WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM
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Imagine a group of people somewhere downtown. They’re pretty plain, ordinary everyday people. Some of them are a little rough around the edges. They’re not very urbane. They’re gathered together in a coffee shop, and not like a Starbucks, but maybe some sort of independent place that’s really not very fancy. This group of people is surrounded by symbols of where people find religion. The Eaton’s Centre. A symbol of faith in the acquisition of things. The belief that we find deliverance in buying stuff. Gleaming financial towers. Reflections in the belief that the market will save us. That the right economic system will be the cure to what ails society. The Air Canada Centre is nearby. The Rogers Centre just down the street. Modern cathedrals where the religious flock in their regalia. Shrines to a glorious past (really for both Leafs and Jays) where thousands go to see spectacle. Queens Park nearby reflecting a belief held by some that the right government, the right governmental system or constitution of charter is the thing on which to pin all our beliefs.
In the middle of all this, the question is asked by the leader of this small group of people. “Who do people say that I am?” The answers come in. A charismatic leader. A great teacher. A wise prophet. Then comes the question that has been the focus of these weeks of Lent. “And you, who do you say that I am?” The question of our lives. Is there a question more important? One member of the group answers – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In other words, you are the one who we are putting all our hope on. You are the one who is worthy of our worship.
Because this is really what we’re talking about when Jesus asks the question – “Who do you say that I am?” To whom or to what do we look for deliverance? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with shopping at the Eaton’s Centre and have done so myself. Two weeks ago I was a guest at a Leafs game. I participate in our democracy. I believe in financial prudence and oversight. The problem arises when we look to consumerism as our purpose in life. The problem comes when financial considerations trump every other sort of consideration (like care and compassion). The problem comes when diversion becomes our goal in life, and we are living in order to figure out how to fund our next playcation or wherever it is that we find ourselves diverted.
It’s easy to become diverted when we’re surrounded by these symbols. This is where Jesus and his followers found themselves in Caesarea Philippi. Surrounded by symbols that proclaimed where one found deliverance. It was a town on the southern slopes of Mount Hermon, close to the present day border with Syria. It was formerly called Pannia after Pan, the god of nature. There was a large temple to Pan built into its red cliffs. It had been renamed after the emperor by the Phillip the Tetrarch, one of Herod the Great’s sons. Phillip put his own name in there too of course. The city also housed a temple to Caesar – the emperor being worshipped as divine. The one to whom everyone looked for salvation. A giant white marble temple. In the face of all this, we have this rather ragtag group of Galileans, and this rather remarkable answer given by Peter.
It’s not entirely unexpected. Jesus is called the Messiah in Matthew’s first chapter. Demons call him the Son of God. Last week we looked at Jesus stilling a storm and the disciples worshipping him and saying “Truly you are the Son of God.” This is not to take anything away from Peter’s role here or his recognition of Christ as the Messiah and Son of God. Peter is assigned first place here being the first to recognize Jesus as such. Peter is given a role by Christ as the rock on which Christ’s church would be built – and there has been much dispute among Christians about what exactly this means.
What is undisputable, however, is that Matthew’s focus here is what comes after Peter’s confession. The first question for us is “Who do you say that I am?” If we answer with Peter and say “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, then the question that follows is “What kind of Messiah is this?” What kind of God is this?
He’s the God who is victorious over death. On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not stand against it. Whatever we think about papal succession, it is Christ who is our cornerstone. The stumbling block which the builders rejected has become our cornerstone. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. This is how Paul describes it to the Ephesians. We are living stones being built into this edifice that is the church. This passage marks a turning point in Matthew. Jesus is now looking toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where Jesus will enter the field of battle against death – not mounted on a charging horse but mounted on a donkey. Connected with and trusting in his Father. The battle will be fought against death on the cross. The Israelites called it Sheol – translated Hades in Greek. The place in which one was separated from God. The place in which God’s voice was not heard. Its gates will not stand against Christ on Good Friday, and this is why we can call it “Good.” It is on this victory that the church will be built and endure, knowing that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
The church will have role in making this known. The role is given to Peter in our text but Peter is representative of us all. To know Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of the living God means to be given a role and enabled to fulfill that role. I will give you the keys of the kingdom. It’s why Peter is often depicted (usually in jokes it seems) as guarding the gates of Heaven. This might be good for jokes but we take this seriously. Keys are not just for barring entry, but for unlocking doors. Peter will go on to unlock doors for thousands of people at Pentecost. He’ll unlock the door for Cornelius. At the Jerusalem council in Acts he’ll unlock the door for Gentile converts. We are called to unlock the door to the Kingdom of God in the same way, with our actions, with our words. Decisions are going to be made by Peter and those in the early church. Binding and loosing. In rabbinic literature this signified decision making. Decisions will have to be made in the church. We continue to make decisions and must always look to the question we looked at two weeks ago – What does love call for in this situation? Remembering that we’re rooted and grounded in Christ and his unsearchable love for us.
So far so good right? Then comes the surprise. The unexpected thing. “From that time on.” These words signal a change in Matthew’s Gospel. “He began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This was not supposed to be part of the plan. No one in 1st century Judea was looking for a Messiah who would die. The Messiah was supposed to be raising up an army, restoring the fortunes of Israel and overthrowing foreign rule. Peter says “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Jesus’ response might seem harsh. I don’t know that he said it harshly though. I think he said it with a lot of love. Get behind me. It’s not the same thing he said to the tempter when the tempter came to Jesus in the wilderness. That was simply “Away with you….” Jesus tells Peter “Get behind me.’ In other words, get behind me. Follow me. Follow me to where I’m going, even though it wasn’t what you were expecting. Follow me and see how the Son of the Living God deals in sacrificial love. Not fame. Not spectacle. Not masses of adoring crowds. In shame rather. The shame of the cross. Bearing the shame of the world there. This is where this whole journey is headed to friends. To the cross. ‘’You are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In human terms we measure success by numbers. Chasing ratings, chasing clicks, chasing numbers. In human terms we want spectacle. I was watching a church service on TV recently and the pastor had people coming up to the front. He would touch them and they would fall back, overcome with the Spirit. At one point he had a group of 15 or so men in front of him and he waved his hand and they all fell backward. I hesitate to judge what was going on but it seemed this church was all about spectacle. Like the Corinthian church it seemed that outwardly visible manifestations of the Spirit of God were prized above all – the bigger the better. I wondered about the people who didn’t fall but just kind of turned around and walked away after being touched. Did they feel less adequate? Did they feel that there was something wrong with them that they weren’t receiving this falling down blessing? I don’t know. I hope not. They must have been suffering in some way to approach the front in the first place.
One thing the death of Christ tells us friends, is that there is no suffering from which God is absent. Christ says “Get behind me, follow me to where I’m going.” The disciples couldn’t of course, though they would come around. Sometimes we can’t I suppose. It’s sometimes hard to come alongside suffering. There’s no spectacle. It doesn’t get us on TV when we’re sitting with someone who has just received a diagnosis. Someone who has just lost someone. We can be assured though that God is in that suffering, and that there is no suffering from which God cannot bring life. Even death. Christ showed that over Easter weekend. It’s important that we recognize this. It’s vital that we don’t go from the seeming triumph of Palm Sunday (though is it all triumph? Find out next week!) to the triumph of Easter. Jesus is reminding us not to forget that he’s the suffering servant, the suffering Messiah.
He calls us to follow him in this. To take up our cross. Daily, Luke adds. To say “I’m behind you Jesus” daily. To take up our cross. To deny ourselves. Who would do this? It doesn’t mean to efface ourselves. We’re not talking about self-effacement or making ourselves doormats. We’re talking about claiming our identity as beloved children of God based on the life and death and resurrection of Christ. We’re talking about the great Christian paradox of losing our lives for Jesus sake, and in so doing to find life. For some Christians this has meant actually losing their lives for Jesus’ sake. What might it mean for us? Dying to our need to control, to determine outcomes, to have things our own way etc.
Why would this be something we want? Because from this death comes life. Jesus will tell his followers three times what’s going to happen. It’s interesting that nobody notes the resurrection part. This is the second half of the equation, however. Maybe it’s not so strange though. As one writer puts it, resurrection “had to be experienced to be believed.” Once it’s experienced though, look at what happens. The question then becomes, are you experienced? Have you experienced resurrection? Have you experienced new life? This is our invitation. This is the invitation that Jesus extends when he says “Get behind me.” It is in dying with Christ and experiencing the power of the resurrected Christ that we find life! Do you know what I’m talking about? If you do share your stories. How have you experienced resurrection? Open the doors to the Kingdom for others. Let’s get together now and remember Christ’s death until he comes, just as we were commanded. People are gathering to worship and gather around this tables like this all over our city, all over our world. Let us say with Peter, “To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life?” Let us say with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Let us get behind the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God. May this be true for us all.