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‘But who do you say that I am?’ (Matt.16:15)

This is the question Jesus asked his disciples and companions.    It’s also a question we have all asked about Jesus.  Who is he, and the next question is, where is he and then, how is he in our world today? (Matt.16:13-20)

The story is told in Matthew’s Gospel, sandwiched between the questions about Jesus’ identity asked by his neighbours in his hometown, where he was dismissively named as simply the carpenter’s son (Matt.15:34-58), and the extraordinary description of Jesus’ transfiguration in the next few verses (Matt.17:1-9), as God once again claims him as God’s Son. 

Part of this text (Matt.16:18) is clearly a later addition to Matthew’s Gospel. It provides a justification for the power the Church gave to itself as an institution as it was adopted by the emperor as the state religion.  The word ‘Church’ was not a concept used by Jesus, and the term did not emerge until many years later.  The statement: ‘on this rock I will build my church’ (Matt. 16:18) allowed the Church to stake its claim for its founding story on Peter, the rock.  The next few words: ‘I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven’ consolidate the Church’s power over heaven and hell on earth; and, as a final pivot for the emerging Church, this text authorises the Church’s power over the forgiveness of sins’, neatly wrapping up the Church’s control over the spiritual and physical life of all humanity.

Unpacking this explanation with care and love, means we need to think about how we approach Jesus’ identity and separate out what power and privilege we give to those who manage the very human institution of the Church, which is both much loved and despised; and which was certainly established to help people find Jesus in community and to identify him themselves, as ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. 

There is a similar declaration about Jesus’ identity, in John’s Gospel, by Martha, who was mourning the death of her brother Lazarus.  When challenged by Jesus in her grief, she declared: ‘Yes, Lord.  I believe that you are the Messian, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’.  (John, 11:27)

So, we come to questions about our own declaration concerning Jesus and his identity.  Who do we think he is and how does this affect our lives and change the way we see one another and God.  What sort of testimony do we offer about Jesus through our own words, through our actions and by our lives.  What will our loved ones, our congregation, our neighbours, our communities know about him through us?  

We would be wise to proceed with caution, as declaring with pious hearts and mouths, Jesus is the Messiah, does not necessarily guarantee we know God or have identified him truly, despite the conviction and sincerity of our hearts.  We may not have a clue about what ‘Jesus is Lord’ actually means.

The triumph of Jesus as Messiah and as Lord over the ‘gates of Hades’ may also refer to the incomparable power of the resurrection, rather than to the Church’s activities.  Peter’s declaration, in representing the Church, also reminds us that ‘binding and loosing’ are about the regulation of behaviour of the people of God, in the Church (Matt. 16:19) which can always be a temptation to have ‘control over’ and ‘power over’ others beyond God’s love.

We must not preach or teach the faithful will not suffer but prosper, or that we will triumph over adversity in contrast to non-believers, that we will always win rather than lose because we are special as children of God. 

Yes, Jesus gave his life for us, as the suffering Messiah, and death has been vanquished.  Our salvation has been promised, and cannot again be lost.  However, we cannot make what Mary Poppins calls ‘pie crust promises: easily made, easily broken’.  We must not say, everything is done and we have nothing left to do, Jesus has done it all.  We cannot take it easy.

Faithful discipleship cannot avoid the walk to Jerusalem and to the cross, the confrontation with the powers and principalities, including the Church.  Jesus leads us in the way we must go, rather than letting us off the hook. We are not bystanders, or onlookers, watching vicariously through social media, caught up in the latest fashion or opinion, able to stand back and not become involved.

We must march down the streets of economic exploitation, to seek new means of exchange so everyone can prosper.  We must challenge tax laws, landlord greed, surplus wealth and abusive economic power.  We must enter the debates where unjust policies and laws are made and we must voice the concerns of the disinherited and stand alongside them in solidarity.  We must visit those in prison, where human rights are dismantled and God’s children are thrown onto the scrapheap.  We must welcome strangers, even those who may make of us a scandal; and, accept such confrontations to protect God’s creation as stewards of God’s world given abundantly for all God’s people, not simply for those with too much invested in maintaining the status quo.  

We need to open hearts and minds to new possibilities for those on the margins, those despairing and unbelieving, the homeless, the beaten and abused, the hungry and broken.  This means we cannot relegate God to the spiritual, separated from the physical and practical stuff of life.  It means we are active in all areas of human life and death, in peace and war, as we bring God to everyone and God is made visible to all who want to see and hear God.  And it may involve our own suffering, our rejection by our neighbours, our arrest and our death.  Such it seems, is the way of the one we follow. 

And if this is indeed your response to Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one, the Son of the living God, then the question can be put again: who will we say Jesus is?  The answer depends on the integrity of our faith, our robustness and willingness to see and hear God’s story, and our witness to that story to those around us.

The Lord be with you.

Reference

Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds].  2014.  Feasting on the Gospels Matthew Vol.2.  Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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