12 Pentecost • August 23, 2020
Exodus 1:8-2:10 • Psalm 124 • Romans 12:1-8 • Matthew 16:13-20
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus and his close disciples are moving around Galilee in today’s Gospel Reading, avoiding the authorities and on the run. He is a healer and an engaging teacher, so they are generally welcomed into places without TV or Internet—no entertainments were available, nor adequate medical care so they were welcomed, and his core group is joined by many others, some coming and others going, a constantly shifting audience.
At one point, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” “Son of Man” was Jesus way of referring to himself. His disciples report on the great figures from the past, somehow resuscitated in the person of Jesus. It is not clear to me whether these luminaries were thought to literally embody the person of Jesus, or whether they were just saying he was similar to them. Either way, they are identifying Jesus as some traditional figure from the past.
Okay, says Jesus, but how about you? Who do you say that I am? Simon Peter, who almost always got it wrong, gets it right this time. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he says. As far as Jesus is concerned, Peter gets it exactly right, and to mark the occasion, Jesus gives Simon a new name: “you are Peter” (which is the Greek word for “rock”) and on such rocks the assembly of my followers, the church, will be built.
The issue that Jesus raises is one of identity. Identity is a matter of being, not of action, or of interpretation, or of nature. Being is a distinctly human thing, and it is not natural, but must be conferred. For example, a lion or an ameba has no being other than that conferred by us humans. Being is a function of language, and it is given by naming.
So you might ask, who has the power to confer being? Other people? Ourselves? The answer is “yes.” You can confer being on another by the simple act of declaring their being. We do this all the time, this godly act of creating beings. We do this when we declare, “You are my friend,” or “She is my mother.” Others can create our being, and then relate to us accordingly. You will treat the persons you call your friend or your mother differently than any other person.
Being can also be created by ourselves when we declare, “I’m an Episcopalian,” “I am a teacher,” “I am a father,” or even “I’m a shopper!” My favorite example of creating being is when a couple stands before witnesses and say, “I, John, take you, Mary, for my wife, etc.” When she does the same, they have created a new entity, a married couple, a family. And they did this godly act of creating a new being by saying the words, by declaring it to be so.
When Jesus raises the issue of his own being, he is doing a profoundly important thing. He is letting his disciples know how to relate to him. He is not just some guy in a diner; he is the strong, God-given savior of the world. He is a person to be listened to. He is one who can be relied on to straighten things out.
It is important to notice that Jesus forbids his disciples to spread the news that he is Messiah. This is a practical measure. Anyone who claims to be Messiah must be a fraud. This is for others to declare, just as Peter did. He said it, not Jesus. The power of Messiah lies in others’ recognition that he is the Savior, not is his boasting about it. You will notice that when we blow our own horn, when we claim exceptional greatness for ourselves, other people raise an eyebrow and cast a skeptical look, as indeed they should.
For himself, though, Jesus identified himself as Messiah. By claiming messiahship for himself, Jesus knew how he should relate to the world, what his job was, and what his deliverables were.
It is the same with us. It’s very useful to know who others say we are. And it is equally important to know who we say we are. When these two things are clear—how others identify us, and how we identify ourselves—everyone becomes more powerful and more enabled to do great things.
Like, for example, forgiveness. Every Jew knew that only God could forgive the sins and misdeeds of us poor humans. Forgiveness was God’s business, and it required sacrifices to get God to forgive. Yet here is Jesus, almost casually conferring the power of forgiveness on his disciples! And, because he is Messiah, they listened to him, and believed what he said, that they suddenly had the power to forgive. This ordinary power to forgive we now take for granted, but in Jesus’ time, it was shocking.
Before this, the power of heaven flowed to earth, not the other way around. Heaven, God’s domain, dominate the earth; but the earth had no power over heaven. Jesus is saying that, from now on, whatever we forgive on earth, heaven will do likewise. And whatever we refuse to forgive, heaven will also refuse to forgive.
You and I, my friends, have a profound gift placed in our hands, the power to either forgive or to hold others in the bondage of unforgiveness. And we have this because Messiah said so.