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13Now 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.
Who do you say that I am? Seven words, eighteen letters, an enormous question that takes a lifetime to answer. You could seriously spend a lifetime on that one, and I’m not even just talking about Jesus; I’m talking about each of us. We’re all on a journey of figuring out who we are, learning about ourselves, especially in the church, and whatever you think, if you’re breathing, you’re learning, you are discovering who you are as a child of God.
It is an especially important question for the church to try to answer about Jesus, because who we say Jesus is matters. So this is what we are going to talk about today, who Jesus is, how Jesus works, what Jesus expects of us.
And like many important conversations, it begins with a question: Jesus asks, who do people say that the son of Man is? That’s a Biblical phrase, son of Man, but Jesus is talking about himself. And the disciples tell him, oh, they see you baptizing people, so they think you are John the Baptist. Or, Elijah or Jeremiah come back from the dead, the ghost of Christmas past come to call people to account for their sins. Or, perhaps, some people think Jesus is just a prophet, like Amos, calling people to love one another, reminding them to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
And the trick is that Jesus is all of these things, in a way, much bigger than just one or another. It’s why I get frustrated when people tell me they know exactly how to be a proper Christian, as if you just have to follow these simple steps, these seventeen points, believe these hundred and twenty-seven things and suddenly you’ll have it figured out! No! Jesus is much bigger than this. It’s why I love the title of the author Jonathan Merritt’s new book, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined! It is why none of these things, the baptizer, the prophet, the sage, none of these words are sufficient to hold within them all of who Jesus is. Yes, they are true words, but they are not big enough.
So Jesus asks the Disciples, Ok, so this is what other people think of me, but who do YOU say that I am? And it gets quiet, because you can tell it’s the question for all the marbles, and Peter, who is notoriously the first to speak up in situations like this, sometimes to his own embarrassment, says, “You are the messiah. The son of the living God.” It’s the first time one of the disciples has figured it out this way, has verbalized that which has been in front of them the whole time. You are the messiah. You are the son of God. Yes, yes, yes. Finally. Finally, someone has worked it out, here we are, thou thousand years later, still talking about what it all means. Jesus is so much more than we imagined. He is so much more than just what he does. He is who he is because of that which is in his being. It is why when I ask you who you are, and you tell me that you’re a teacher, or a lawyer, or what have you, you’re telling the truth, but you’re not giving me the whole answer, because you’re also a person of deep love, of deep pain, of deep conviction. All of these things are true, but there is no one word large enough to contain within it all of your being. It is the same for Jesus, and even more.
But that’s not to discount Peter’s answer, because while it is true that we’re more than our professions, it is also true that the question Jesus asks—who do you say that I am—it’s an incredibly important question. I mean, how would you answer? Beyond just parroting Peter, what would you say? Who is Jesus to you, anyway? Just a moral teacher, somebody who tells us how to live good lives, but that’s it? Or maybe a miracle worker from the past who did some great stuff but who doesn’t have much relevance for us today? Or is Jesus this cosmic figure, this divine being who expects us to talk about him and share about him but whose teachings on issues like dealing with the poor, the marginalized, don’t really matter?
Of course none of these things are good enough, none of these understandings robust enough to fully explain how we understand Jesus, and as much as I think we should each have our own answers to this question, in our own words, based on our own beings, the answer that Peter gives is, in the final analysis, the correct one, the one that matters, for him and for us. Jesus is the messiah. The Son of the living God.
Now, this will seem elementary for a lot of us, but I want to make sure we’re all on the same page, and even those of us who have been here for decades can use a reminder. When we talk about Jesus being the messiah, we mean that Jesus is the one to deliver us, all of us. It was an ancient Jewish belief, prevalent in Jesus’s day, that there would be someone who would come and defeat those people that kept the Jews marginalized. There would be a political leader. But then Jesus shows up and offers an entirely different kind of saving, forthe path that he’s offered for us is much greater than any political leader could dream for, because in Jesus, death has been defeated. It’s lost its power. It’s a reality, but it’s not the last thing. For those who accept Jesus’s call on their lives, eternal life is the last thing. Try finding a politician who uses that as part of his or her platform. This is who Jesus is; he has come to save us, from the world, from death, from our sin, from ourselves, and thank goodness, because my friends, humanity does not have such a great track record. Not even this week.
And when we talk about Jesus being the son of God, we don’t mean that he’s just really special, or that he’s the best person ever to live, or that he’s less than God. When we talk about Jesus as son of God, we mean that Jesus is God, that he is fully human and fully divine, and no I can’t explain the math to you of how that works, but thank goodness it is true, for Jesus’s humanity connects us in our humanity to God, and God’s divinity. Because of Jesus, there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. What’s more, Peter says, Jesus isn’t just the son of God; Jesus is the son of the living God, who lived then and lives still and is with us when we rejoice and with us when we cry. This is who Peter says Jesus is. This is who we say Jesus is. It is, I hope, who you say Jesus is.
And because Peter has answered correctly, Jesus gives him a reward. He says, Peter, on you, on this rock (which is what the name Peter means), on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you keys to the kingdom of Heaven, he says.
Let me stop for a moment and be very clear that if anybody here is in possession of the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, don’t think for a minute that I have any interest at all in possessing them. My God, can you imagine the pressure? That this person, that you, are the rock on which Jesus will build the church? That you hold the keys to the kingdom, not the kingdom in some far off, fluffy, metaphorical kind of way, buy the keys to the actual kingdom of God? We have the benefit of history, of course, but as I think through the state of the church now, and the problems of the last two thousand years, I am reminded of the burning of heretics at the stake, and of the crusades, and the subjugation of women, and on and on and on, up to and including the way it seems some Christian clergy have forgotten of their sacred calling to care for the least of these, God’s actual children, instead of preying upon them like a spider on flies. With the benefit of history, we can see just how much Jesus was putting on Peter, what kind of weight he was setting on Jesus’s shoulders. If this is the reward, I’m out.
It’s funny, you know, to think about, the fact that Jesus declares that he is Lord, that he’s in charge, that he’s the. guy. And then he immediately gives Peter the keys to the kingdom. It doesn’t make sense in some ways, that Jesus takes responsibility and then shares it, but that’s what he does, and he doesn’t just give Peter the keys. He says that whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever is loosed on earth will be loosed in Heaven. What this means exactly, nobody knows—it is Jesus doing the thing he does where he speaks sort of cryptically, so that the rest of us have to spend a lifetime figuring out what it means. But I think it is safe to assume that when he says that what Peter binds on earth will be bound in Heaven, that what he looses on earth will be loosed in Heaven, means that the church, built on the rock, you and me and the rest of us, what we do matters. We can’t say, oh, Jesus is Lord, isn’t that nice, let’s eat drink and be merry because death has already been defeated and nothing we do matters.
It’s why the phrase “God is in control” only tells half the story. It’s true, of course, in the sense that God is in charge, but it’s not like God is running every little detail of the world, and thank goodness, because if God is causing some of the evil things I’ve been watching on the news these last couple of weeks, I’m out. Yes, God is in control, and Jesus promises us in this morning’s scripture lesson that nothing, nothing, not even the gates of hell will prevail against the church, against us. But that doesn’t remove our responsibility. In fact, it adds to it, because if what we bind here will be bound in Heaven, if what we loose here will be loosed in Heaven, it the decisions we make and the actions we take have eternal consequences, we’ve got work to do.
We can’t just assume that God’s going to prevail and what we do doesn’t matter, because God is relying on us! You can’t separate the work of God from the work that we do, here on this corner and out in the world, because the church is the body of Christ, for Heaven’s sake: not some club, not some social organization, some weird fraternity where you are asked to give gobs of money as dues to the society, but as the body of Christ, as the people of the living God. What we do matters, and so it is the case that if we are to proclaim Jesus as Lord, which I hope we are, we also have to proclaim that we take that claim so seriously that we’re willing to, you know, live like we actually mean it. And that’s not just speaking prayers and wearing t-shirts with Bible verses on them. It’s not just putting the little-f fish on your bumper and the big-f Fish on your radio. Saying that Jesus is Lord means that we acknowledge that what we do here, what we are doing right now in this very room, the business of following Jesus is the most important thing in the entire world, more powerful than our own personal preferences, more powerful than the politicians who use the church as a pawn in their cynical game, more powerful than our preconceived notions about what church is and why we go.
It means that we must accept the high and holy responsibility God gives us to truly love one another, to spread the good news, to be God’s children who understand that the responsibility for caring for the world is not something we give up when we accept Jesus as Lord and savior, but rather a responsibility we take on as followers of the messiah, the son of the loving God.
It’s not easy, this responsibility. It can feel like a lot of pressure. But while we’ve struggled for centuries to figure out just what Jesus means about binding and loosing, while we’ll fumble forward in faith, the good news is that we can do God’s work, with God’s help, and holding on to Jesus’s promise that when we are faithful, goodness will win. Goodness will win, maybe not today, maybe not in our lifetimes. But soon enough. Soon enough. And thanks be to God. Amen.