So, these 13 Galilean peasants walking into Caesarea Philippi, must have appeared like country bumpkins coming to the Hamptons! Together, they had walked all over Galilee, from farms, to villages, in, on and around, the Sea of Galilee, but never before to this resort complex. Now, at the mid-way point in Jesus’ ministry, he comes to this ritzy retreat center, not to get a room and order champagne, but to take stock of his progress, checking in with his closest followers, on their mission. ‘I know others think I might be John the Baptist or Elijah come back to life, or maybe on par with Jeremiah or one of the prophets, “but what about you?” he asked, “who do you say that I am?”’
And Simon Peter – that gregarious, and natural but impulsive leader, who all too often ends up with a throbbing thumb – actually ‘hits the nail on the head’ this time, answering Jesus’ question with that now famous confession of faith: “You are the Messiah, the anointed one, the Son of the living God.”
But this bold confession seems to come out of no where, and raises the question, what response was Jesus really hoping for from his disciples? Maybe what he was after was, just some honest talk. Where do you see me on a scale of leadership: from prophet, to game-changer, to the real deal, the Son of the living God? Maybe Jesus was only expecting a mid-career answer, ‘a prophet for now, with good future potential?’ In the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples didn’t quite get it. In the storm on the Sea of Galilee, Peter tried to step out of the boat to join Jesus, but didn’t last long. Let’s sit down and process this! That might have been Jesus’ intention.
But you also have to wonder if Jesus was, just maybe, hoping to rub shoulders with the rich and famous while he was in Caesarea Philippi. Or, maybe he came to this Roman outpost of opulence to deliberately make a contrast. Here in Caesarea Philippi, everything shouts, ‘Caesar is king.’ Here the choice was clear. Jesus, a unarmed leader, poor in earthly possessions, a wandering preacher with no where to lay his head, didn’t look anything like Caesar, a commander of limitless power by the sword, rich in possessions, a leader with expensive homes scattered throughout the empire. And so, in this setting, Jesus asks his closest followers: “who do you say that I am?” Of course, Peter would enthusiastically declare Jesus, not Caesar, is LORD! ‘He hit the nail on the head!’
But what about in our context, where we live with far more shades of grey? What does it mean to confess Jesus as Messiah, or Son of God? Is it the words that make it real? Does saying it make us acceptable? Is it enough to confess the creed? Or must we say it from the heart, stand up and really mean it, be able to use it in our own words? And, if we don’t say the right words or have the proper passion, are we disqualified, unacceptable, not disciples? And even if we do, but then fail to live in the light of Christ, live a life not worthy of the Son of the living God, what then? Every denomination of the church of Christendom has come up with a slightly different answer to these questions and debated them, and where has it gotten us?
After his disciple ‘nails it,’ Jesus blesses Simon, and gives him a new nickname, Petros, or Peter, which means Rock! “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Not literally build a stone church on Peter’s back, but metaphorically, he is the foundation, or cornerstone. Peter is a spokesperson for all 12 disciples, and a stand-in, you might say, for all us that become followers and disciples of Jesus after him. We are all stones, building blocks, on which Jesus, the master builder, forms the church, year after year, century after century, in cities and villages, across countries, and around the globe. We, the baptized believers, who all too often end up with throbbing thumbs – are actually able to ‘hit the nail on the head,’ not because of our true confession, but only because Jesus, despite all our erratic hammering and yammering, is a builder that can create from nothing, and connect us to one another, and form us into one body, that we hadn’t even thought possible before.
In these times of great change, in every way, and especially in this economy, as the gap continues to widen between rich, and shrinking middle class and poor, Jesus asks us which god we bow down too? The god of Caesar is a perennial temptation, the one who wields power by military and monetary coercion, acquiring friends through “pay to play” schemes, who lives high off the hog, and speaks of peace, surrounded by his conquered conscripts. Jesus offers something else. Not a glamorous or glitzy facade built with slave labor. It doesn’t involve an armed militia, or a federal reserve bank – only true peace, through justice for the least of these, and a life of joyful service, building life-giving relationships based on the power of the ‘good news.’ One is found in Caesarea Philippi and in high places everywhere, and the other is found ‘nailed’ to the cross, opening his arms to all.
The church is not the stones of our building, but the believing stones that cry out, ‘Hosanna in the highest, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.’ And the word for church, that Jesus is building on Peter, is used only here in Matthew, no where else in the gospels. Church, or ekklesia in the Greek, had meant, the “assembly” of the people that were “called out” to act together as one body. We are that assembly, the church, called out, so Christ, the Son of the living God, can build us up. And we become living stones that create new possibilities for God’s work to be done, a work of resurrecting ‘hope and faith and love’ in these very uncertain times, so that new jobs in the realm of God are opening up and being created right here for the assembly of believers.
“Who do we say that Jesus is?” The short answer is Peter’s – the Messiah. “Blessed are you,” says Jesus, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but our heavenly God!” And over the long haul, to “nail it on the head,” we assemble as the living stones, so that the Messiah, the Master Builder, can ‘call us out,’ for the up-building, of the life of the world.