Questions in the Key of Rock

Matthew 16:13-20

What was it like for them I wonder?  What was it like for the disciples traveling from place to place with Jesus?  Did Simon the Zealot argue with Matthew the tax collector every step of the way?  Who assigned the chores when they camped somewhere?  Was Jesus responsible for all that or did he delegate that job to someone else?  How many of them were there?  Was it  just Jesus and the 12 when they were on the road or were there more?  At one point Jesus sends out 70 on a mission; were they all part of the touring company or did that larger group stay behind at Capernaum?  Luke’s gospel mentions a number of women; did they travel with Jesus, too?   

Have you ever been to a place that both frightened and fascinated you?  A place that filled you with both awe and maybe a little bit of dread?

About ten years ago I was backpacking in the Sierras above Sequoia when we came around the bend of the trail onto a broad, open space of bald granite like a great, slightly sloping observation platform.  The view was nothing short of stunning.  In front of us the cliff dropped away into a yawning canyon that opened into an expansive valley.  Off to the north we could see all the way to Half Dome in Yosemite.  It felt like we were standing quite literally on the edge of the world.

As I said, the view was stunning.  And part of me wanted to stay there as long as possible just to soak it all in and marvel at the beauty of it all.  But another part of me was mindful of the sloping granite beneath my feet, some of it loose and chipped and slippery beneath my boots.  I was a good safe distance from the edge where the granite curved over then plunged into the emptiness, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was nothing that one might be able to grab onto if one happened to find oneself sliding toward trouble,  because, you know, life is uncertain.  Teenagers horse around.  People stumble.  And even geology hiccups from time to time.  A slight fear of heights makes you think about these things. 

So I was fascinated, but also a bit uneasy.

I imagine that’s how the disciples felt when they came to Caesarea Philippi.  

Fascinated but uneasy.

They’re in foreign territory, a little more than twenty-five miles from the Galilee.  They’ve walked there, of course.  And now here they are, good Jews, every one of them, standing on the hill overlooking the city, and the most dominant buildings they see are the temple to the god Pan and the temple to the emperor.  The divine Caesar.  

The temple to Pan was built around the entrance to a natural cave called Pan’s grotto.  It was also called the Gate to Hades.  Pan was regarded as a fertility god.  The pagans believed that the fertility gods slept through the winter in Hades then reemerged in the spring to bring new life to the world.  They believed that this grotto was Pan’s passageway to and from Hades, the realm of the dead.  Inside the grotto there was also a gushing spring—it was gushing in ancient times but now it’s barely a trickle—that was one of the sources for the Jordan river. 

What did the disciples think as they were looking at this assortment of temples to these other gods, these gods who were not their God, even a temple to the emperor—and the administrative buildings of the tetrarchy?   What did the disciples feel as they stood in this place confronted by the structures of religion and politics, but not their religion or their politics?

Did the ground feel, maybe, a little slippery under their feet?   Did they wonder if their nervousness might be the influence of Pan?  After all fear is Pan’s weapon; the word panic comes from Pan’s name.

And it’s here, confronted by strange powers—strange religion and strange government—that Jesus asks his first important question:  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Why would he ask that here?  Why now?  Why not back in Galilee where he’s been doing most of his teaching and working wonders?  Why now in this foreign place?  Is he trying to distract them from feeling so out of place?  Is he showing them what they’ll be up against later when they take the message of the kin-dom out into the wider world?  

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples make it clear that people are impressed with Jesus.  They identify him with the pillars of righteousness and prophetic justice in their tradition:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the other prophets.  They understand that Jesus is someone who is somehow extraordinary.  But how, exactly?

Who do people say that Jesus is?  It’s still an important question for us.  

If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, a representative of Jesus, you need to know how the rest of the world sees and understands Jesus, how they describe him, because that’s where conversation begins.  Who do they say he is?  You need to know that before you can make a good case for who you say he is.  

I imagine that Jesus thought a moment about their answers to his first question before he asked the next question: “But who do you say that I am?”

“You,” said Simon Peter, “are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  

The Christ.  The Messiah.  The Anointed One.  I can’t help but wonder how Simon Peter understood his own words.

In his Commentary on Matthew my professor, the late Robert H. Smith wrote: “As the reality of the Son overwhelms mind and senses, people try to get a handle on him by fitting him into some convenient slot like prophet.  However, the Christ or Messiah is not a prophet but the goal of prophecy, not another promiser but the inaugurator of the promised time.  As Son of the living God his is the bearer of the presence of God and acts in the place of God, not as a renewer of old traditions, but as agent of God’s fresh creative work, bringer of new heavens and a new earth.”[1]

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Do you call him the Christ, the Messiah?  Do you understand him to be not merely a prophet but the goal of prophecy?  The one who was prophesied? 

Is he for you the Son of the living God?  Does he bear the presence of God in your life?  Do you see him not as the renewer of old traditions, but as the agent of God’s fresh creative work, the bringer of new heavens and a new earth?

Or has he become for you the centerpiece of old traditions?  Do the titles of Christ and Son of God simply echo memorized lines from the creeds that get repeated without much thought? 

Jesus is asking us the same question he asked Peter, James, John and the others as they stood overlooking the monuments built to idols and government:  “Who do you say that I am?”

We hear that question as we stare out into a world devoted to those same distractions and others even more powerful:  “Who do you say that I am?”

And it’s oh, so tempting for us to leap straight to the answer we memorized, the answer we have heard all our lives, without really thinking about the question or what our answer means. 

If you, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then you are also acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of his church, the ekklesia established on the bedrock of that confession.  You are acknowledging that you have been called to participate in Christ’s fresh, creative work of making the kin-dom of heaven a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  You are acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of the beloved community and to live by the ethic of grace and generosity that guides that community. 

In 1989, President George Bush was entering St. John’s Episcopal Church to attend Sunday worship when he was stopped by a homeless man, William Wallace Brown, Jr. who simply asked the president to pray for him.  President Bush  replied, “No. Come inside with us and pray for yourself.”  From that day on William Wallace Brown, Jr. attended church faithfully. He would sit in the pews in his street-dirty clothes alongside the rich and powerful and always put a dollar in the offering plate even when that dollar was all he had.

William Wallace Brown had been invited to come in to the beloved community, to encounter Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And to him that meant everything.

This community, this church built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, is, in Robert Smith’s words, “well founded, not by human authority or ingenuity only, but by the exalted Jesus, Son of the living God.  This Jesus is not a figure of the past alone.  He is still present in the midst of the community, not as unseen observer only but with his authority and teaching.”[2]  

I would add that Jesus is still present with his love and compassion, and that these keys of the kin-dom will unlock the power in us to change the world.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Robert H. Smith, The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, pp.198-199; Augsburg Publishing House, 1989

[2] Ibid, 202-203

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