Collect: Confession of Saint Peter
Almighty Father, who inspired Simon Peter, first among the apostles, to confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God: Keep your Church steadfast upon the rock of this faith, that in unity and peace we may proclaim the one truth and follow the one Lord, our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I AM GOING TO MENTION a few words, with a pause after each. During that brief pause, I would like you to consider your response to each of the words: emotional, intellectual, spiritual response. I’ve chosen these words with no particular social agenda, but simply as a point of entry to the Scripture appointed for the day. Here are the words.
• Fashion Model
All of these words represent aspects of human identity, ways that we characterize ourselves or others. They can be helpful, or they can be polarizing. They can be neutral, or they can elicit strong responses. When I learn that someone is a Democrat, for example, I might instinctively respond, “Oh, he’s one of us,” or “Oh, he’s one of them,” or “Oh, a pox on both their houses.” When I learn that someone is a CNN viewer or a FOX viewer, I might think, “Oh, here is someone who seeks out the truth,” or “Oh, here is someone who is blinded by fake news,” or “Oh, here is someone with too much time on his hands.” I have been cut off by drivers in traffic and had my anger flare up only then to see a church bumper sticker on the offending car. I suddenly became more charitable, because, in spite of the offender’s poor driving, we share the box “Christian.”
My point is that we tend to put people in boxes and to define their identities by those boxes. Boxes are convenient; they keep us from having to do the hard and time-consuming work of actually getting to know a person. Boxes allow us to immediately embrace some and to immediately reject others — no matter that we may be misguided and wrong on both counts. We even get a bit nervous — we find it socially awkward and disconcerting — when we can’t place people in specific boxes, when they don’t quite fit our understanding of the boxes, when they don’t behave as the box demands.
This putting of people into boxes is nothing new; we see it in Scripture, right at the beginning of the Gospel of John, with John the Baptist:
John 1:19–28 (ESV): 19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
John is something new, something unexpected, something the authorities have not encountered before. And what do they try to do? They try to find out which box he belongs in. The priests and the Levites that come to examine John have a limited number of boxes, it seems: Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet spoken of by Moses. When John refuses to identify with any of those boxes, the authorities finally ask him to identify himself, to climb into a box of his own making, as it were. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” John says, which surely baffles priests and Levites alike; that’s not one of their boxes, and they don’t know what to make of it, don’t know what to make of him. They never did figure it out. This is God breaking into history in a new way, in a way that defies all our man made boxes, all our definitions of identity. This is God working as Isaiah foretold:
Isaiah 43:18–19 (ESV): 18 “Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
19 Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
John will not fit in the old boxes; he would rip them apart as surely as new wine would destroy old wine skins.
Today, our Gospel reading takes us forward some three years in the story from John the Baptist. Jesus has taken his disciples very far north, beyond Galilee, into the pagan district of Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Mount Hermon. In the Old Testament, this site was associated with Baal Worship; Baal Hermon, the mountain was sometimes called. In the first century it was associated with the worship of Pan, the Greek god of the underworld. You likely know that there was a cave opening at the base of the mountain called the Gates of Hell (Hades). That was the geographical context for Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church.
While here in Caesarea, Jesus asks his disciples a question of identity: Into which boxes do people put me?
Matthew 16:13 (ESV): 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
We’re right back to the John the Baptist question again, and it seems that, like the priests and the Levites, the people have very limited boxes to work with. Who is Jesus? Perhaps he is John the Baptist risen from the dead. Or, he might be Elijah, just as they had proposed earlier about John. If not Elijah, then perhaps Jeremiah or another of the prophets.
But, all these are old boxes, old wine skins, and Jesus rejects them. It’s there in his language. He listens to what the people are saying and then responds, “But who do you say that I am?” That little conjunction, but, is important. It says that all the other boxes are wrong. It says that something new is required, that God is doing a new thing. And Jesus wants to know if the disciples understand that yet, wants to know if they have been given a better box for him yet.
And that is precisely what Peter’s confession is: a better box, the right box, the God-given box into which Jesus best fits, though no box can fully contain the One who created all things.
Matthew 16:15–16 (ESV): 15 He [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
This is right in some sense that none of the other answers is: Messiah, Son of God. We needn’t think for a moment that Peter is expressing some fully developed Nicene or Chalcedonian understanding of the nature of Christ, or even a notion as clear as that expressed later by John in his Gospel Prologue. All of that has yet to be worked out, thought through, inspired by the Holy Spirit. But Peter does take a step forward here, a step in the right direction. More correctly, God moves Peter a step forward. Jesus is clear that Peter has not constructed this new box all on his own, but rather that God has revealed it to him:
Matthew 16:17 (ESV): 17 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.
Getting Jesus in the right box, is never a matter of human ingenuity; instead, it is always a matter of grace, of God’s revelation to us of Jesus’ identity. Left to our own devices, we always try to put Jesus in the wrong box, in a box that is far too small. You’ve seen it happen; you’ve heard people say, “Well, I believe that Jesus was a good man,” or “I believe Jesus was a great moral teacher,” just not the Christ, the Son of the living God. But those boxes are wrong; they are too small. C. S. Lewis wrote about them in Mere Christianity, in a familiar passage:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Lewis is right; that box — great moral teacher — simply won’t do. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
I am not very concerned about us trying to fit Jesus into those far too constricting boxes like “good man” or “great moral teacher,” as if he were a better Gandhi or more compassionate Buddha. No, those aren’t our temptations. But I do wonder if there are other boxes into which Christians sometimes force Jesus, boxes that are again far too small.
There is the social justice or social reformer box: Jesus as the champion of the downtrodden, the poor, the outcast, the disenfranchised — a grander, more universal Martin Luther King, Jr. or Caesar Chavez with perhaps a little Karl Marx thrown in for good measure; at least they all share a common box. Certainly, Jesus does care for the poor. Certainly Jesus does want a righteous society — the Kingdom of God. But Jesus is not primarily a social reformer except in this expansive sense: Jesus came to make all things new — to redeem humankind, to restore and renew creation, and to unite all things in heaven and on earth to himself. What we call social justice or social reform is far too small a box for Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
There is the gentle Jesus, meek and mild, “can’t we all just get along,” box: Jesus as an easy going, mellow guy who loves to put COEXIST bumper stickers on cars, the one who makes no demands on anyone, and accepts us just as we are. Certainly, Jesus does accept us just as we are in this particular sense:
Romans 5:6–10 (ESV): 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
Jesus made no prior demands on us before he loved us and died for us, for all of us sinners and enemies. But this is the same Jesus who says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This is the same Jesus who called and calls for the world to repent and who warned and warns of the judgment to come. Gentle Jesus meek and mild, coexisting Jesus, is far too small a box for Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
We could go listing boxes. There is the patriotic box: Jesus as the champion of liberal or conservative democracy who has a covenant with America to make our country the shining city on the hill. There is the masculine box: Jesus as John Wayne, the tough, silent Jesus who is tolerant for so long and then, when pushed too far, cleans up the town with guns blazing. There is the feminine box: Jesus as the champion of gender equality and women’s rights. There is the box defined by the verses you’ve highlighted and underlined in your Bibles: you know, the verses you like to the neglect of the ones that make you uncomfortable.
There are boxes galore — most containing some element of truth but all of them too small. The box we are looking for — the box we need — is the same box that God revealed to Peter: the box labeled “Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We won’t find it ourselves or make it ourselves. Just as with Peter, it must be revealed to us by God. So, we look to the revelation we have been given. We turn to Scripture. We turn to the Church. We turn to the faith once delivered to the saints, to the faith preserved in liturgy and Sacrament, to the faith made flesh and blood in the lives of the confessors and the martyrs and the faithful for two millennia. We turn to the work of the Holy Spirit in our own lives.
I’ve used the image of a box in which to place Jesus, by which I mean a label or category used to identify him. Of course, it is only an image, one that’s useful, I think, for illustration. But, the Christ, the Son of the living God cannot be circumscribed, cannot be contained by our feeble, human understanding, cannot be placed in any box, any temple, any created thing. And yet, paradoxically, he condescends to dwell in us, to make us the temple of his presence through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Wondrously, that is the box he’s chosen for himself. Amen.