|7th Century, Unknown artist|
Scripture Passage: Matthew 16: 13-16
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 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.”
Who do you say that I am? The question seemed harmless enough. But how would you answer it? Who do YOU say that Jesus is? We are approaching Holy Week. The tide has already turned toward Jerusalem. In just six days, Jesus will enter the city of Jerusalem for the last time. In just six days, the end will begin. We are all the same. As we see the end of something approaching, we begin to scramble a bit. We try our best to glean everything we can, to absorb all of that person, all of their essence, into our lives. This is no different. How do we in this short time get to know the person Jesus? Realizing, of course, that there was an historical figure known as Jesus who was documented and made a part of history, sketchy as it might have been. But Jesus was something more. Jesus represented more. Who do YOU say that Jesus is?
This interaction between Jesus and the disciples is probably the writer’s way of trying to clarify understandings of Jesus and his work and perhaps clear out some of the “misunderstandings”. Keep in mind that in 1st century Judaism, the name “Mashiah” (Messiah) had several different meanings. It essentially means “anointed”, or “one who is anointed” for a specific purpose and vocation. That could mean a prophet, a king, a warrior, or a savior. From that standpoint, the “Messiah” probably meant to each person whatever it was that would fulfill the needs and fears of that person. Also keep in mind that this version of the Gospel was probably written after the destruction of the temple and the devastation of Jerusalem. There were real fears present. There were real questions. OK, then, who IS the Messiah? Who is going to help us now? And what does that mean? Some people saw Messianic qualities in John the Baptist; others in Elijah; others in Jeremiah or others. They saw in those people the answer to their questions, the answers to their own unique array of issues, problems, and fears. But those people were gone. (And, at the point of this writing, so was Jesus!) And yet Jesus, as Messiah, lives as God’s Spirit moves and works through the community of faith building the kingdom of God. The meaning was not one that could be “nailed down”; instead it has to be lived out in one’s life.
This passage also characterizes an understanding of what the church itself is supposed to be. The word “church” is seldom used in the Gospel accounts. In fact Matthew uses it only here and in the 18th chapter of Matthew. The church is not merely an institution. This is not meant to be the beginning the Christian church as we know it. Rather, church here is referring to the foundation that spawns the continuing work of Jesus Christ in the world. It is a foundation that is so strong that nothing else can overcome it—not even death itself. The work of Christ has begun and nothing can stop it. The “key” image in rabbinic thought primarily refers to authority that is given to Peter (and to the church) to BE the church. This really has nothing to do with apostolic succession or “church authority” as we know it today. (That will come MUCH later!) It has nothing to do with building great big congregations; it has to do with being swept into the Kingdom of God and being a part of ushering it into its fullness.
The passage ends with Jesus’ directive to keep what is called the “Messianic Secret”. Why? One would think that he would want it shouted from the rooftops. And yet, the truth is not revealed until well after the Resurrection. It, again, has to be lived into. This writing is pointing to what is to come. As the story continues, Jesus’ earthly life will come to an abrupt and painful end. And, yet, the story continues, bound in heaven and heard on earth. You just have to live into it to get the full meaning and realize that God’s creative power is always and forever loose in the world. There are lots of understandings of God in this world. (Actually, who are we kidding? There are several understandings among those of us who are reading this!) Some understandings resonate with us; some challenge us; some make us uncomfortable; and, frankly, others probably just get in the way. This is not a God to be explained but one to follow. So, then, who do you say Jesus is? Jesus is not a model of the way we should be; rather, Jesus lives through us. So how does that change the answer to the question?
So, what is your understanding of “Messiah”? What needs do you envision Jesus filling in your life, in the world? If we say that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, and we say that we are called to follow, then who are we? Who do you say that you are as a follower of Christ? What needs do you envision you filling in the world?
On this twenty-ninth day of Lenten observance, ask yourself the question, “Who do you say that Jesus is?”, and then ask “And who does that call me to be as a follower of the Messiah, the anointed One.”?
Grace and Peace,