14 and 15 Pentecost | Matthew 16:13ff.
I wrote a short sermon for the ELCA Convocation of Teaching Theologians on the Luther Seminary campus this week. I couldn't keep from talking about the fact that just after Peter's confession, Jesus starts talking about his death--so this might be fodder for 14 Pentecost or 15 Pentecost texts.
More than in any other gospel, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is a teacher and a trainer of teachers. We get long exegetical lectures from Jesus in Matthew—“you have heard it said… but I say to you….” There are handfuls of parables piled one on top of the other, and even a few private tutoring sessions between the Teacher and his disciples. The disciples are somewhat better students here than they seem to be according to Mark. Their scholarship—or something—is good enough in Matthew that by the end of the book, they receive a call to teach. “Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus instructs them, “baptizing them … and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.”
Even so, it sounds like Jesus starts out today's lesson with rather low expectations of his class.“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” One of my teachers used to try to put us at ease by saying about exegesis, “When in doubt, describe.” Describe what you see; say what you are hearing. So Jesus asks, “What are people saying about the Son of Man?” It is an easy question, and it works. The students are able to give answers: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Basically the buzz around Jesus is that he is a holy man, a grumpy holy man from the look of this list, but a holy man just the same. He is in a line of those who know God and who want the people to be on better terms with God.
Then comes the next question: “Who do you say that I am?” This one is harder. We are not in the third person any longer, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Here Jesus wants something different from a survey of the possibilities. The question is a call to commit to one answer. And it is personal, direct address: “Who do you people say that I am?” When in doubt, describe? Jesus is not asking for description now, but confession.
Peter confesses: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus says something like, “I know you didn't come up with that answer on your own” or even maybe, “I know you didn't get that answer from me.” “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.” Another teacher I know once made the observation that the students for whom we would most like to take credit are probably the ones with whose formation we had the least to do. Jesus does not take credit for Peter's answer. Instead, he tells Peter, “You are blessed.” “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
The Father is revealing Jesus as Messiah and as Son. We usually think of it the other way around: the Son is the one who shows us the Father, but it works both ways. Here the Father is opening Simon's eyes so that when he looks at Jesus, he can see the Son of the living God.
So we have revelation, confession, commendation and then… an exhortation to silence. I hate it when that happens. Things were going so well. Everything was so positive. If I were writing the gospel, I would put the sending out of the 12 right here, when the energy of a great class was still in everyone's muscle fibers. “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons,” I would have Jesus say right here. Or maybe he could seize the moment by saying to Peter and the others right now, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Instead, we get, “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” and then, “Do not say anything to anyone about this.”
And then it gets worse. Jesus exhorts the disciples to silence, and then starts tutoring them on what will happen to him in Jerusalem. Suffering, humiliation, death, resurrection. The next thing out of Peter's mouth is, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Just like that, the student's fortunes have changed. One minute he is the recipient of divine revelation and the next minute he is getting the same rebuke that the devil received when he tried to tempt Jesus at the start of his ministry. “Get behind me, Satan!”
This is the tension of discipleship. Peter understands, and then he doesn't understand at all. One moment he is walking on water, the next, he is sinking, the moment after that, he is saying with the other disciples to Jesus, “You are the Son of God.” At the end, the disciples all promise to stand by Jesus, and Peter pledges that even if he must die with Jesus, he will not deny him; within an hour or two, the disciples are all gone except for Peter, who stays in proximity to Jesus long enough to claim with all the persuasiveness that his sailor's vocabulary will offer, “I do not know the man!” A rooster brings him back to himself and he weeps bitterly. Peter is rock and stumbling block at almost the same moment, and he is blessed with just enough self-awareness to know both things are true of him.
He is, in this respect, representative of those who follow Jesus. If you have not known yourself to be both brilliant and clueless as you follow Jesus, fierce and craven, faithful and running for your life at almost exactly at the same time, you are not paying attention. Jesus does not say he will build his church on a rock such as Peter because the man's insight is so great or his faithfulness so remarkable or even because Jesus has any particular hope that Peter will become, over time, more faithful and less frightened. Jesus chooses this particular lump of clay because Jesus sees God at work in him. “Blessed are you, Simon, son of John, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.” God is at work in this one, and when Jesus sees that, he gets on board with it.
Our hope for the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ is not that Peter or the rest of us who are fishing for people will get better, clearer, louder, quieter, more trusting, or less cowardly but that God will keep revealing himself and his merciful and just rule through his Son to human beings quite apart from their goodness, clarity, trust and courage. I am not glorifying Peter's vices here, or yours or mine. I am only saying that neither doubt, nor fear, nor simple-mindedness nor the incapacity to know when to speak and when to be quiet have stopped the Father from revealing the Son, or stopped the Son from embodying the Father's reign on earth as it is in heaven. “I thank you, Father,” Jesus says, “that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Matt 11:25f). God is at work, making the Son known, because that is what God wants to do. Such is his gracious will. Peter and the rest of us see the revelation of God, then lose it, then catch another glimpse, then make our confession, then take a step back from it. God can work with that. In fact, it is God's gracious will to work with that. On such rocks as these, Christ builds his church.