Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 27, 2023
Matthew 16:13-20 Commentary
Comments, Questions, and Observations
We continue in the borderlands of the north this week, but this time we’re a little more firmly located in Israel in the district of Caesarea-Philippi. Both Matthew and Mark (8.27-30) highlight the location of this famous conversation, whereas Luke (9.18-20) helps us understand its heavenly prompt. In all three synoptics, scholars agree that this is a significant turning point. (To read more about the significance of the place, read my colleague Scott’s past sermon commentary on this passage.)
Jesus opens up a group reflection time by asking the disciples what the people are saying about him. Most of us pastoral leaders have to set aside the chill down our spines the phrase “People are saying,” immediately causes and remember that Jesus is facilitating something else here than an opportunity to err anonymous grievances. No, this check-in is quite a bit more.
The sense the disciples have of the crowds is that they see Jesus as a prophetic figure: someone who comes before and prepares everybody for the big thing. In general, the people know that something from God is coming, and Jesus is like John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah—all transformative prophets to the people of God. In other words, they can tell from what they have seen, heard, and experienced by and from Jesus that he is different and important. He is someone to heed for the wisdom and will of God.
Then Jesus asks them to answer for themselves: who do these, his disciples, say that he is? Though it is Peter who answers on behalf of the disciples, most of the commentators I read this week see Peter as a representative of the whole. (This is similar to the timeless role as “stand-in” that Peter plays for us throughout the gospels and Acts.)
Peter says that they know more than the people do. They know that Jesus is THE thing they are all waiting for, the thing the prophets have all pointed to! Calling Jesus THE Christ (often translated as Messiah) as well as the Son of the living God encapsulates this difference. It was the Messiah for whom the people expectantly waited, and calling Jesus the Son of God (rather than repeating Jesus’s own description of himself as the Son of Man) indicates that Peter and the disciples know that Jesus is more than just human and has some unique connection to the divine.
Jesus helps us understand how such conviction comes to be for anyone who comes to faith and belief in Jesus Christ. At that time, the phrase “flesh and blood” meant all the faculties and ways of understanding under human control. It is not by our ability to reason it out or survey the facts. Though those things are useful in making sense of things and putting them to practice, they are also quite fallible and can lead us to the wrong knowledge and action.
Jesus declares this essential truth: knowledge of the otherwise hidden realities of God comes only to those whom God reveals it to; it is revelation and it goes deeper than what we can reveal on our own. Even to those who spent time close to Jesus, living with him as his disciples for years, even they need to be made or enabled to know the essential truth of reality by God.
But revealing is exactly what God does! Amen. And the “flesh and blood” work that makes up much of our lives is not futile or in vain. In fact, I think that what Jesus says next to Peter points us to the fact that these purposes are brought together as Jesus builds his church.
Jesus makes a word image out of Peter’s name, which in Greek is similar to the word for rock. Jesus tells Peter who he really is, “and on this rock I will build my church…” We see this play out in the book of Acts, where Peter is the lead Apostle to the Jews, Gentiles, and everyone in between (Acts 2, 8, and 10) And each time that Peter preaches the good news of Jesus Christ, he is part of a moment where the Holy Spirit may reveal God’s very self to more people, enabling them to know the same foundational truth of who Jesus the Christ is, was, and is to come.
There are a number of different ways that people and traditions understand the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” Jesus talks about here, including that they are the preaching of the true gospel and the discipline of the church. Some of the confusion comes from the grammatical construction in verse 19: that which is bound or loosed on earth “will be” likewise in heaven; “will be” is a future perfect passive participle (a rare construction that is difficult to get the meaning of clearly: who? how? when? are ambiguous or contradictory by the grammar).
Perhaps it is a linguistic safeguard against the working of our “flesh and blood” binding and loosing. For even though Peter is the rock, and Peter has received the direct revelation from God, he is still made up of flesh and blood, and the rest of what happens in the Gospels makes that painfully obvious. So perhaps this odd construction is a way of saying that those things which are bound or loosed on earth, when they coincide with the will of God in heaven, are bound and loosed there as well.
In the rabbinic tradition, binding and loosing referred to guiding a community in conduct that was acceptable (or unacceptable). Jesus tells Peter, then, that part of the work that Jesus will do through Peter (and those like him) is to guide the community in his ways of living and being. It is Jesus’s teachings, as the fulfillment of the law, that will shape the church that he gathers, and the life of faith and the church is best captured in the way of Christ: all that Jesus has loosed and all that Jesus has bound as the Christ here on earth.
And all he needs to know about this, Peter has received through the revelation of the Father in heaven. This moment is Jesus establishing the basics for the church universal. And as God does, whenever he explains his expectations, he gives the comforting promise: no matter what, this church he is building will continue on. Even the gates of Hades, best understood as the power of death, the supposed ultimate end of any and all things, even this greatest foe, cannot stop what Jesus builds into the church, the community of people who are called by his name.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, Peter is called the son of John (versus here, where he is called the son of Jonah). Scholars are not in agreement as to what this discrepancy is about. Is Jesus likening Peter to the prophet Jonah, but as a more faithful servant to the task of proclaiming the good news? If Jesus is considered in some circles to be the second Jonah, what does it mean for Peter to be referred to as Jonah’s son? Is it a matter of language as the name morphs from Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek?
The Apostle Peter was executed by the Roman government in the early 60s. In typical tradition of the Roman Catholic church, his burial site became an important landmark of the faith. In fact, St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest Roman Catholic Church in the world located in what is now Vatican City, Italy, is built on top of Peter’s supposed burial tomb. The first church was built there under Constantine’s rule in 330 AD. Setting aside issues of the papacy and the line of Peter’s apostleship, the symbolism is striking. The largest Christian church, which hosts upwards of 80,000 people in its square during papal masses, stands upon the remembrance of Peter the Rock’s death. It is a visual representation of Jesus’s promise: the gates of death (Hades/Sheol) will not prevail, the community of Jesus Christ will continue because Jesus is THE Christ, the Son of the living God who keeps his promise to build his church.
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