Still processing, but I notice three things:
There they stood—beyond the eyes and ears of the Temple officials—beneath the walls of stone carved out to worship the Greek god, Pan, and later named in honor of the Roman Emperor. It is here that Jesus confronts the disciples. Here—where the mythologies and religions of the world met—where Jewish influence was little more than a blip on the radar—where the phrase ‘son of god’ meant Caesar and peace was only established by the sword. This is the controversial place where Jesus asked the disciples to take a stand—right in front of the ‘gates of hell’, a cave from which the waters of Jordan River gushed forth from the spring within.
“What are they saying about me,” he asks. As a relatively public figure, I personally think Jesus is just asking for trouble when he puts that out there. Even when some of us want to know what people are saying—we really don’t want to know. Some of my least favorite conversations start with the words, “Some people are saying…” Because ‘some people’ are generally one or two people who have an opinion but don’t want to take responsibility for it. ‘Some people’ is an unhelpful way of trying to amass an imaginary army of like-minded people as a tactic of intimidation. And yet, Jesus goes there. Jesus asks the question. “What are they saying?”
The disciples don’t hesitate. “Some people are saying you’re Elijah.” “Some people are saying you’re Jeremiah.” “Some people are saying you’re John the Baptist.” “Some people are saying…” I actually wonder if the disciples were reporting what they heard—or what they thought, themselves. The statements are relatively low-risk statements on the part of the disciples and ‘some people.’ Elijah and Jeremiah and John the Baptist are all dead by now. There’s hope behind those statements; but there’s also resignation. As I hear this passage this time around what I hear the disciples saying is this: “Some people are saying you’re a dead man.”
But then Jesus turns the question around. He’s no longer interested in what ‘some people’ are saying. He wants to know what the disciples have been saying. I imagine a great pause after that question as the disciples warily look around at one another, waiting for someone to say something. Did they really believe there might be more to Jesus than a dead prophet?
God bless him, Peter finally steps forward with his answer. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The Son of the living God. The God who is, who was, and who is to come. The God whose love is made manifest, first in the life and death of Christ, and then in the lives we live every moment of every day.
This is what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Romans. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” He’s not referring simply to your physical bodies—he’s talking about your whole lives. Present your lives as a living sacrifice. Dedicate everything about your life to the living God. When you work, work to God’s glory. When you play, play to God’s glory. When you sing and when you sleep. When you are intimate with you spouse and when you nurse your child. When you are driving and walking, when you wake up and when you work out. When you are in worship and when you leave.
So, Peter makes this confession beneath the stone statues dedicated to Greek gods and Roman emperors, standing beside the ‘Gates of Hell’ which issues forth the very river in which Jesus was baptized. And Jesus calls him Rock. And on this ‘rock’—this place where the sacred and secular collide, where death and life intertwine, where hope meets despair and expectations are turned upside down—on this ‘rock’ where who we are converges with who we are called to be—this is where God establishes the Church.
This is, for me, the most confusing part. Jesus says, “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.” He commissions Peter, in particular, now—he’ll commission all of the disciples later. The keys he refers to is the authority to forgive—and to withhold forgiveness. It is the ability to open doors—or keep them closed.
And this forgiveness carries with it the most important of consequences—the opportunity to heal and make whole. It is now, as much as ever, a most precious and needed gift for such a broken and fractured world. It is a gift that comes with knowing—deep in our hearts, rather than our fickle minds—that the Messiah is not a dead prophet but the living God. And we are living witnesses to this God. In the midst of what seems the most profane, secular, and perverted places—the least holy and least sacred and least Christian—we confess with our very lives the God of life and love. We confess through grace. We confess through compassion. We confess through acceptance of one another—advocacy for one another. We confess through our forgiveness of one another.
Some people say that there must be a limit to God’s love. But with Peter, we stand firm among the stone statues of today’s various forms of idolatry and confess as best we can, “Lord, you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church