Messianic Complex? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12A (Matthew 16)
Matthew 16:13-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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?”14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 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. 18 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. 19 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.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Who is Jesus? That is a question than many have asked down through the centuries. If you call yourself a Christian, then you likely have tried to answer the question. For some, he is a prophet. For others, he is a spiritual guide. For still others, he is a personal savior. Some call him Lord. Others look to him as a liberator.
Because Jesus was a religious figure who is revered by at least some as being of divine origin, a distinction is sometimes made between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. While some Christians see the two as being one and the same, others do not. When it comes to answering the question of who is Jesus of Nazareth, the figure of history, there have been many quests. Most of them have ended up with the questors, as Albert Schweitzer suggested, seeing a reflection of themselves in Jesus. We want Jesus on our side, and so he ends up looking like us. For Christians of European descent, we have become accustomed to seeing a blue-eyed blond Jesus, a Jesus who looks very European and not very Jewish. We have remade Jesus in our own physical image, but we also tend to remake Jesus ideologically. Therefore, there is a liberal Jesus and a conservative Jesus. There is a radical Jesus and a reactionary Jesus. Yes, who is Jesus?
In my tradition, when a person seeks to become part of the congregation, he or she is asked to make the Good Confession – just like Peter. Though we tend to add the phrase “and my Lord and Savior” to that confession – just to personalize it. At least in my faith community, we don’t ask people to define what these terms mean for them, so there are differences of interpretation even if each gives the same answer. Who then is Jesus? Is he God or Man or Both?
Peter made his confession – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” after Jesus first asked the disciples who the people thought he was. Jesus had gathered his disciples at a site in the Tetrarchy of Batanea, in what is now the Golan Heights. It was a largely Gentile area. It’s interesting that this conversation occurs in the lectionary following Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon (also Gentile). While this region was ruled by the son of Herod and had been under Herodian control (as a vassal to Rome), Jesus asks the question of his identity in place removed from the Jewish heartland. It is as if he needed to separate himself from his people before reengaging them. Or perhaps, by taking this journey outside the heartland, he and his disciples took stock of the reality that the realm of God was not limited by geographical or ethnic boundaries.
The question posed to the disciples was this – who do the people say that the Son of Man is (remember that Jesus had used this designation for himself). The answers centered on figures like John the Baptist and Elijah. In the Gospels, John is seen as the heir of Elijah – the one who performs the role of Elijah, who in messianic thinking at the time, was believed to return prior to the coming of the Messiah. And so the response of the people seems to suggest that they, for the most part, understood him to be that precursor, and the Messiah himself. They saw Jesus engaged in preparing the way for the Lord. In this scene, Jesus asks the disciples whether that is what they had concluded, or did they have a different understanding.
Peter offers the answer – “You are the Messiah.” You are the one we're waiting for. You are the one who will bring into fruition the realm of God. Jesus commends him but also reminds him that this is a revelation of God. It’s not something that Peter had gained on his own. He’d had his eyes opened by God. This raises an important question that theologians have long debated. Can we encounter God on our own, or must we wait for God to reveal God’s self? Theologian Karl Barth suggested fairly strongly in his various writings that it was impossible for human beings to gain access to God, except that God has chosen to be encountered. For Barth, Jesus was that revelation. He was and is the Word of God. Thus, it is not flesh and blood, but heaven (God) who has made this known to Peter. We see the truth of this soon enough when Peter fails to understand the true nature of Jesus’ mission. When Jesus says he goes to Jerusalem, and there he will die, Peter seeks to dissuade him. But Peter fills the role of the tempter but also shows his own lack of understanding of who Jesus (and thus of his own confession). In time, he will gain a better understanding, but not until after Easter.
The confession becomes the rock—the foundation for the emerging movement of God in the world. Peter may not yet understand his confession, but he will take a leading role in what will become this new work of God in the world. Whether Jesus understood “church” to mean an institution remains a matter of speculation. There is room for debate. But whatever Jesus meant here does include a community. The work Jesus envisions involves more than simply individuals. Individuals must make the decision to join with the work of God, but in doing so they become part of the ecclesia – the assembly of God.
Then there’s the matter of kingdom keys and “binding and loosing.” Whatever this means, it seems to me, there is in this statement an invitation, even an imperative, to join the work of God. Jesus doesn’t simply envision people saying yes to the idea of God (and God’s presence in Jesus), without some sense of being part of something bigger. If Jesus is the messiah, the one who inaugurates the realm of God, then it would seem that those who accept the mission, become part of the team that brings that realm into existence. Many have spiritualized the realm of God in such a way that it has no earthly effect. This world is beyond hope, so let’s rescue the perishing. The church becomes a lifeboat. It takes in as many as it can, but it takes no responsibility for the world around it.
Perhaps that’s the meaning of binding and loosing. We have a choice, as the church, we can participant in God’s work of loosening the creation from its bondage by bringing the message of forgiveness, or better, reconciliation. Or we can simply let the world stay as it is – in its bondage to sin and death. In doing this, we bind its sins. The choice is ours. Do we want to get involved or not? That is not to say that we must become part of the cultural or political apparatus. We needn’t become tools of the state. At the same time, it is clear that Jesus’ message has political implications. The difference between Jesus’ political agenda and the world’s political agenda centers on the way in which power is involved. In going to the cross, Jesus demonstrated that his way rejected the violent imposition of kingdom values on the world. Redemption of the world would come by way of service, by way of laying down one’s life for one’s brother or one’s sister.
In the penultimate act in this story, Jesus faces the wrath of both the religious and political establishments. His message proves too challenging to the status quo. They decide that he must die so to protect their own interests. But that is not the last act. The story continues with the resurrection and the Great Commission. At that moment in time, Jesus tells Peter and the disciples, to keep their observations to themselves. It’s not time to reveal the full measure of his identity. Things need to play out before there will be true evidence that this is the new age of God’s realm. Matthew ends with the commission to make disciples, to go into the world and be emissaries of God’s grace. Peter’s confession is just the beginning of that process.