The events in the Gospel reading from Matthew 16:13-20 took place in the region of Caesarea Philippi. It was a territory where pagan gods were worshipped, and it is there that Jesus asks Peter a question about his identity, not in some safe territory, but in a non-believing location. Perhaps that is why Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah, but I think the real reason is because Jesus had a special sense of timing about his ministry. He did not think it was time to reveal his true identity to the world. He was well aware that his claim was volatile in nature, and it was the claim that ultimately led to his crucifixion.
We as believers today have to answer the same question Jesus asked the disciples- “Who do YOU say I am?” We also have to answer it in a similar location-a world which is often hostile to Christianity. We can’t just coast on our faith, for it is not merely something handed down to us from our parents which we automatically carry with us for the rest of our lives. Our answer will not be made in words or church doctrine. It will be made by how we live and die. Peter’s faith gave him strength to follow Christ all the way to dying like Christ. In fact, the story is that Peter was also crucified, but he was crucified upside-down because he did not feel worthy enough to die in the same way Jesus did. Peter imitated Christ in his daily dying to himself and living for Christ. It is on faith and example like Peter’s that Christ has built the church.
Peter expressed the full belief he and his fellow disciples had that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah. This contradicts the view that others had of him at that time, and the view some people have of him today; namely, that Jesus was the reincarnation of Elijah or John the Baptist, or that he was a prophet or a good person. Peter did not know the theological implications of his words, and we might not know them either, but we can still make a commitment to know him and follow him until we do understand them. Jesus will teach us about what they mean.
God was the one who put those words into Peter’s mind and mouth. God’s actions were a product of Peter’s faith and reflection. The revelation that opened Peter’s eyes to see and his tongue to proclaim Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is our gift as well as we run into the gates of hell. We can see the inscription over these gates: cynicism in dealing with others; despair as we face the issues of violence, war and terrorism; greed that puts ourselves first on the list; indifference to the pain of others; cowardice when our faith is challenged; conformity when prophetic witness is called for; and lukewarm religious practice that has stalled through neglect and other reasons.
Peter took a leap of faith when he answered Jesus’ question, and we also have to take a big leap of faith when we answer the same question today. Peter reminds us that even when we want to do our best and when we are sure we can handle things, we are prone to our own human weaknesses. If we are to call ourselves Christians, then we will accept Christ crucified and rose from the dead not only two thousand years ago, but crucified and rises inside our own lives as well. If we do, we will be dead to our own sinful lives and alive in Christ. Then and only then are we dealing with the real Jesus. The only way we can come to confess Jesus as the Son of God is by the road of faith.
What does the word “church” mean to us? It means the body of people and the congregation, and not buildings or properties. For example, Christians thrived in the first and second century, under persecution, when they met secretly in small, informal home settings. The same situation still exists in many countries today, especially because of persecution. Denominations were formed when groups of people formed. The church is not ours to build as we like. It is God’s church, and we as humans have to build it the way he wants us to build it. That means making difficult decisions. As the rock of the church, Peter and the disciples had to make decisions that would not please people, just like Jesus had to make decisions that did not please people. Church leaders today still have to make decisions that do not please everyone.
Peter became the rock of the church and just like Jesus was his rock, Jesus is also the rock on which we can build our faith. Living rocks are the building material of Jesus’ church. Peter himself called Christians living stones who serve as building material for a spiritual house and priesthood. All the living stones are fitted into place around a living cornerstone, Jesus Christ.
Just like Jesus overcame his foes, we as the church will be triumphant over our enemies. God wants to give us the keys to his kingdom to help us spread the Good News of his love and forgiveness and to help us to fulfill the Great Commission. The problem is that we often do not know how to unlock the doors. The master key will open these doors, and it is the same key Peter used-namely, our confession. If we confess God’s Word in our lives, we will open kingdom doors and release God’s power in everyday situations. The other keys are faith, love, obedience, prayer and witnessing.
The keys Jesus promises Peter are meant to unlock the world’s longing for celebration and liberation. They were never intended to keep undesirables out or to rid God’s realm of the unworthy. If that was the case, Jesus would never have promised them to someone like Peter, and they would never have landed in pockets like ours. It’s like the loving parent who hands over the keys of the family car to someone he or she loves dearly and whom he or she knows has not always fared well in training and has yet to be tested by the hurdles of real life. Knowing this, Jesus still promises Peter and us the keys and says, “Use them wisely”.
Peter and the church will open the door of faith to the world, and it is our duty as Christians to keep that door wide open to the entire world. We have the keys to open the doors and windows of the church to the world, but we have to figure out what to do with them, what doors to open and what windows to unlock. We must make sure that they are open to everyone, not just people like us.
Jesus calls on us today to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” He is not interested in dispassionate, hypothetical views regarding his life and work. Instead, he wants to know what his followers and disciples think of him today. He demands a decision-accept him or reject him. He demands a clear answer that does not have to be certain. Jesus is outside the dogmas of neat religious minds. He is free, and we are truly free only when we allow Jesus to be free. Cage Jesus and we imprison ourselves. Categorize Jesus and we find ourselves in another pigeonhole, another religious clone. Maybe the image in our churches should not be an immoveable Jesus on a statue or a cross or a stained-glass window. The best image for the church should be the empty tomb with the inscription, “Christ is not here. Christ has gone before you”.
The only way we can adequately answer this question is to study the record of his life as it is found in the four gospels. Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He made astounding claims concerning himself-claims that he backed up with deeds because he IS the Son of God. He had supernatural powers to perform miracles because he IS the Son of God. He rose from the dead and transformed lives because he IS the Son of God. Jesus asked the disciples who the people say the Son of God is in order to give us a hint of his concern for the whole world-a concern that he will make explicit in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20.
Jesus is the Son of God-a member of the Trinity. The role of Jesus in the Trinity is to show us what God is like. The primary word of God is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are to imitate Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in our own lives by dying to ourselves and our old, sinful ways of life and rising to a new Christian life in Jesus. He is the Saviour of the world. He is our High Priest. If we do not accept this reality, if we do not act on our belief and commitment to follow him in our everyday life, we are automatically against him.
If we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, he will call us to serve. We might have to serve dangerously. We might have to serve uncomfortably. We might have to serve quietly. If we obey his call, our lives will be a blessing to many, and we will contribute to the building of God’s kingdom, and we will have a special place in God’s kingdom both now and for eternity.
There are challenges and conflicts in our lives today that do not reflect the Holy God in whom we believe. They are placed in our lives as tests to examine what we will declare about Jesus. Can we say that despite the hardships, conflicts, struggles and stresses in our lives, Jesus is our Christ, the son of the living God? Does Jesus impact our lives daily, making a difference in the way we think and feel and what we say? If our faith is wavering in belief, all we have to do is ask God to reveal to us who Jesus is, just as he did with Peter. People and circumstances will change with seasons and times of life, but when all is said and done, we want our faith and convictions to be as solid as rocks so that the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.
Is Jesus Christ the Lord and Saviour of our lives? Can we also say, “You are the Christ…?” Only you can say, one way or the other, but make no mistake-professing our faith is of utmost importance. If we can, are we willing to make the life-changing investment Jesus requires of us as disciples? If we say “You are the Christ…” we as individual members of the church are saying to him, “I believe you are here with us today, in this congregation, calling us to be a loving and just people. I believe the poor have a priority in your plans and I will do my best to serve them in your name. I believe you are offering me freedom and a truer self, so that I can turn from false, worldly securities and look to you for my true identity as a child of God, and an important part of God’s people. I believe that as you were anointed by God to do God’s will, through my baptism, so am I—called to be a sign of God’s kingdom on earth where all are brothers and sisters.”
Answering this question is the sign of mature faith. We can’t let others answer for us, nor can we let others’ answers stand as our own answers. We have to decide, we have to say it and claim it and live who Jesus is. Like Peter, we are followers of Jesus. Like Peter, we sometimes have deep faith, and, at other times, a lack of faith. Jesus saw in Peter the same thing he sees in us-building material that can be shaped into a people of faith to serve his reign.
- Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, Matthew 16:13-20. Part of Lessonmaker Bible software package.
- Matthew Henry Concise Commentary. Part of Lessonmaker Bible software package.
- Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Part of Lessonmaker Bible software package.
- Phil Ware, Heartlight Daily Verse, Matthew 16:15-16. Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
- Notes from Peter Anthony’s Bible Study on the Gospel of Matthew.
- Dr. Ray Pritchard, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Retrieved from www.keepbelieving.com
- Exegesis for Matthew 16:13-20. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- Jude Siciliano, OP, “First Impressions, 1st Sunday (A)”. Retrieved from www.preacherexchange.org
- The Rev. Charles Hoffacker, “Can You Keep a Secret?” Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- Dr. Mickey Anders, “What and Where?” Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- The Rev. Amy Butler, “Remembering What We Believe”. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- Dr. Philip W. McLarty, “The Unspoken Question”. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- T.M. Moore, “Whose Church? Whose Vision?” Retrieved from www.colsoncenter.org
- J.M. Njoroge, “The Recalcitrant Jesus”. Retrieved from www.rzim.org
- Dr. Charles F. Stanley, “The Name of Jesus”. Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
- Dr. Charles F. Stanley, “Jesus: To Believe or Not to Believe”. Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
- Dr. Bill Bright, “Don’t Forget Your Keys”. Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
- Richard Inness “Is Jesus the Son of God, Part III”. Retrieved from www.actsweb.org
- The Very Rev. Dr. Ian Markham, “How Do We Know What God is like?” Retrieved from www.day1.org
- The Rev. Dr. Gary Charles, “Keys”. Retrieved from www.day1.org
- The Rev. Luis Leon, “Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost”. Retrieved from www.day1.org
- Carey KInsolving, “Is Peter the Rock upon Which the Church is Built?” Retrieved from www.arcamax.com/religionandspirituality/kidstalkaboutgod/s-928200?print
- John Shearman’s Lectionary Resource, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Aug. 21, 2011. Retrieved from http://lectionary.seemslikegod.org/archives/tenth-sunday-after-pentecost-august-21-2011