Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he 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.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 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. 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. I 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Matthew 16:13-20
Today is the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity and it is twenty three weeks since we were last able to join in a service in our church, St. Oswald’s.
Our Gospel a reading from Matthew contains a passage with a very unusual question from Jesus. “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” Or putting it another way, “Who do people say I am?” Now in all my long life I have never heard a question like that. I have often heard the reverse, “Who do you think you are?” asked when a person has stepped out of line, but never “Who do you think I am?”. Before we consider the question that Jesus asked, perhaps we should first remind ourselves what it would have been like in Jesus’ day.
Many Jews then (as now) would have been waiting for God to send an anointed king who would free Israel from oppression and bring justice and peace to His world at last. Nobody knew when or where this anointed king would be born. However, many believed he would be a true descendant of King David, as God had made wonderful promises about his future family. Some would have pointed to the prophecy of Micah 5.1-3 as indicating that the coming king should be born in Bethlehem. Now the word for ‘anointed king’ in the Jewish language, was the word we normally pronounce as ‘Messiah’. So what would this Messiah be like? How would people know that he had arrived?
Nobody knew exactly, but there were many theories. Many hoped for a warrior king who would defeat the pagan Romans and establish Israel’s freedom once again. Many expected him to be the one who would purge the Temple and establish true worship. Everybody who believed in such a coming king knew that he would fulfil Israel’s scriptures, and bring God’s kingdom into being at last, on earth as it was in heaven. But nobody had any real idea of what all this would be like.
There had been several would-be Messiahs who came and went, attracting followers who were quickly dispersed when their leader was caught by the authorities. One thing was certain. To be known as a would-be Messiah was to attract attention from the authorities, and almost certainly hostility. So when Jesus wanted to discuss his real identity with his followers he took them well away from the area they normally frequented. Caesarea Philippi is in the far north of the land of Israel, a good two days’ walk from the Sea of Galilee. This was well outside the territory of King Herod because he certainly would not take kindly to news of another Messiah promised by God and all that might entail.
Having set the scene, we should now consider this vital conversation, on which so much depended. It proved to be a watershed in Jesus’ ministry, as from that time nothing would be the same again. He had to bring into the open the differences between his understanding of his mission and theirs. You can imagine Jesus walking with them as he asked what people said of him; and, although he was regarded as a prophet, significantly, no one appears to think that he might be the Messiah.
And then the crunch question: ‘What about you, who do you think I am?’ and Peter, so quick it was almost automatic, as though speaking as the Spirit directed said, ‘Oh we know, we know you’re the Messiah. You’re the son of the living God!’
Now the Hebrew word ‘messiah’ means the anointed one. Its counterpart in Greek is, “christ” which comes from the word ‘christos’, and the two terms are used interchangeably in the Bible. We should also understand that at this time the phrase ‘son of God’ did not mean ‘the second person of the Trinity’. There was no thought yet that the coming king would himself be divine – though some of the things Jesus was doing and saying must already have made the disciples very puzzled. This perplexity would only be resolved after his resurrection, when they came to believe that Jesus had always been even more intimately associated with Israel’s one God than they had ever imagined. No: the phrase ‘son of God’ was just a biblical phrase, indicating that this king, this Messiah, was in a particular relationship with God, adopted to be his special representative.
Very soon after Jesus’ resurrection, his followers came to believe that the same phrase had a whole other layer of meaning that nobody had previously imagined. But it’s important, if we are to understand what is being said, that we don’t read more into the passage than is there. What Peter and the others were saying was – you are the true king. You’re the one Israel has been waiting for, the one of whom the psalms and prophets had spoken, to be God’s mouthpiece against injustice and wickedness in high places and who would lead Israel to victory and liberty.
And he told them to tell no one else because the information was dynamite and any suggestion of who he was would have drastically shortened the time he had to prepare them for His work that they would be required to carry on after the Resurrection.
But he had a task for Peter. It was not that he was the first to be called, or the cleverest, the most cultured, or the wisest; but he had become the natural leader. He was chosen and appointed by Jesus, and in his preaching at Pentecost Peter was the first to witness publicly to the Resurrection. Jesus’ renaming of Simon to Simon Peter, ‘the rock’ on which he would build his Church was probably a reference to the Temple Rock in Jerusalem on which the first temple had been built. The ‘keys of the kingdom’ are symbols of responsibility, because authority in the Church is always about responsibility.
St. Matthew’s words, ‘The forces of death shall never overpower it’, will encourage not only Matthew’s persecuted readers but also the Church down the ages. The Roman Empire, and many others, have declined and fallen, and the Jewish people are now dispersed, but the Church of Jesus Christ still stands and grows. And starting with Peter, Jesus built a community, consisting of all those who give allegiance to him as God’s anointed king. We should also remember that Jesus’ new community, his Church, will after all, consist simply of forgiven sinners. So forgiveness has an eternal significance and we too must learn to forgive.
And what of Simon Peter? There’s a bit of Simon Peter in all of us. Simon is the sort of man that Jesus uses to make his Church: a mixture of inspiration and self-interest, of insight and ignorance, of rock and sand, sometimes with flashes of inspiration, sometimes the very devil. He is so reluctant to change his ideas and has still so much to learn. He can make great promises of loyalty, yet can fall asleep and deny his Lord.
But he is capable of great courage and commitment – just as you are. Just as we all are. Jesus is relying on us all to be his Church, to spread his message of forgiveness, and to show God’s love to all.
you declare your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
mercifully grant to us a measure of your grace,
that we, following your commandments,
may receive your gracious promises,
and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.