8/27/17: Living the Question, Matthew 16:13-20
Living the Question
Third in the Series: Ordinary Good News
First Lesson: Isaiah 51:1-6
Second Lesson: Matthew 16:13-20
Rev. Scott Dickison
Jesus and his disciples are out on the road, making their way to Caesarea Philippi, a bustling port city in the Galilee, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
The Son of Man is a title Jesus uses in reference to himself in Matthew—the disciples would have understood that what he was asking was, “Who do people say that I am?” And they tell him that people are saying all sorts of things—as people tend to do. Some say he’s John the Baptist, recently beheaded by Herod, come back from the dead. Others the prophet Elijah—thought to return before the end times. Still others, Jeremiah—another one of Israel’s prophets who had his own tensions with the authorities and suffered mightily for it. It seems no one understands exactly what or whom they’re witnessing. They’ve never seen something or someone just like this before. But then Jesus turns the question to his disciples, and asks what seems to be the question he wanted to ask all along: But who do you say that I am?
And praise God, they got it right. The disciples rarely get it right in the gospels, so we need to lift up when they do. Peter is the first to speak up and he says, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. He gets it right.
And Jesus proceeds to bless him for it—Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates if Hades will not prevail against it. It’s interesting, Mark and Luke both tell versions of this story, but Matthew is the only one with this blessing of Peter and talk about the church, literally the ekklesia is what he calls them, or us, “the ones call out;” the ones whom he soon will leave behind to carry on his mission to the world. It may surprise you to know that Jesus doesn’t talk much about the church in the gospels. In fact, of the four gospels, Matthew is only one to even mention the church. Mark, Luke and John don’t mention the church at all. But Matthew’s gospel always seems to have the early church in mind. Matthew is the only one to give instruction about how the disciples are to organize themselves after Jesus is gone, what they’re to do, how they’re to live in community together and put all of these high minded ideals into hard practice—and we know it really is hard practice. And all of that begins here: this is the first time Jesus mentions the church in the gospel, and thus, the New Testament. So for Matthew, this question of Jesus isn’t just for Peter. This is a question for the church, a question for us: Who do you say I am?
Paul Tillich said it was at this moment that Christianity began; not at the cross, not at the empty tomb, not when Mary met the risen Christ and preached the first resurrection sermon. Not any of that, but here in this moment, when the disciples were faced for the first time head on with the question of who Jesus is and declare him to be who he really was, which is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great pastor and theologian, writing around the same time as Tillich, though while sitting in the darkness of a prison cell in Nazi Germany, determined this was the central question for the church in his time, and would be for every generation to come: Who is Jesus Christ for us, today? he asked, adding urgency to the question. Who do we say Jesus is for us today?
In other words, what does the call to follow Jesus look like for us in this moment? What does it demand of us? Recognizing that while the call to follow hasn’t changed, just what that means, what it looks like, very likely has. What worked in the past may not necessarily work in the present, or where we feel called to go, do and be now may be different from where we once were called. For Bonhoeffer, for instance, how the church had answered that question before the war would not be the same after the war—and he was right. And so it’s important to see this not simply as a question asked to Peter once and for all, but one we should always be asking and answering together as the Church, or congregations and even as individual believers—knowing that how we answer this question matters. In fact, this is an important part of Jesus’ blessing to Peter: Know that what you do, what we as the church does, matters.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The language of “binding and loosing” is a rabbinical term and refers to the authority to make judgments. It was something Jesus practiced throughout his ministry. He would “bind” certain things, claiming they should be at the center: things like loving God with all you heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving you neighbor as yourself. Jesus “bound” these commandments as most important. And he “loosed” others. Things like purity codes, or traditions that had been used to separate or exclude people or make them feel less than a part of God’s blessing—all those he “loosed.” Not ignored, but loosed. Not that they aren’t important at all, they’re just not as important as these other things.
And this, combined with the image of Peter receiving “the keys to the Kingdom” is meant to say that Peter, or the church, now has this authority. The authority to discern the will of God and act it out. As Tom Long puts it, the point here is that what the church does—the decisions it makes, the grace it expresses, the stands it takes, the truths it teaches—matters to God. When the church wrestles with a controversial issue, tries to speak the gospel to one who is alienated from God, provides hospitality to a stranger, teaches the faith to a child, or cares for those in need, it is not just “playing church”; it’s acting out God’s future—the kingdom of heaven—in the present and, thereby, participating in the very life of God. Whenever we do these things, he writes, it’s not just the church that acts; God acts in and through the church.
You see, Peter was on to something when he said Jesus was the Messiah, the son of the “Living God.” I think he knew what the church has tended to forget at times, which is that God is a living God. God is not frozen in the past, not bound by the words of Scripture or the traditions of the church, memories of the good ol’ days, or the way things used to be. God is still living, still moving, still working in the world in ways that are new and guaranteed to be unsettling. And as the church, we’re the ones given the great responsibility to discern just how God is living and moving and working. We still have this power. We still have the power to be voices of grace and mercy and love. Voices of reconciliation and forgiveness—of justice and of compassion and of wholeness. We still have this responsibility.
We may not always feel like we do—there are plenty of voices both outside and inside the church that would have us believe the church doesn’t matter any more, that we’ve lost credibility and authority. And in many ways this is true, most of it because of our own doing. But it may be because we’ve lost this position of prominence in society we once enjoyed—and positions of prominence are always suspicious places to be in Scripture, we should add—it’s because we’ve lost this, that makes the opportunities we have to show ourselves as Christlike now all the more important. It frees us up to focus once again on the only question that really matters of the church, and has ever mattered, which is, Who is Jesus Christ for us today? The answers we come up with won’t always be easy, in fact they’re almost guaranteed not to be. But the important thing is that we ask the right question.
In just a few minutes we’re going to take a vote and in so doing conclude a conversation our congregation has been having together in one form or another for the better part of eight months, and in some ways many year even before that. It’s not always been an easy conversation to have. It’s been personal and has involved relationships with people we hold dear, both inside the congregation and in our wider circles of belonging. But it’s been an important conversation. In fact, I would say it’s been a holy conversation. We’ve learned a good deal about who we are as a congregation: what’s important to us, what binds us together, and at times the differences among us. But when we’ve been at our best, which I’m grateful to say has been most of the time, each of us, no matter where we’ve found ourselves around the issue at hand, has been living the same question, which is the right one: Who is Jesus Christ, for us today? And from that: Where is he calling us, and to whom? What does it mean to be a follower of Christ in this season, in this place, in this moment?
We’ll offer on one small, imperfect answer to this question today, and tomorrow we’ll continue to ask it in different ways, and pray that God will continue walking with us to the answers.
But something else I’ve seen and I hope you have felt, is that this conversation has mattered. What we have done, and will soon do, and will continue to do as a church, matters. It’s mattered for us as a congregation—perhaps especially for our gay members and their families, but then again, we all stand to gain from opening the circle wider—we’re all enriched when there are more brothers and sisters at the table. But it’s also mattered to those outside our church.
You may have seen the article published by the Telegraph over the weekend—and I have to say, it would have been my choice for that to have happened after today. We certainly didn’t reach out to them, but when they reached out to us I wrote them my best summary of where we’ve been together and my broadest hopes for who we’ll be tomorrow and I thought they did a fine job. But then I did what you should never do, and read the comments under the post on Facebook. There were over 100 of them. What we’re doing clearly mattered to many folks. And it probably comes at no surprise that many commenters were, how shall we put it, “unsupportive.” Some were downright hateful. But for others, even that a congregation like ours would have this conversation had touched them in personal, powerful ways.
And I’ll confess that up until that point I’d probably grown a little too shortsighted in this, thinking solely about what this would mean for us here in this room—for our members, our relationships, our finances. And I hope you don’t hear this as inflated self-importance for us, but I was reminded over the past few days that this matters in ways that are bigger than us. This matters in the life of this church and its members, yes, but it matters also in the life of this community and the lives of others who by the miracle of technology are connected to us in far flung places. It matters to them. It matters to many who for good reason have written off the church; who have found acceptance and love in other places and other people, or perhaps are still waiting to find these things. It matters in the lives of many people, in many different ways, and so it matters, in some small but meaningful way, to the life of the world. It matters in some small but blessed way in the life of God.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster John Knox, 186-187