Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16). Based on Matthew 16:13-20.
Crown of Life Lutheran Church; Hubertus, Wisconsin. Preached on August 20 & 23, 2020.
Who Do You Say Jesus Is?
Several years ago, a group called the Evangelical Environmental Network sponsored a series of magazine advertisements that asked the question, “What Would Jesus Drive?” The ads cited Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, and then used Jesus’ command to ask if we were truly loving our neighbor by the choice of the car we drive. The ads said that transportation was now a “moral choice and an issue for Christian reflection,” and called on automakers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Does that seem ridiculous to you? Perhaps, but it didn’t seem so ridiculous to the Evangelical Christians who paid big bucks for their advertising campaign.
That old ad campaign reveals a common problem with the way people look at Jesus. People are inclined to turn Jesus into the voice of their worldview or the movement with which they identify. And so Jesus morphs into a spiritual guru, or your life coach, or a rebel reforming society. Sometimes Jesus is even transformed into good things—things that are true, but not necessarily his main mission—the master teacher, or the wise therapist.
All of this leads to some very practical questions: Who exactly is Jesus? Who do people say that Jesus is? And who do you say Jesus is?
Jesus poses that question to start today’s Gospel account, which offers the correct answers to these very important questions. Today’s sermon is based on Matthew 16:13-20.
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
“Who is Jesus?” is not a new question. Now that Jesus had a moment alone with his disciples, he asked them that question, and they gave an assortment of responses that reflected popular thinking about him. King Herod thought that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Other people thought that Jesus was the fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy that predicted the return of the prophet Elijah—at least, as they understood that prophecy. Others put Jesus on par with the other great prophets of the past like Jeremiah. To some degree, the masses just tossed out their ideas of who Jesus was without necessary understanding the total picture about Jesus
Jesus finally turns the question toward the disciples in verse 15. “‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’” Jesus asks the question in a way that expects that his disciples will give him a different answer. And we hope so! They have been following Jesus for over two years. They have heard his preaching. They have seen his miracles. He has taught them personally. They ought to know who Jesus really is!
If Jesus directed that question toward you, how would you answer? “Jesus, I’ve been taught from youth that you are the Son of God and our Savior from sin!” That’s correct, and it echoes the answer Peter gave in the next verse. But is that truly the answer we would always give?
Think about everything that has been taking place in our world lately, and then think about Jesus through those circumstances. When you see stories of violence in major cities, do you think to yourself, “If those rioters actually followed Jesus, they wouldn’t behave that way”? Or as we suffer through yet another season of political campaigns, do you think to yourself, “Jesus’ values and his teachings aren’t in line with that political party or those candidates”? Or as we deal with a perpetually politicized pandemic with plenty of personal opinions about how best to handle it, do you think to yourself, “If those people would love their neighbor more, we wouldn’t have this mess,” or, “If people just trusted God more, we would be enduring far less chaos right now”?
We may not realize it, but when we think that way, we are changing Jesus into something other than who is has revealed himself to be. If some Christians have changed Jesus into a voice for environmentalism, could we just as easily (and just as unknowingly) change Jesus into our own vision of the Messiah? Could we just as easily turn Jesus into the banner-bearer of our political party (rather than the Savior of all)? Could we turn Jesus into the one who gives out godly, traditional advice for life (which happens to point out other people’s sins more than my own)? Could we turn Jesus into the one whose main message is to promote morality and values (instead of pointing out his sacrifice and resurrection which have saved us from our failure to live up to God’s morality and his perfect standards)?
Could our own vision of Jesus change him into something other than the Savior of souls that we need him to be? Could our own vision of Jesus change him into someone who makes me feel comfortable with myself instead of uncomfortable with my sin? And if that is the case, could our own version of Jesus be the way we try to cover our ears when God’s Word and our conscience says, “Your sins are just as deadly and damning as anyone else’s sins!”?
Peter gave the correct answer to Jesus’ question. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In a sense, this had been a lingering question. Several chapters earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist was in prison, and he sent messengers to Jesus to ask if he really was the Messiah who was to come.” Now Peter answered that lingering question with an emphatic, “Yes!” Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah, the One chosen by God from eternity, the One predicted by God through the Old Testament prophets, the One appointed by God to redeem us from sin and rescue us from hell and restore us to himself.
And even though there is a part of us that would like to change Jesus into the kind of Messiah that our sinful nature prefers, there is also a part of us—the Christian nature within us!—that is grateful for the real Jesus, the true Son of the living God, the Redeemer who loved us to the point of death so that by his resurrection we would inherit eternal life!
We are grateful to know that what the world thinks or even what I happen to think about Jesus at any given moment doesn’t change Jesus into something other than the Savior from sin we need him to be! We are thankful to know that Jesus died on the cross to atone not just for the generic sins of the world, but even to erase the guilt of the times I have tried to change him in my own mind into some other kind of Messiah. And we are honored to know these truths, for we could never come to this saving conclusion on our own. Notice what Jesus said to Peter in verse 17: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”
It wasn’t just good for Peter and the disciples that they understood who Jesus is. It was vital for all of the Christian Church that would come after them. In the very next verse, Jesus said to Peter, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus’ words have been frequently misunderstood. He is making a play on words. The name “Peter” is petros in Greek, and the word “rock” is petra. Obviously that play on words doesn’t come through in English.
Something else that doesn’t come through—because it is not found in these words—is that Peter is somehow going to be the head of the Holy Christian Church. And another item that is definitely not found in these words is that there will be successors of Peter in a specifically defined office who would be the leaders of the Holy Christian Church. As Jesus continues, he tells Peter that he has been given the power of “the keys”—the authority to forgive the repentant and withhold forgiveness from the impenitent. But Jesus will repeat that same statement to all the disciples two chapters later (Matthew 18:18). That means Jesus is not singling out Peter for a special position of power on which his Church will be built. What Jesus commends here is not Peter, but his answer.
The rock on which Jesus builds his Church is not Peter, but Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised Savior. In last Sunday’s sermon, the apostle Paul described the message of the prophets and apostles as the foundation of the Church, with Jesus as the Church’s cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus, which is now our confession of faith in Jesus, is the “rock” on which Christ’s church is built.
Hell cannot overcome that! That is not too bold a statement to say! Hell’s forces may attack your soul and tempt your sinful nature, but hell’s forces cannot overcome the confession that Jesus is the Christ. Satan himself could not tempt Jesus into sin during his ministry, nor did he tempt Jesus down from the cross as he paid the price for our sins on our behalf. Satan could not keep Jesus locked in the grave on Easter morning. The strongest demons and forces of hell cannot change this fact—that Jesus is the promised Savior sent by God the Father, that his perfect life counts for you before God, that he tasted death in your place on the cross, that his resurrection from the dead has given you a spot in heaven forever.
This is what Jesus did as the Messiah. That is who he is—your Savior! This is the message on which the Church is built, and not something else that’s more popular or prevalent today. That is the good news that we confess today, the good news that delivers Christ’s grace and forgiveness to you today just as if Christ himself swooped down from heaven right now to proclaim it to us personally.
Verse 20 (Conclusion)
Did it strike you as strange when Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone else that he was the Savior at the end of today’s Gospel? Why would Jesus not want them to tell others? It seems likely that the popular misconceptions about the Messiah at this time might get in the way of Jesus doing his work as the Savior of the world. If Jesus was widely identified at this point as the Messiah, the popular misconceptions about him might turn him into a first century rock star instead of the humble Son of God who was humbly journeying to the cross. And Jesus was not going to let anyone’s misconceptions about him get in the way of who he was and why he came to this world.
But today, there is no need for us to hide that truth. Today, we live in a world that wants Jesus to be the flag-bearer of the right and of the left. Today, we live in a society that views Jesus as the poster boy of everything from environmentalism on one hand to the moral majority on the other hand.
Thank God that Jesus wasn’t what anyone then or anyone today wants him to be, but that he is the Savior that we need him to be—the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the One who lived for us and now lives again so that we will live forever with him forever. Thank God that Jesus, quite simply, is the Christ. Amen.