August 23, 2020
Today we hear a very familiar story from Matthew’s gospel. It’s a story that gets played out… or should get played out… on a daily basis with everyone who professes the Christian faith. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you this morning from Matthew 16… starting with verse 13.
READ Matthew 16:13-20
The two questions. Through this story Jesus asks us the two questions we’ve been asked time and again. But don’t let their familiarity distract you from their importance.
The first question seems like the simpler of the two because it only requires us to parrot back what others are saying about Jesus. Who do people say that I am? In the story… the people are saying Jesus is John the Baptist. Others say the prophet Elijah. Others think he is the return of another prophet that has been sent by God. All good answers… all good answers that put Jesus in some really good company. Each of these people spoke God’s word without fear or compromise. They showed the truth of living by God’s ways. The people who are following or encountering Jesus within the gospel story are recognizing that about Jesus. There is a consistency between Jesus’ words and actions… a consistency that aligns with the message of the prophets. Like the prophets, Jesus emphasizes the transformed heart over the empty performance of rituals or traditions. When challenged by the religious authorities or others in power… the message Jesus brings doesn’t change depending on what the people are clamoring for… or what this particular group might want to hear in the moment. Matthew’s gospel throws in the prophet Jeremiah as a possible answer to this first question. Jeremiah was persecuted and reviled in his day. He complained to God that God had given him a hard truth to say to a people in a difficult time… a people who didn’t want to hear what he had to say… a people who liked instead the leaders who spoke to their biases and their own concepts of how reality ought to be… but nevertheless… Jeremiah spoke the word of God even though it personally brought him hardship.
The people in the story are seeing that about Jesus. He speaks with the authority of truth even to those who are in power. In his ministry to this point, Jesus has been among the people… all the people… not afraid to bring healing to the lepers… being there among the tax collectors, and the outcasts and other sinners… those whom the religious authorities of the day looked down upon in judgment. Jesus hadn’t just moved in the social circle of the religious authorities. Not to say that he didn’t associate with them… if they were interested in hearing his message. But his message wasn’t meant to trickle down to the masses through the proper hierarchical channels. Again… that message was the same for whoever listened. And just like the prophets in their day… many of those in the higher social circles took offense at what he was saying… didn’t like how their position and authority were being questioned… didn’t like how they weren’t being treated with respect or the usual fawning deference they thought owed.
Now… I would also say that there were many others… others who were not in those upper social and power circles… who also took offense at his message once they saw that Jesus was not going to give them what they expected as well. Those with weapons at the ready… waiting for the opportunity to kill their oppressors. With their secret militias poised for action… Jesus wasn’t bringing them the message they were waiting to hear. They didn’t need another prophet… they needed a man of force and might… a man of action. Those men came and went. Jesus wasn’t going to be that man for them.
Who do people say that the Son of Man is? If we were to go and ask the people stopped at the light on Silas Creek Parkway… knock on their windows and ask them to answer that first question, the answers we would hear would probably be pretty varied. Jesus is a bit more known now than in both the story Matthew’s telling and the time of Matthew’s first hearers. Being more known, there has also been the opportunity for us over time to use Jesus more for our own purposes… to shape and subvert his message to our truths so that there would be many answers to this question… answers that would stand in opposition to one another… answers that would stand in opposition to the answer Jesus sought. I would venture to say that everyone who rolled down their window to answer the question… everyone would have an opinion about who this Jesus is… who he is supposed to be.
So… you’re people… the last time I checked. How would you go about answering that question? Some of you might attempt to give a historical analysis. Some of you may tackle it by talking theology or by giving the answers you learned in Sunday School. Perhaps a gospel synopsis or two might get thrown out there. Some of you might go at it from a more personal angle… “Well, that’s a very good question and I’m sure you’ll hear many different answers… but here is who Jesus is to me…” Maybe that’s why we need both questions… because the one will lead to the other.
So let me ask you this… and I’ve probably asked this before because it is one of those questions I often ask with this story… what is more important in the answer we give to either of these questions… that answer that is understood to be “the correct answer” however or whoever defines what is correct… that it conforms with the expectations of the people who have come before us and answered the question… that it conforms with the particular Christian tradition of which we are a part… the answer given to us by various ministers and Sunday School teachers over the years… theologians and scholars. Is it more important for us to give “the correct and acceptable answer”… or is it more important that you give your “honest from the heart answer”… the answer that honestly lives through your own faith… even if by the judgment of other people that honest answer is not deemed by some others to be the correct answer?
Do you remember last week’s gospel passage? In conflict again with the Pharisees… who deemed themselves to have the right and correct answers… Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites using words from the prophet Isaiah… “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” The Canaanite woman whose daughter was tormented by the demon… the Canaanite woman probably wouldn’t have known the “correct” answers of the Pharisees… but she knew her honest from the heart answer. She knew who this Jesus was and her faith in that answer was unshakeable.
The correct answer or the honest answer of your heart? The idea here is not to get you to come to some binary conclusion… that it has to be one or the other. It’s more a question to get you thinking about yourself and how you approach these two seemingly simple questions that this passage asks. I mean the people aren’t wrong with the answer they give. They are insightful. They connect Jesus to the larger tradition of their faith by claiming that he is one of the prophets. They couldn’t do that if they didn’t know the correct answer. They couldn’t do this if they were unaware of their own faith… if they hadn’t heard the prophets read again and again at the synagogues… hadn’t participated in the discussions with the rabbis and the Pharisees and those who were more learned in the faith… being trained to think… being given the ability to perceive and discern and to have nuance in their belief. Without knowledge of the so-called correct answers they couldn’t challenge those very same answers as they sought God and grew in their own faith… through their own experiences… through the places in life that their own call took them.
So knowing the correct answer is important because it connects us to that something larger. We are grounded so that our answers aren’t going every which way… so that we can recognize the fringe and understand and be able to explain why that picture of Jesus armed with an AK-47 is not an acceptable answer. Oh… and if you don’t think that’s one of the answers that people are giving… google it. Knowing the correct answer gives us a common language to speak with one another as we explore these larger questions of faith. Knowledge gives us ability… and who knows… maybe one day that ability will produce such an insight that the correct answer might change… only to be tested and tried again. I mean, after all, we are Protestants aren’t we? Our whole tradition is based upon knowing and testing that knowledge again and again using scriptural tradition to check ourselves. Who do people say that I am? For two thousand years, people have been giving answers to that question and that accumulated knowledge is important. We dismiss it or stay ignorant of it at our own detriment.
But still… knowing the correct answer is not everything. Because if you can’t answer the second question… but who do you say that I am… then so what. For us today, there has to be the tension between the two questions. And there can’t be tension if your answer… the answer of your heart… is uninformed… if it is ignorant of the answers of the first question… if it is based only on what you feel and believe. Peter is able to give an answer to Jesus’ question. You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The words are right. The words are right and Peter knows exactly what he means when he says those words. This Sunday Peter gets told he will be the rock upon which Christ’s church will be built. But next Sunday… in our reading from Matthew’s gospel… what we will see is that what Jesus means with the words “Messiah, the Son of the living God”… and what Peter means with the words “Messiah, the Son of the living God”… those two meanings don’t line up at all. In giving his answer today, I don’t doubt that Peter spoke straight from the depths of his own heart. But between what Peter passionately believed and what God was revealing to be true… it’s God’s answer that matters most.
The tension between the two answers is expressed so well in James… where he writes, “But some will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” The honest answer from our heart is often not the one that our lips speak, but what our works show… what our actions reveal about who we really think this Jesus is to us. This is why Jesus was able to use that Isaiah quote against the Pharisees in last week’s reading because the Pharisees knew well the correct answers… but their actions were revealing the belief of their heart… their actions and their attitude were betraying how they were manipulating the correct answer to their benefit and away from God’s truth. It’s the same message we’ve been hearing from Matthew all summer… we are judged by the fruit we produce… not our intentions… or by our ability to say the right words… or even the beliefs we spout. Our hearts will be revealed.
Two questions asked. Two questions that must be answered. Amen.