Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’” This conversation takes place more than half way through Matthew’s gospel account, by which time you’d imagine the disciples would have a pretty good sense of the impression Jesus was making on the people he encountered. And yes, indeed they do. “And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’” People seem to think that you’re a prophet, Jesus. Maybe one of the well-known big league prophets sent back into the world; maybe that latter day prophet John the Baptizer. Word was that John had died in Herod’s prison… but maybe not.
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To identify Jesus with the prophets was no small thing. Prophets were the ones who had spoken the truth of God into the life of a compromised nation. They’d critiqued hollow religious practice, challenged kings to exercise right authority, and called ordinary people back to first things. Prophets were risky figures, in other words, respected and revered by some, and reviled by those in power who had the most to lose.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” It interesting that Jesus chooses to ask his disciples this question at this particular location in their rambling journey. Caesarea Philippi was in the far north of the land of Israel, a good two days walk from the Sea of Galilee, and well outside of the disciples’ familiar world. It was even further from Jerusalem, and beyond the borders of the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. It is a politically loaded question, you see, and one perhaps best asked in a place far from the centre of their political world.
It is a politically loaded conversation, about to get even more loaded. “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.’” It is an extraordinarily bold statement for anyone to make; you are the anointed one—Christos—for whom the nation has been longing. You are God’s instrument in the world, by which Israel will be freed from the oppressive Roman rule, and elevated to a new status as God’s nation. As N.T. Wright puts it, “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.” And, Wright continues,
They knew it was risky. With this, they were not only signing on to be part of a prophetic movement that challenged existing authorities in God’s name; they were signing on for a royal challenge. Jesus was the true king! That meant that Herod—and even faraway Caesar—had better look out. And as for the Temple authorities…
It is heady stuff, particularly for this little group of Galilean followers. If they really do believe this is what is being put in motion, then it would be easy for them to begin to dream of themselves moving into positions of prominence and power—to sit at the right and left sides of Jesus in his kingdom. Herod isn’t king… Jesus is. Caesar isn’t Lord… Jesus is. And we’re part of it! Any wonder that this passage concludes by saying that Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah”? He knows that their understanding of his messiah-ship is incredibly thin, and that those dreams of power and prestige will soon surface. He knows, in other words, that they’re a bit like a group of kids set free in a chemistry lab where they’ll quite happily mix glycerol with nitric acid and give it a shake…
Of course before he tells them to keep their mouths shut about his identity—before he puts the brakes on to keep them from spreading a wrong-headed message about who he is—he says some pretty potent things to Simon Peter about the rightness of his answer. “Blessed are you, Simon son of John!” Blessed are you, for you clearly didn’t figure this out on your own. Blessed are you, for this answer could only have come to you from God. Blessed are you.
And then Jesus does something that happens at other key moments in the long arc of the biblical narrative; he renames him, and in renaming him he gives him a new identity. “I tell you, you are Peter,” Jesus says to Simon. In Greek, petros, or literally “the rock.” You’re solid, Simon, and you’re going to be foundational in the formation of the future to which God is drawing this movement. “[O]n this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” I will build my ecclesia—that’s Greek for assembly, gathering, council—which is a bit different from “church” as it is now commonly used. Don’t think in terms of “I will build my institution, with denominational identities, buildings, budgets, and bishops.” Yes, the ministry of bishops as overseers and shepherds does emerge in the New Testament, and yes,
our buildings, our traditions, and even our budgets can all serve us very well. But they mostly the paraphernalia of religion, to be held and treasured only so long as they serve to build us as a true ecclesia of God. No, think rather in terms of “I will build my people.” Think, in other words, in terms of the sort of picture Paul offers in his epistle to the Romans.
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. (12:4-8)
A people with gifts differing, who by way of some very basic things—word and story, bread and wine, the waters of baptism—are made one body. That’s church in the sense that Jesus is using it here in Matthew.
Jesus says one further thing to Peter, which can seem a puzzling thing. Having renamed him as the Rock, Jesus says “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.” For two millennia, theologians and biblical scholars have spilled rivers of ink wrestling with these words, and frankly there is anything but consensus as to the reach of this statement. This much we can say. Jesus was not saying that Peter was suddenly so rock-like as to be without flaw or error. In the very next episode, in fact, Jesus will rebuke Peter for his misunderstanding, going so far as to call him a “satan” or adversary. The night of the arrest will find the Rock trembling in fear, denying his friendship with Jesus, and as the early church finds its way forward Peter will be challenged by Paul for his waffling on the matter on the full hospitable inclusion of Gentiles in the life of the ecclesia. So no, Peter’s judgments are not in that sense declared infallible. Perhaps what the New Testament scholar Eric Barreto writes is most helpful, when he remarks that the telling thing “is the power that comes in the wake of confessing Jesus as Messiah and living into this world-changing reality. A synchronicity emerges between what happens here on earth and what happens in the heavens. There is power in faith, a power that resonates into the highest heavens.”
Or as Jacob famously discovered in his dream vision of a stairway connecting the heavens to the earth, there is a steady and ongoing connection between the stuff of earth and the stuff of heaven, and what we do here through faith and in the name of Christ is very, very real indeed; it resonates into the highest heavens.
When Peter first uttered those words, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he knew he was saying something risky; something politically subversive. Jesus is King, Herod is not; Jesus is Christos, Caesar is not. And while the politics didn’t work out in the way any of them expected—with a military triumph, a reclaiming of Jerusalem, and the enthronement of Jesus—it remained political all the same. It still is. To be the true ecclesia of Jesus is to cut against the grain of systems and structures and social conventions that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. Things like the deep racism that has recently shattered the community of Ferguson, Missouri; things like the tragic societal dis-ease that this past week left Tina Fontaine’s 15-year-old body in the Red River.
Let your cries against such things ring to the highest heavens. Or more rightly, let our cries ring, because we are meant to be a people together, an ecclesia. We are meant to be one body with gifts differing, animated by a kind of politic that says our hearts must be broken by the things that break the heart of God.