Written by Pastor Ed
August 27, 2017
Matthew 16: 13-20
Isaiah 51: 1-6
What makes the church different from other organizations? It’s a question that gets asked again and again, by all kinds of people, sometimes as a critique, a statement that it really is just another social club, and sometimes as a sincere question. It is a question that has been asked since the 1st century, as the early church tried to distinguish itself from other groups. And it’s the question that lies at the heart of our primary passage for today from the gospel of Matthew.
We know from the gospels that the disciples who had been following Jesus were not always sure what to make of this rabbi. They didn’t always understand his parables, they seemed to forget from one day to the next what he had said or done. We have another example of that right before the passage we read.
Jesus has just recently fed two large crowds with only a few meagre loaves and fish. And yet, when they got to the other side of the lake, they were concerned because they had forgotten to bring any bread. I sometimes wonder how often Jesus just shook his head and wondered whether these guys would ever get it. I mean, what will it take for them to catch on?
And so finally he poses a direct question. Now, I’d like to suggest that we read these two questions a bit differently that they are often read. The emphasis, at least as I’ve often hear it is on the first part of the question and the contrast between what the people say, and what the disciples say. But I think actually the emphasis is more on the last part of the question. Let me explain.
Throughout Matthew, there is an emphasis on the Man, or the Son of Man. Who is he? And Jesus asks the disciples first, who do people think is the Son of Man, the Messiah? And the disciples respond with answers that were common among Jewish teachers of the day; some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, maybe Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. All of those were seen as candidates for the title.
And then Jesus asks, “Who do you think I am?” If everyone else thinks that one of those people is a candidate for Messiah, then who am I? And, at least for Peter, a light goes on. Oh, it’s not one of them – it’s you! “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God!” This marks a turning point in the Gospels, most particularly in Mark, but also here as Jesus then begins to explain what kind of Messiah he is; one who will suffer and die. Certainly not the kind of Messiah most people were expecting.
It is that affirmation that marks the foundation of the church, because a Messiah doesn’t operate alone. A messiah must have a community, an ekklesia, that follows and gather around them. They are not a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but a leader of a community. As Paul stated in that verse which became the touchstone for Menno Simons, no other foundation can anyone lay than that which has ben laid, which is Jesus the messiah. (I Cor. 3: 11)
And Jesus affirms as much as he gives Peter a “high five” and declares that on “petra,” the rock, the church, the ekklesia, the community, will be built and not even death will overcome it. It’s interesting, at least to scholars that it is only here and in Matthew 18 that the word translated “church” is used in any of the Gospels. It is, of course, used extensively in Paul’s writings, but here probably reflects more of Matthew’s time than of Jesus’.
And to top it all off, Jesus gives to that community, or to Peter depending on how you read it, the keys to the kingdom, often a symbol of the church, a sign of both the authority of the church as well as the responsibility of the church to fulfill the prayer of Jesus that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. One of the components of the image of the keys is that of needing to continue to discern what it means to bind and loose and to take seriously our task. We’ll explore that a bit more in a couple weeks.
The question of identifying Jesus as the messiah is central, foundational to the church. In fact, without it the church ceases to be the church and becomes simply another social group, or something else. While the church has debated at times, and still does about what that means and what kind of messiah Jesus is, any theology that has denied this has been deemed unorthodox or heresy. And, as Mitzi Smith, Associate professor of New Testament at Ashland Seminary in Detroit points out in her commentary at WorkingPreacher.org, “How we identify Jesus will impact the way we interact with one another and with the earth.”
She goes on, “It (the church) will be an assembly founded on Jesus’ identity as the Messiah of the living God. A living God is a relevant God, a contextual God. As with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and other prophets and prophetesses, God speaks a relevant word that reflects the contexts in which we live and the challenges the people face. A living God is not bound to or by the written page, even in a sacred text.” That’s where the keys to the kingdom come in, that the church is an ongoing discerning community, premised on Jesus, the Messiah, as the foundation of that community.
One of the strengths of the Anabaptist movement, and I believe of the descendants of that movement, which we claim to be, is the focus on Jesus as central to what it means to be a Christian and the church. As Palmer Becker, who incidentally is scheduled to be our speaker next Spring for the MCA Annual Meeting, said in his brief summary of Anabaptist theology, “Jesus is the center of our faith!” What does that mean?
We read the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ teachings. We don’t have what is sometimes called a “flat Bible,” meaning everything carries the same weight. Rather we look first to what Jesus said and did and then read the rest of the Bible in light of what we find in the Gospels. Some years ago there was a big fad of asking, “What would Jesus do?” or WWJD. And I often wondered if people really paid attention to what Jesus actually said and did.
We believe Jesus, as the Messiah, the son of the living God, “meant what he said and he was talking to us”, to use the phrase of Lynn Miller a retired Mennonite pastor and author from Ohio. That’s what makes the church a unique community and it is what holds us together as a community around a common confession. It shapes how we treat each other, and even how we treat those outside the church community, whom Jesus welcomed, ate with, and healed.
We must also be clear that the messiah we follow and proclaim is not the conqueror riding on the white stallion, but rather the servant riding on a donkey. He is the lamb that was slain, not the slayer. As I noted, as soon as the disciples became clear that it was Jesus who was the messiah, and not someone else, he then turned his face towards Jerusalem and began to teach them what kind of messiah he was, and what it meant to follow. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16: 24)
The church has prevailed, as Jesus said it would, not, I would argue because it has been so strong and defended itself so well, but precisely because it has in its best moments, been willing to suffer on behalf of its confession. The spread of the church has often been the most rapid during the times of persecution, when it looked like the church might be wiped out. Indeed, as the saying goes, “the seed of the church is the blood of the martyrs.” Where the church has faded is often where it has become too comfortable and lost its sense of uniqueness.
The question of identifying who Jesus is is one that the church has struggled with through the centuries, and also one that each of us must also face, for each of us must also respond to that question, not by comparing it to what others may say but for ourselves. For some Jesus is only a great teacher, for others a fine example. Yet for others, Jesus is irrelevant and dismissed as out of date. For some Jesus is a revolutionary while others see Jesus as too idealistic and impossible to follow.
But for the church, for those who choose to follow Jesus, the simple answer is that of Peter who confessed, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Let us join in a confession, in the Hymnal Worship Book #714, and it will also be projected.
He was the Son of God.
He was the Son of Man.
He came down from heaven.
He was born is a stable.
Kings came to his cradle.
His first home was a cave.
He was born to be a king.
He was a child of Mary.
He was the greatest among rulers.
He was the least among servants.
He was loved and honoured.
He was despised and rejected.
He was gentle and loving.
He made many enemies.
He counseled perfection.
He was a friend of sinners.
He was a joyful companion.
He was a man of sorrows.
He said, “Rejoice.”
He said, “Repent”
“Love God with all your heart.”
“Love your neighbour as yourself.”
“Don’t be anxious.”
“Count the cost.”
“Ask and receive.”
In him was life.
He died on a cross.
He was an historic person.
He lives today.
He was Jesus of Nazareth.
He is Christ the Lord. (HWB 714)