By Dr. Mickey Anders
When our men’s group discussed today’s text, one of the men suggested one of the famous lines from the Watergate Scandal of the 70s. What began as a brief news story before the election of 1972, gradually escalated with news stories from Woodard and Bernstein. Now we even know the identity of their secret source, Deep Throat. As the incident escalated, people began to wonder if President Nixon knew about the break-in. It was Senator Howard Baker who asked the famous question, “What did he know and when did he know it?”
Today I want to use that question as the outline for examining our text. What do we know and when did we know it?
In this text, Jesus asks two very important questions, the second more important than the first, “Who do men say the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am?”
The answers to the first question are many. If we consider the people who are theologians, we will find a great variety of answers. Some of them say Jesus was a radical Jew, leading a failed revolution against Rome. Some say he was a gentle peasant philosopher, teaching compassion and nonviolence. Some say he was wild-eyed apocalyptic prophet, believing the end of the age had come and God’s kingdom was about to blow the world apart. Some say he believed the kingdom of God was an inner reality, and he lived a life-affirming, earthy spirituality, eating and drinking with people others had written off. One preacher studied all the scholarly and historical information about Jesus and concluded that Jesus was a “self-subsistent composite hypostasis, the union of a simple self-subsistent hypostasis with a composite non-self subsistent hypostasis.”
If we were to ask the average person on the street, we would get a equal variety of answers. Perhaps they would say he was a prophet, along with Mohammed or Ghandi, a Jewish leader in his time, someone who did good deeds, a great teacher, the greatest man who ever lived. Some people see a man of action, a mystic, a revolutionary, a liberator, or a great moral leader.
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Many preachers today would argue that we should not look to the scholars to find who Jesus was, but simply read the Bible. That’s where we will find the true Jesus. He is the one we find in the four gospels.
But the problem is, there isn’t one Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each gospel paints a different picture of Jesus, and some of these differences are profound. Matthew presents Jesus as the Son of David; Mark most often calls him Son of Man; Luke calls him Savior of the world; and John presents him as the Word made flesh. Even the four gospels don’t completely agree on who Jesus is.
When Jesus asked the disciples this question, they answered, “Some say John the Baptizer, some, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” The disciples thought they had put Jesus in the highest categories they could find. These were high tributes, but not high enough.
A Roman emperor had a statue of Jesus and a statue of Plato side by side in his pantheon. He thought he was paying Jesus a noble tribute. He was, but human categories, even the highest, are inadequate to describe him. Those answers implied that there were precedents and parallels. But Jesus was unique.
With all these many responses to Jesus’ question, we hardly know which Jesus to choose. Rachael Hosmer, an Episcopal minister, had a dream about ordering from the Sears Catalogue. Only this was no ordinary catalogue. In it, she could order the Jesus of her choice.
There was Jesus as a seminary professor, with pipe and tweed jacket. There was Jesus the farmer, with calluses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails. There was a suburban, church-going Jesus in a suit and tie. There was a Latino Jesus, and an African-American Jesus. There was a feminist Jesus, who enabled bent women to stand up.
In her dream, Rachael chose one and ordered that Jesus. She received a Jesus, but it was different from the one she had ordered. She ordered another Jesus, and again she got a Jesus different from the one she had chosen. This happened again and again. Every time she received a Jesus who differed from the one she had ordered. And every time, it really was Jesus whom she was given.
The message of her dream became clear to her the next day. Jesus would come into her life, but he was always different from her expectations, always wonderfully surprising.
(From a sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut http://www.stpaulsnorwalk.org/sermons/sermon20030914.html)
I remember reading a book in college entitled Christ the Tiger. At first the title was confusing because I expected to hear about Christ the gentle lamb. But as I read the book, I began to understand that sometimes Jesus storms into our lives like a tiger rather than coming gently as a lamb. He always comes into our lives, but in surprising and wonderful ways.
Obviously there’s no shortage of people ready to tell you who Jesus is. And surely there’s some truth in all of those answers, and a whole lot of confusion as well. But the real point is: they can only answer the first of Jesus’ two questions. Who do people say that I am? People can give you a thousand different answers to that question.
In verse 15, Jesus turns to the second and most important question, “But who do you say that I am?”Here Jesus moved the impersonal discussion to a personal challenge. Jesus asked his first question merely as a tool to work his way into discussion of his real question, “Who do you say that I am?” In the end, it doesn’t matter who “people” say he is; it matters who we say he is. It is the pivotal question of life for all of us.
The disciples were hesitant to answer Jesus’ most profound question; all except for Simon that is. True to his impetuous ways, Simon blurts out the answer that must have been on everyone’s mind, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s confession defines Jesus as Messiah (or Christ) – and further stipulates that he is “the Son of the living God.”
In verse 17, Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Jesus makes clear that Peter is not blessed because of personal attainment or brilliant insight. His knowledge came by divine revelation. It was a gift, not an attainment. It was revealed by the Father in heaven.
The only way we come to confess Jesus as the Christ is by the road of faith as well. True confession does not come from mentally stacking one proposition on another until we have built a magnificent wall proving that Jesus is the Christ. No, we just find ourselves with faith. As we have studied about Jesus and contemplated his nature, something has built up within us. And suddenly we find our selves having faith. It is revealed by the Father in heaven, just as it was for Simon and the other disciples.
Next Jesus says, “I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Jesus gives Simon a new name, “You are Peter.” The name “Peter” means “stone” or “rock.” And apparently it really was a new name. The New Interpreter’s Bible says there are no documented instances of anyone’s ever being named “rock” in Aramaic or Greek prior to Simon. “You are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”
Scholars have debated for centuries asking whether Jesus builds the church on Peter as the foundation or on Peter’s confession or Peter’s faith. Some conclude that the position Peter held was unique and unrepeatable.
I think Jesus was referring to the faith of all the disciples because there is another important reference in the Bible to a foundation of the church. Revelation 21 describes the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. The city had a great high wall with twelve gates, and on the gates were the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Verse 14 says, “The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them twelve names of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb.”
Revelation clearly does not say that the foundation of the new Israel was the one stellar apostle Peter. Instead that authority and position is given to all twelve of the apostles.
Whatever we conclude about the foundation of the church, it is Jesus who is the builder of the church. Jesus is the one who constructs the new community. The church is not a human achievement or fellowship of like-minded individuals who have formed a support group. Rather Jesus builds the church.
“Gates of Hades” is a biblical expression (Isaiah 38:10) that can mean the same as the “gates of death.” The meaning is that the realm of the dead is not stronger than the church founded on the rock, and the church will always endure to the end of history. It is the promise of Christ to build his church despite the forces of death arrayed against it.
The image suggests a community on the move, marching forward to defeat the powers of death and darkness that Hades represents. Thus, it is to this community, his church, that Jesus entrusts the keys and the power to bind and loose.
In verse 19, Jesus says, “I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.”
These are difficult words to interpret and the varied interpretations have caused great division between Catholics and Protestants. Whatever this verse means, I am sure that it does not mean that Peter alone decides who will go to heaven and who will not. That decision is made by God alone, and it is clearly based on our faith. We all know that, but we still have the vision in our minds of “Saint Peter at the pearly gates.” We all know jokes that begin with someone dying and meeting Saint Peter at the pearly gates. Peter’s function is not to decide in the afterlife who is admitted and who is denied entrance to heaven.
Some scholars suggest that this image is a symbol of the power given to Peter and to the other disciples. Others suggest that this was a traditional rabbinic symbol for the authority to teach. This interpretation suggests that Peter was anointed as the chief teacher of the church. The keeper of the keys has authority within the house as administrator and teacher.
The language of binding and loosing is sometimes said to be symbolic as well. Binding means forbidding and loosing means permitting. Others say this is also rabbinic terminology for authoritative teaching.
This passage ends as many of the Gospel stories about Jesus do with a warning not to tell. “Then he commanded the disciples that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ.”
This theme of the Messianic Secret is most common in the Gospel of Mark, but as here, we do find it elsewhere. It seems that Jesus had a special sense of timing about his ministry. He did not yet think it was the time to circulate widely the affirmation that he was the Messiah. Perhaps he was well aware of the volatile nature of such a claim, and indeed that was the claim that ultimately led to his death.
As with Senator Howard Baker and the Watergate scandal, it is still important to know “what he knew and when he knew it.” What we know is important. It is important for us to be able to answer not just Jesus question about who people though he was, but who we think he is. “Who do you say that the Son of Man is?”
And we all acknowledge that the “when” is important as well. Many of us love to recall when it was that we were baptized, when it was that we accepted Christ, when it was that we joined the church. That date is important in our spiritual pilgrimage. If the “what” is important, the “when” is also important to us.
Perhaps some of us must answer the “when” with “not yet.” Some here have never made their commitment of faith in Christ. There is no better “when” than “now.” Now is the time to join with Peter and proclaim, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2005, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.