the only one who said it out loud. Who do you say that I am? “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
What struck me, though, is not so much what Peter knew. What struck me is how Jesus said he had come to know it. He did not know that Jesus was, in fact, the long-awaited, promised savior of God’s people, that Jesus was so special that he was just as much divine as he was human, just because someone told him. He did not even know it because he figured it out using his own capacity for reasoning and deduction. No. Jesus said, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Peter knew Jesus was the Messiah because he was willing to look past what other people said, and even to look past what he could figure out on his own, to simply see and hear what God alone could reveal.
The conversation came between Jesus and his followers as they were wandering through the region of Caesarea Philippi, Matthew says. That might sound to us like a nice walk through the countryside. But to someone in that time and place, the name of the region was deeply meaningful. Caesarea Philippi was a very Roman territory. Its name honored the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, and the Roman governor of the region, Philip the Tetrarch. It was the city where Philip ruled his part of the empire on behalf of Caesar. To anyone who was not Roman in the region, the name alone would have been a constant reminder that their language, their culture, their customs, and their faith were not powerful. It would be a reminder that they faced exclusion and discrimination every day. Only the Roman Empire was powerful in that region; everything else was considered trivial.
We sometimes wish that the gospel would stay away from politics. But whether we like it or not, the area they were in was deeply political, and that made Jesus’ question something of a political question. He asked his followers as they traveled in Caesarea Philippi, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The answers they gave him included a list of people who were each charged in his own time with speaking truth to powerful folks. First, they said that he was John the Baptist come back to life. John the Baptist had already been executed in a rather gruesome and public way by the Roman ruler Herod, who happened to be Philip the Tetrarch’s brother. His execution, according to Matthew back in chapter 14, was a result of his speaking against Philip. But others, the disciples said, thought that Jesus was a reincarnation of Elijah. Elijah had also spent most of his career as a prophet preaching against the rulers of his time. In his case, it was Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, who was trying to lead God’s people to worship Baal instead of serving God alone. The disciples continued; others said that Jesus was the new embodiment of the prophet Jeremiah or another prophet like him. Jeremiah also had to deliver message after message to the kings and other leaders of God’s people, warning them that God was angry, and God would destroy the nation the rulers were supposed to protect if they didn’t change their ways, worship God alone, and take care of God’s people, especially the poorest among them.
All of the figures the disciples named when Jesus asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” were figures who fit in a place like Caesarea Philippi. They were all figures from the history of God’s people who got in trouble because they were called by God to speak against the ruling authorities who were doing the wrong thing. But then Jesus turned the question around a bit. Let’s get past what others think, Jesus said; what do you think? “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter alone was bold enough to speak the answer: “You are the Messiah [the Christ], the Son of the living God.” That’s when Jesus named the source of that knowledge; Peter did not figure it out all on his own, and he did not learn it by listening to other people. He knew it because “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” He knew it because he was open to seeing and hearing what God alone could reveal.
If all we see and all we listen to right now is flesh and blood, then we would be drowning in bad news. Who do people say Jesus is? Jesus gets tossed around like a volleyball from one side to the other. Especially in the past two weeks, when the neo-Nazis and white supremacists have been attracting far more attention than anyone wants to pay them, there are all kinds of twisted visions out there about who Jesus is. Depending on which faction you listen to, you might think that Jesus is a Republican or you might think he is a Democrat or you might think that he is everyone’s best friend or that he is the most cruel of judges. There are even people who still believe and will say to anyone who will interview them or read their sign that Jesus is aligned with the white supremacists or the neo-Nazis. If that is still a question for you or anyone you know, I want to tell you as clearly as I can: Jesus is not aligned with any kind of supremacists. Jesus always welcomed the powerless, the poor, the ostracized, and the excluded. Jesus always reached out to touch the people whom others said were of less value than anyone else. Jesus embraced foreigners, and the New Testament is full of stories of Jesus and his followers always expanding the circle of who is included in Jesus’ family to welcome any kind of person who wanted to be welcomed. Jesus could not be more different than the supremacists.
In fact, Jesus doesn’t really fit into any box, and Jesus consistently refuses to be used by any party or faction to show that their side is the only right side. The only way to really answer his question, “Who do you say that I am?” is to stop listening to flesh and blood. And we don’t just have to stop listening to that partisan bickering out there in the world. We have to stop listening to the dialogue we have going on inside our heats. We have to stop listening to the cynicism so many of us carry which keep us from hearing the stories of people who are hurting. We have to stop listening to our own insecurities which make us insensitive to voices saying things which make us uncomfortable or ashamed. We have to stop listening to the hopelessness which makes it hard to see a future beyond the next foolish thing that someone says on Twitter.
We have to stop listening to all that flesh and blood, and instead tune our ears to hear God’s voice. God’s voice resounds in the heavens. God’s voice wants to point us toward truth and love and hope and the freedom that is found only through surrendering ourselves to compassion and self-giving. God’s voice wants to reveal to us who Jesus really is because that is God’s message alone to share. God’s voice wants to speak to us about Jesus so that the church can be open to real, living faith in him. God’s voice wants to call us away from drowning in the bad news of flesh and blood and call us into the presence and the work of the God of heaven.
Jesus went on to tell Peter that he will build the church on the rock of his statement of faith, when he said that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The word “church” is not a word that Jesus used often in the gospels. The word in the Greek is ekklesia, and it’s a kind of a mash-up of a couple of words that mean “called out.” The church is God’s people who are called out from the flesh and blood which reveals nothing but partisan bickering, insecurities, cynicism, and hopelessness. The church is God’s people who are called out into real listening to the stories of our neighbors, and to real listening to the living God who is bringing us into a new future.
Jesus affirmed what Peter knew: that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And Jesus affirms, too, how Peter came to know that: not through the confusion of flesh and blood, but through what God has revealed to him. And in his affirmation of Peter, Jesus invites all of us to listen for that same revelation from that same Father in heaven. Jesus invites you and Jesus invites me to say simply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and from that confession, to build up the community of people who are called out to real, living faith.
And so my prayer this morning is that we will be called out, away from all of the messages of flesh and blood which surround us all the time. My prayer this morning is that we will be called out to that message which is God’s alone to share. My prayer this morning is that we will be called out to listen to what God has to reveal to us. My prayer is that we will be called out to a living faith in the Jesus we know, which compels us to worship and serve Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God.