Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 27, 2017

2017.08.27 “Who Do You Say That I Am?” – Matthew 16: 13 – 20

Central United Methodist Church
Who Do You Say That I Am?
Pastor David Haley
August 27th, 2017

Who do you say I am

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.”  And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has 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 of Hades will not prevail against it. 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.”  Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. ”  – Matthew 16: 13 – 20, The New Revised Standard Version


One of the most memorable travel experiences I’ve had was in January of 2009, when my family visited Rome. Everyone knows St. Peter’s and the Vatican, but what’s really interesting is to take the archaeological tour, 45 feet under the floor of  St. Peter’s. There, you can walk down an ancient Roman street through a 1st century necropolis, or cemetery. Some of the tombs are Christian tombs, decorated with early Christian art, and one tomb in particular stands out: it is thought to contain the mortal remains of St. Peter, or at least what’s left of him after 2,000 years. Are those bones authentic? Who knows; it’s not like they could do DNA tracing. But on June 26, 1968 Pope Paul VI announced that the relics of St. Peter had been found.

It’s a wild story really, that one of the largest churches, both in terms of building and institution, would be built over the remains of a 1st century Jewish fisherman. We can only wonder what St. Peter have said if someone would have told him this would happen?” (Hint: it would likely be unprintable!)

For anyone who is remotely a Christian and knows the Gospels, we have what might be characterized as a celebrity crush on St. Peter. Simon bar Jonah – as he might prefer to be called, other than “Your Holiness” – we feel like we know, despite the fact that he lived 2,000 years ago, in another culture, speaking a language incomprehensible to us, Aramaic. We know Peter was impulsive and brash, which often got him into trouble when he spoke and sometimes when he acted, as two weeks ago when he thought he could walk on water. We know his commendable side, as in today’s Gospel, but we also know his disappointing side, on display in next Sunday’s Gospel, when Jesus calls his Satan and tells him to get behind him, and again later when he denied knowing Jesus. Did the Gospels portray Peter in this way as a caricature, or as an example to generations of future Christians like us – who like Peter, well, shall we say, we have our good days and bad days?

Today, on display, we see St. Peter the Good. During a break with his disciples, Jesus asks: “Who do people say that I am?” “Well, say the disciples, 40% say John the Baptist, 30% say Elijah, and another 20% say Jeremiah or one of the prophets, and 10% don’t care or know what day it is.”

Jesus wasn’t interested in popularity polls, here’s where he was going:  “And you – who do you say that I am?”

When I was in seminary I had a professor who – like most professors – would throw out a question and see who would answer. But this professor did more than that: as he talked he would walk, right up to you, right to your desk, point at you and say: “But you – David – what do you think?” At which point I – or whoever he was pointing at – would begin to sweat. This is what Jesus did to his disciples: “But you – what do you think – who do YOU say that I am?”

If Peter began to sweat, or whether he jumped around with his hand in the air, like a student who knows an answer, there is no mention of it. What he said was this: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

Now it was Jesus’ turn to jump up and down, making an exclamation we’ve been puzzling about ever since:

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 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.”

St. PeterI do not believe that Jesus gave Peter a big wad of keys, nor even one big key, as sometimes portrayed in renaissance paintings. Roman Catholic theology has taken Jesus’ words to mean that Peter was the rock, meaning that Peter is the foundation of the Church and the Church’s first Pope, which all others have succeeded, and that’s why the Roman Catholic Church is literally built of top of Peter.

Protestants – on the other hand – have contended that the rock upon which the Church would be built is not Peter, but Peter’s confession of Christ, the foundation of the Church. It is our confession of Jesus as the Christ which individually makes us Christian and collectively the Church; apart from that we would be another sect of Judaism.

Others go so far as to question whether Jesus ever intended to build a church at all, being the apocalyptic prophet that he was, expecting the imminent end of all things. I personally have always liked for the saying: “What Jesus intended was the Kingdom of  God; what he got was the church.” Most pastors would have settled for the church; but what we got instead was property management and conflict mediation.

While there have been times through history where the Church has been a Rock, in our time I compare it to another famous rock, Plymouth Rock. If you have ever been to Plymouth, and seen Plymouth Rock, you know it should really be called “Plymouth Stone.” These days, the church is like that: we may still have our edifices and institutions, from storefront churches to massive cathedrals to bureaucratic denominations, but – for the most part – many are more empty than full, definitely not as full as they used to be. So while itt remains to be seen what will happen to this massive, expensive, energy-consuming institution that is the church, we know that the bedrock – faith in Jesus the Christ – is still there. What will be built upon it, remains to be seen.

And what about that “gates of hell” thing; what does that mean? Is the Church of Christ a static institution – as we often picture it – with the host of hell beating against our door, like a scene out of Lord of the Rings? Or is the church not a static institution but a dynamic movement, never standing still but always moving forward into new frontiers, right up to the gates of hell?

A few years ago, Paul Nixon wrote a book called, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church. In it, he asked: “Do you see your church as a FORTRESS or a frontier?” Some churches, he said, adapt a fortress mentality, and see themselves as the lonely faithful, with everybody out to get what’s theirs. So they change the locks, add more security lights, cover up the stained glass windows, put up a fence. What message do they give the community? I think you know: STAY OUT! And people gladly oblige.

On the other hand, says Nixon, churches can adapt a FRONTIER mentality, as Methodism did in its earliest (and best) times. Here we are out on the frontier, daringly reaching out. Such churches, says Nixon, will not look like a fortress, but will be well-cared-for and inviting, surrounded by flower gardens and fountains, benches and places for people to sit, with signs saying not “Trespassers Beware” but “Visitors Welcome.” Such churches, says Nixon, are constantly thinking about ways to get the community into the building, and conversely, to get the congregation out of the building into the community. For such churches, the gates of hell are no match. I believe that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

But back to Jesus’ question: what about you, what would you say? “And you – who do you say that I am?

In truth, while Peter gave a good answer – the right answer – he didn’t understand what he was saying, as evident in what happens next, but also in Jesus telling them NOT to go out and tell everyone, for fear of misunderstanding. As we shall find out next week, they had more, much more, to learn about what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah, and therefore what it meant to follow him.


Albert Schweitzer

Isn’t this the way it is with us as well? Both our understanding and experience of who Jesus is, has evolved and changed over the years. It is different now than it was 20 years ago, different yet than when we were a young adult or youth or child in Sunday School, changed by our ongoing experience over time both with Scripture and with others. This is why following Jesus is never a one-time commitment, but a life-long journey. As theologian Albert Schweitzer put it, in his book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus:

“To those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1906, p. 40.) Amen.


Fred Craddock

One of my favorite stories illustrating how our understanding changes has to do with Albert Schweitzer, as told by the late Fred Craddock, noted storyteller and preacher. Craddock was twenty years old when he read Albert Schweitzer’s classic The Quest for the Historical Jesus; the whole point of the book is the question of “who Jesus is.” But at 20 – like most of us at that age – Craddock said he found Schweitzer’s Christology woefully lacking – more water than wine. He marked in the book, wrote in the margins, raised questions of all kinds.

One day, Craddock read in the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Albert Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio, to play the dedicatory concert for an organ in a church up there. According to the article, Schweitzer would remain afterward in the fellowship hall for conversation and refreshment.

So – seeing his opportunity – Craddock bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Cleveland. All the way there he worked on The Quest for the Historical Jesus, laying out his questions, putting them on a separate sheet of paper, making reference to the page numbers, preparing his questions: “You said . . .” Because he figured, if there was a conversation in the fellowship hall afterwards, there’d be room for a question or two.

So Craddock went there, heard the concert; rushed into fellowship hall, got a seat in the front row, and waited with his lap full of questions.

After a while, says Craddock, Schweitzer came in, shaggy hair, big white mustache, stooped, seventy-five years old. He had played a marvelous concert. He was a master organist, medical doctor, philosopher, biblical scholar, lecturer, writer, everything. He came in with a cup of tea and some refreshments and stood in front of the group, and – said Craddock – “There I was, close.”

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everybody: “You’ve been very warm, hospitable to me. I thank you for it, and I wish I could stay longer among you, but I must go back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station in Lambarene. If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me?”

Says Craddock, I looked down at my questions; they were so absolutely stupid. And I learned, again, what it means to be Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.” (Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, Editors, pp. 125 – 126.)

 As Peter learned who Jesus was – sometimes the hard way – so we too are still learning, as well as what it means to follow him today. May God give us both wisdom and courage, as we seek to do so day by day.


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