A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (23/08/20): Peter’s Confession

 Peter’s Confession
Matthew 16:13-20

Jesus has a question and he takes his disciples out of earshot of the crowd, to Caesarea Philippi, to ask it. He says:
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
That’s an easy one! Voices speak up from various places within the group of disciples
“Some say John the Baptist,
“But others Elijah, 
“And still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Popular opinion of Jesus is high and quite clear. It places him within the prophetic tradition of Israel. He is one who speaks about and for God with the authority of God. He is like John the Baptist, the recently arrested and executed prophet, the latest in that tradition, who had offered his exacting message of repentance and the nearness of the kingdom, beside the River Jordan. Or he is like Elijah the archetype of all the prophets, who was so close to God that he didn’t die but was received directly into heaven, from where he would return to announce the coming of God’s kingdom. Or he is like Jeremiah who announced judgement and exile, but also promised restoration. Or he is just like all the rest who from time to time had spoken clearly about God to God’s people. The people at large have developed a very high opinion of Jesus. They have placed him in the greatest tradition of their nation. They know that when he speaks they are hearing words from God. And we might say that the are right, in as far as they go. Or at least they are not wrong.

But you can tell from the way which Jesus has asked his question that there is more. The way in which he poses his question implies that there will be a follow up: “Who do people say that I am?” To ask “those people over there, what do they say?” implies that “these people here” are going to say something different. And it also suggests that what those people over there think should not be decisive to the opinion of these people here. Right away Jesus suggests that there is a difference between people in general, and those he is addressing directly right now, his disciples. And his question implies that the distinction between the disciples and everyone else relates to their understanding of who he is. Jesus implies from the outset that the answer which the people are giving is not adequate, even incorrect, and that the disciples must have a better, more complete answer. That in fact it is his second question which is more important. He says:
“But who do you say that I am?”
This time there is a moment of quiet, before  Simon Peter speaks up. As ever he is first to open his mouth. He dares to voice what all the others are thinking but are too timid to say. He steps once more into his role as representative of the disciples. And just for once he hits the nail on the head:
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
This is still the difference of opinion that marks out the disciples of Jesus as distinct from everyone else. Christians are the ones who acknowledge this. Jesus is more than someone to whom you can pay a very high compliment, like calling him a prophet, or wonderful teacher or even miraculous healer. Jesus is the one in whom God is made fully known. Jesus is the one in whom and by whom God’s reign is established on the earth and the complete remaking of creation is initiated. Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God.

But Jesus’ questions are more than requests for information. He doesn’t need to know what people think of him. His mission is not dependent on any kind of opinion poll or popularity test. He doesn’t even need to know what the disciples are thinking, since he has already demonstrated that he is more than capable of seeing the content of people’s hearts. When Jesus asks his questions it reveals to the disciples who they are in relation to everyone else. Asking “who do people say that I am?” shows them that they are already different from everyone else, they are already marked out as a peculiar people. And asking “who do you say that I am?” when you have to answer, “you are the Messiah” becomes a call to commitment. If you say that who Jesus is goes beyond someone who speaks for God with the authority of God, you have no option but to trust and obey. It is Jesus questioning in this way which establishes the Church. And it is these questions and answers which still mark Christians out as different from everybody else.

And it is Peter’s answer which makes the Church visible. His confession is the rock upon which the Church is built. He is the first to acknowledge that Jesus is God’s Son, the one who has been anointed by God to bring about God’s kingdom. Everything that the Church has done ever since finds its starting point in Peter here. Every Christian who has ever lived, or who will ever live, stands in an unbroken succession with those who have this confession which can be traced back to this moment. This is the difference between the Church and everyone else, and which despite all appearances to the contrary make it a unity.
But what makes that difference? How do Christians and the Church become distinguished from everybody else? It would be tempting to suggest that the difference is simply one of better understanding. Somehow, at this point the disciples just know more about Jesus than anyone else. It is certainly true that they do know more about Jesus than everyone else. They have had greater intimacy with him. They have seen and heard more from and about Jesus than anybody else, and all of it at closer quarters. This certainly hasn’t hindered them. It is never a mistake to seek out greater understanding and greater intimacy with Jesus. But it is not this which is decisive. Knowing more about Jesus doesn’t make the decisive difference. After all we shouldn’t be unaware of the fact that Judas Iscariot  was also present among those who gathered around Jesus at Caesarea Philippi. Knowledge of God is simply not accessible in the way that other human knowledge is. Jesus is the true revelation of God. To see and know Jesus is in some sense to see and know God. But as we see from this conversation, and more acutely in the one which follows, it is perfectly possible to have Jesus right in front of you, and even to spend a good deal of intimate time with him, and still not really know the truth or recognise what answering his question actually demands. Peter’s answer, his confession, comes not from his powers of observation nor from his ability to reason. It is a gift from God. It is a miracle. Jesus responds to Peter’s confession:
“Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.”
This is a miracle which all of us who sincerely make that same confession have each experienced. Whatever else we say about the history of the Church we cannot avoid the reality that in its origins the Church is miraculous. And the Church’s continued existence relies on the same miracle. Only God can reveal God and on that miraculous intervention our faith and the Church depend.

For all its miraculous origin and character, the Church is still always a human institution, and as such it is deeply flawed. One of the phrases by which can speak truthfully about the church is semper reformenda – “always in need of reform.” Perhaps what is most startling about the scene at Caesarea Philippi is not Peter’s confession, but the amount of trust which Jesus places in his followers:
“I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. . .” 
The Church is miraculous but Jesus places it in human hands. But this unfortunately is a moment which eventually divides those who are united by Peter’s confession. The divisions in the Church always come down to questions of authority. Who gets to be in charge. And, who gets to say who is in charge. And human being being human are inclined to become argumentative on such topics. In the first instance, because he was first to speak, it is Peter who appears to put in charge:
“and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
But after Peter the issue becomes contentious. What is Peter’s role? And, what is Peter’s relationship with all the other disciples who come after him? Who is Peter’s successor? And, where does that authority reside now? Different traditions give different answers to these questions, and solve the question of authority in the Church in different ways. Those questions may seem remote to us. After all the power to resolve such questions of authority within and between the different traditions of the Church doesn’t rest with us. But we also know, at the most immediate level, that there is no row like the row you can have in church. And almost always the intensity of such arguments comes back to the question of authority. Who gets to do what. And, who gets to say that they can. At this point Jesus isn’t offering us any help in resolving such issues. And indeed in other places Jesus appears to give a very different picture of authority in the life of the Church than the one he gives here by appearing to place Peter in charge. But what we do see is that the origin of such tensions lie in the very first moment of the Church and in its dual nature as a miraculous phenomenon and a human institution.

At the close of this conversation which Jesus has with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi Jesus gives them what looks like his strangest instruction of all:
“He sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
This gets called by biblical scholars the “messianic secret.” The idea that runs through much of the gospel that Jesus is very resistant to people being told who he really is. Of course if the disciples had kept strictly and permanently to that instruction there would be no gospels and no Church. It is the very nature, truly the mission of the Church to tell the world that Jesus is the Messiah. But in view of the Church’s own dual nature, and in view of the kind of knowledge the Church is trying to impart, Jesus invites his followers to at least pause for a moment and consider what they know, who they are and what they are trying to do. Even as we make Peter’s confession and bear witness to the miracle of revelation in ourselves, we have to ask ourselves have we really understood? For Peter his confession was only a starting point. It really is just the foundation of something that is built over time. And Peter’s makes many missteps as he grows into the role which Jesus gives him. Beginning with the very next scene in the gospel, where Peter finds himself so far from the mark that Jesus calls him “Satan.” And much later in the tragic scenes between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday when Peter despite his confession denies Jesus three times. Yet it is to human beings like Peter who Jesus entrusts the Church. All Christians now have a great advantage over Peter. We know Jesus’ story backwards. We will always look through the Resurrection to the Crucifixion, and through the Crucifixion back into Jesus’ ministry and back to Peter’s confession. We have huge advantage over Peter in our understanding from the outset of what Jesus being Messiah actually means. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ stern warning doesn’t apply to us. Confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God is only the start. What follows is the same sort of journey which Peter made into a deeper discipleship, which enables us to say to others that Jesus is the Messiah and invite them to experience the same miracle of revelation.

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Peter’s Confession by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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