The following is the transcript of a sermon preached at Faith Anglican Church in Memphis, Tennessee, on August 27, 2017.
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, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
I don’t have to tell you how relevant this passage is in today’s world. If you’re like me, there’s something in you that really connects with this passage. It’s powerful to me, because it’s so like today. This conversation could easily translate to our contemporary setting. I know that, even if we don’t like to admit it, we often feel like we’ve come a long way from the ancient world. We think that they’re kind of “backward,” that we’ve sort of figured out their mistakes and have a new set of problems to deal with now. But every time I read the Bible, I’m amazed at how well it mirrors my own life, and how it mirrors the world around me. The characters go through the same kinds of trials, share the same joys, face the same temptations as I do. The nations and the governments of the biblical world make the same mistakes ours do. Ecclesiastes reminds us of this: “There is nothing new under the sun,” and in my mind our Gospel passage for this morning really drives that point home.
Because like many in the ancient world, we’re facing an identity crisis. Many of us don’t even know who we are, much less who Jesus is. We know that the nations of the world and the Christian church have very different ideas of Jesus’s identity. Is he a good teacher? Is he a con man, or a lunatic? Is he a Jewish revolutionary? Or is he the Christ, the Son of the living God?
It matters how we answer that question. And who we are, our identities, are inextricably tied to how we answer that question, and what kind of relationship we have with Jesus. So we need to pay attention to this passage, because I think these questions—“Who are people saying that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”—are questions that Jesus is asking, not only the disciples, but us today. And we’re going to have to answer them.
Let’s take a look at the setting of the passage: Caesarea Philippi. This is a really significant detail in this story. It’s a Greco-Roman city, so it’s saturated in the popular culture of the day. There are tons of gods and temples in this city. Caesarea Philippi has shrines to the Roman Emperor, it has temples of Baal. The Greek god Pan is worshipped here, and many, many others, too many to name. There’s a lot going on in this city. To me the best way to describe it is confusing. There’s a confusion in the air, with all these competing ideologies and theologies and deities, and it seems like people are just blindly grasping for anything that’ll stick, anything they can get their hands on to fashion together a faith that works for them. They have a sort of “god of the gaps” approach: they want to appease the Emperor, worship the right gods, and make sure that they’re generally covered. And this is something we can understand. We see people doing this every day in America.
This is the city Jesus leads his disciples to. So I imagine they arrive here, at this mixed up place where people are just trying to figure things out for themselves. And they get to the outskirts of town, and all of a sudden Jesus turns around and says, “What are people saying about me?” And even though we’re at a Roman city, we should realize that he’s actually asking this question about the Jews. To remind you, we’re in the Gospel of Matthew, and in his gospel Matthew heavily emphasizes that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. It’s one of the biggest themes: that his ministry on earth was to the Jewish people first. So we’re not really talking about Caesarea Philippi; we’re talking about the people of the promise. Jesus turns around and asks, “What does the covenant community say about me? These people who are supposed to be in on it, these people who are supposed to know who I am, what are they saying?”
I think, perhaps, the reason Jesus took the apostles to this city was so they could get a good look in the mirror. So they could see that God’s chosen people—the people he’s shown himself to over and over again, the people who had access to the holy Scriptures—these people look just like Caesarea Philippi. Because what do they say? “Well, some people think you’re Elijah, some say you’re John the Baptist, or some other prophet, maybe Jeremiah? They have no idea.” For all their hours sitting in the synagogues, poring over the Scriptures, arguing over doctrine—they missed it when God himself showed up. They were too busy clinging to their history. All they wanted was for Israel to be rescued from exile, to be freed from Rome. They didn’t want a Messiah like Jesus. Their agenda may have looked a little bit different from the pagans, but at the root it was the same. They didn’t want God. They wanted a god of their own making, a god who would do what they wanted him to do. They missed the real Messiah because they were too busy trying to make a better one.
And one of my questions for us today, Church, is has that ever described us? Have we ever, possibly, been so concerned with what we think God should do, how we think God should act, who we think He should be—that we’ve missed the God we claim to care so much about? Are we not seeing the living God because we’re bringing an agenda to the things that are supposed to lead us to him? That we’re so focused on what our denomination believes, what our group says, that we could walk right past him and not know it?
Maybe I’m just preaching to myself here, but I see this a lot in my own life. This is possibly the biggest danger of seminary, and it’s why people like me need the Church. Because I spend all of my time reading theology, studying Greek and Hebrew, learning the structure and the history of the liturgy, and of course these are all great things. They’re gifts. But there’s a huge danger that I’m going to miss the forest for the trees—that I’m going to miss God’s presence and his activity in my life and in the world around me, because I got so caught up trying to figure out exactly how all of that would work. And I don’t think this temptation is unique to seminarians. It’s a danger we all face—we can know a ton about God and not know God. We can look him in the face, like the Jewish people did, and not recognize him.
But the good news is Jesus has too much grace and too much love for us to let us get away with that. At some point he’s going to grab us by the shoulders and ask us, “Who do you say that I am?”
There’s a bishop at my church, Bishop William. He’s a clergy in residence, and he’s not around a ton because he has several ministries in and around Birmingham. When I started my internship at St. Peter’s, my boss wanted me to meet with Bishop William to hear a little about his story and particularly his ministry at Lovelady, which is a battered women’s shelter. Basically, she just wanted me to sit at his feet and listen to what he had to say to someone starting out in ministry.
We met for a couple hours, and he’s in the middle of telling me his story—how he spent a number of years as a hermit in Kentucky, about when he lived and worked in Bolivia, and how he ended up in the ACNA, when he stops and says, “Andrew, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” This is possibly one of the most terrifying questions a bishop can ask you. And it kind of caught me off guard, because he was right in the middle of a train of thought. But I said, “Sure, bishop. What do you want to know?” And he looks at me for a second, and then he says, “Who is Jesus to you?”
This happened, I don’t know, three or four three weeks ago. It was after I had been invited to come here, but before Fr. Herb told me that I would be preaching this text. So it was clearly, to me, the Holy Spirit trying to wake me up and get me to start thinking about this text. And what was amazing was, when he asked me that, I had no idea what to say. I had no words. Which is not great news for someone like me, for someone training to do stuff like this pretty regularly. But in that moment everything that I learned at school—all these great things like the writings of the church fathers and the Reformers, and the Creeds—just turned to dust in my mouth. They didn’t mean anything to me. And so I just sat in silence, trying to think of something to say.
And after a while all I could think to say was, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I can tell you what the Church thinks about Jesus. I can talk to you about fully God, fully man; I can talk to you about all the different arguments for why Jesus died on the cross. But I don’t know who he is to me.”
Do you know what makes Peter’s confession so special? When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, that wasn’t just something he had picked up in the synagogue. It wasn’t an old VBS memory verse that came to mind. It wasn’t the right answer on a theology test. Those words meant something to Peter.
You see, unlike the pagans, and unlike the rest of the Jewish people, Peter didn’t have an agenda. He wasn’t trying to appease an emperor, he wasn’t trying to pick up arms to free Israel from exile. Peter was a fisherman. He was fishing to live. All he wanted was to be fed. All he wanted was to know God. And so God fed him. Peter knew what he was saying because God showed him beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had met the Messiah: “Guys, he’s here. This is him.”
And no book, no teacher, no Creed could have shown him that, could have really shown him that. Only God could have shown him that. Peter knew the living God. He listened, he was paying attention. The pagans were trying to catch anything they could get their hands on. The Jews were casting their nets for something very specific, and everything else was going to be thrown back. But Peter wanted to be caught in Christ’s net. And so He recognized it when Christ, the Messiah, was standing right in front of him.
That’s what made him a rock. He was a rock because he knew the living God and confessed what he had heard. When he saw that God was made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, he had to say it out loud. Before, he was Simon son of Jonah. But now he is Peter, the rock. In knowing God, face to face, Peter received his new identity as a rock of the Church.
And by the way, he’s not the only rock. He may have been the first, but God has been building up his Church throughout the centuries with people who want to know him and want to love him and confess him. Brothers and sisters, if you want to know God, God will reveal himself to you.
Now it may not look like a huge show. It might not be a spectacular event. Peter didn’t see angels coming down from heaven blasting trumpets and singing “Jesus is the Messiah.” It was a quiet word from the Father. No one heard it but Peter. It was such a small event that the text doesn’t even think to tell us that it happened, or when it happened. But most often, this is how God speaks to us. In that same still, small voice that Elijah heard on the mountain. If you want to be fed, God will feed you. But we need to learn how to be still and receptive and patient. It took Peter 16 chapters to get it, right? But once you really see him, once you really meet him, you’ll be able to confess with conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, because you’ve seen it. And at that point you’re a rock of the church, an unmistakable and invaluable part of the Body of Christ. If you’ll listen, you’ll hear that God is saying to you, “You are Andrew, and upon this rock I will build my church. You are David, and upon this rock I will build my church. You are Beth, you are Stephen, you are Elizabeth, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
This is what the Church is—a group of people who confess Jesus Christ because they know him, because they’ve been caught in his net. They’ve come before him with no agenda other than, “Show me who you are.” And once they see him, they have to tell the world about it.
Church, who do you say Jesus is? Do you know him? Do you want to? Being a rock of the church doesn’t mean that we hide behind tradition, and hope that that gets us in. Being a rock of the church doesn’t mean you come to Scripture with an agenda and by doing so fashion your own god. We have to know the real God, the living God. We have to have a relationship, an intimate communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if we ever hope to know what it means to be a Christian, to be a part of the kingdom of God. Now, obviously, Scripture and tradition help us do this. Don’t hear me say they’re worthless. As Anglicans, we find tremendous value in the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church. They nourish us and reveal more and more to us about Jesus. But if our traditions are not bringing us into an encounter with God, if we’re not actually meeting Jesus in the Scriptures—we’re wasting our time.
So I ask you this morning: who is Jesus to you? Can you confess that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the one who came to rescue us from sin and death, because you’ve seen him rescue you from your sin and death? Can you confess that he’s the Son of the living God because you’ve met the living God and you recognize him when he’s in the room?
Because nothing else is going to work. We can only have the power of the kingdom if we’ve seen the power of the King. So who do you say that he is? My prayer is that you’ll have an easier time answering that than I did. And my hope is that, like Peter, you’re hungry, and nothing else but God himself will satisfy. Don’t stop at the gifts, go to the giver. And when you meet him, for the first time or for the hundredth, tell the world about him. Amen.