Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 16:13-20 August 23, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.
The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.
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 dominion 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 Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The answers were all over the map: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the other prophets.
And so it has been throughout the centuries. Enormous amounts of time, energy, scholarship, ink, and more have been expended for two millennia on the question of who Jesus is.
This question led to the Christological controversies and debates in the early church about the divinity of Jesus in connection with his humanity.
The question of Jesus’ identity was a driving force behind what would become the three principal creeds of Christianity, the Nicene, Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds.
Closer to our own day, we’ve had the various “Quests for the Historical Jesus,” efforts to identify which sayings in the Gospels are more likely to have been original to Jesus.
Then think of sacred art through the centuries and the many and various ways that Jesus has been depicted in various historical periods and amidst various nations, ethnicities, and cultures. The gospel writer Matthew has Jesus raising the question in a more personal way to his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” In this way, the question is not just a remote theological curiosity that scholars, theologians, historians might debate from a neutral distance. No, Matthew’s Jesus seems to intend that Jesus’ followers have some existential skin in the game. Again, who do you say that I am?
It’s at this point that Simon erupts with his confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
This confession of faith about the identity of Jesus results in a name change for Simon, son of Jonah. Name changes in the scriptures have significance in imparting new identity and purpose. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah in relation to God’s covenant promises to them. Jacob becomes Israel after his sacred wrestling match. Saul becomes Paul after his conversion on the road to Damascus.
Matthew’s Jesus gives a new name to Simon when he exclaims, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The name Peter involves something of a pun, as in petra or petrus, which means rock.
This statement recorded in Matthew about the rock on which Jesus will build his church has also resulted in enormous discussion and debate in the church throughout the centuries. “On this rock I will build my church.”
Who or what exactly is the rock? Is it Peter, the person? Is the rock the confession of faith about Jesus being the Messiah, the Son of the living God? Is the rock, in fact, Jesus himself as the Son of God?
As you can imagine, Christians have answered this rock question variously throughout the ages. For some, the focus has been on Peter, which helped pave the way for viewing Peter as the first Pope and a resulting focus on the Petrine succession of Bishops of Rome, popes, throughout the centuries.
Other Christians among various protestant groups would emphasize the rock being Christ. Lutherans themselves have answered variously, but with some significant emphasis on the confession of faith as being the rock.
There is no way in a brief sermon to explore the ins and outs of the biblical, historical, and theological debates about who the rock is. That’s best reserved for a Bible Study and not a sermon.
Thus, for our purposes here, I’d like to cut to the chase with my response. Is the rock Peter? Is the rock Peter’s confession of faith? Is the rock Jesus Christ himself? My answer is, “Yes. All the above.” The rock is Peter. The rock is the confession of faith. The rock is Christ.
I will say that my Lutheran sensibilities are drawn most to the rock being the confession of faith in Jesus as Son of the living God. But people make such confessions. Confessions of faith don’t happen without people doing the confessing. So, Peter as person of faith is crucial.
Moreover, when we are talking about the rock on which the church is built, elsewhere in the scriptural witness Christ is identified as the rock. There are several references to Jesus being the stone which the builders rejected but who now is the chief cornerstone. And Christ is the spiritual rock from which we drink (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4). The church as the body of Christ is built on the rock which itself is Christ.
So, again, the answer to the “who is the rock” question is for me all of the above. The Christ event is too rich and complex and mysterious for single, easy answers, even as the various individual and particular depictions of Jesus in art and history and theology fail to capture the entire, wondrous mystery. Thus, we benefit from a rich array of features of Jesus’ identity as the Christ, the son of the living God.
Well, there you have it, my touching briefly on a number of theological points that have been central to Christian identity for so far two thousand some years. There’s a lot packed into these few verses from Matthew’s Gospel.
Why explore all of this now in this sermon? I don’t do it as a theologian or historian or as a teacher primarily. I explore all of this with you as a person of faith, first of all, and then as a pastor who is called to nurture your depth of faith life as persons in my care.
That is to say, as your pastor, I want you to know some of the rich history and theology that have emerged over the centuries from the biblical witness so that your faith can be enriched, so that you can answer the question, “But who do you say that I am?” with a sense of the wisdom of the centuries.
This wisdom was entrusted to Peter, and through generations of apostolic witness and teaching, it’s been entrusted to us as well. And we, too, have been given the keys of the dominion of heaven.
And we, like Peter, have been given this promise that “the gates of Hades [that is, the powers of death] will not prevail against [the church].”
That is good news indeed when the forces death can seem at times all around us.
Let me leave you with this final statement of good news. Jesus in Matthew exclaimed, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
That is to say, Simon didn’t come up with his confession of Jesus as son of the living God on his own. No, that confession of faith is itself a gift of God. Even as our own faith is also God’s gift to us.
Linger with these grace-filled, wondrous, healing, saving mysteries. Amen.
And as you linger, you may want to ponder these questions:
- So, who do you say that Jesus is?
- How do you experience the rock in your journey of faith?
- What difference does your confession of faith make in your life and work?