August 27, 2017 Sermon
Exodus 1:8-2:10/ Matthew 16:13-20
Who Is Jesus to You?
When we see someone we know well do something uncharacteristic, we say things like, “It’s like I don’t even know you” or “Who are you and what did you do with my friend?” These things tend to be said in a jokey situation, but sometimes we encounter more serious abnormality in people we know, or thought we knew. For example, sociopaths can charm you and fool you, then one day reveal their true colours. You might think, “I don’t even know you”; not in a jokey way but in a seriously shocking way. You may realize you truly misjudged someone after thinking that you knew them well. Knowing someone can be a tricky business. Also someone might ask, “Do you know so-and-so?” and you answer, “I know about him, but don’t know him personally.” A lot of times, we are in this situation. Just because we know someone, that doesn’t mean we really know them.
Today’s gospel text is about Jesus trying to find out if his disciples really know him; and we’re talking about the small group of people who are in his intimate circle, not random followers. Jesus starts by beating around the bush; “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” I wonder if he really referred to himself as a third person like snobbish people around us. It might have been the gospel writers who made Jesus talk like this to convey grandiosity and majesty. Now the “people” in the disciples’ report here testify that Jesus is like some of the greatest prophets. Obviously, they thought they were paying the greatest honour by comparing him to the greatest prophets; this is a human limit. Peter, on the other hand, most likely gripped by a divine revelation, confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, a.k.a. the Christ, a.k.a. the Anointed One of God. It turns out that other people only knew about Jesus and had theories of who he might have been; only Peter knew who he was, and his confession didn’t come from any rumour or knowledge analyzing him.
One piece of biblical knowledge and trivia; all the three Synoptic Gospels, which are Matthew, Mark, and Luke, tell this story of Peter’s great confession. But Matthew embellishes the story by having Peter say, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” as opposed to the simple “You are the Christ” in Mark, and “You are the Christ of God” in Luke. Matthew’s author not only embellishes Peter’s confession but also adds a section where Jesus praises Peter for his knowledge and promises him great authority in the kingdom of heaven. In fact, this is not the only time the author of Matthew puts Peter on a pedestal and describes him as the greatest disciple. He also walked on water, remember? This was because Matthew’s community was already going through the institutionalization of the faith community (we’ll call it church), and because they were in competition with the Jewish community, needed to present an authority figure. This is how Peter became the “head disciple” and the Roman Catholic Church considers him the first pope from whom all the other popes received their authority.
Now the blessing that Jesus gives Peter is interesting. We read, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” This sentence is fascinating because it contains a play on word, and as a language geek, I love play on words and puns. Peter’s name in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, is Petros. But the Greek word for rock is petra. Also, Peter’s Aramaic name is Kephas, which we call Cephas in the English Bible, means rock. So what Jesus is saying to Peter here is, “You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my church.” I got goosebumps because this language is so delicious! Okay, let’s calm down now.
Rock is a symbol of firm foundation; it has been used for Abraham, and sometimes for God. This is obviously a building metaphor. Peter will be the foundation stone on which the Christian community is to be built, but in a true sense, Jesus is the foundation stone. Peter is the first stone of the metaphorical building, which is the Christian community; or the community of disciples, or the kingdom of heaven. We are all stones that make up this community, and Peter was the first one to be laid. Our community is based and founded on Jesus the Christ who could not be held by death itself, as we can see in verse 18 where it says, “The gates of Hades will not prevail against it (“it” meaning “the church”).”
This passage teaches us that our discovery of Jesus Christ must be a personal discovery. Jesus asked his disciples, “You, who do YOU say that I am?” Our journey with God and Christ, through whom we get to God, should be a personal journey. There are scholars who know a lot about Jesus but they do not necessarily know him from their hearts and souls. Yes, there are biblical scholars who are not Christians. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we learn about Jesus from church or Bible study groups. It’s just knowledge unless we can personally experience God and Jesus in our lives. Look at Moses, whom we will keep learning about. His life was full of divine guidance that no one can miss. He was supposed to die as an infant, but not only his life was spared, he was raised as a prince of Egypt. He received the privilege of wealth and good education that will serve a great purpose later in his life. If this is not divine intervention, I don’t know what is. Moses had a more dramatic life and experience with God than any of us, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to meet God in our lives. We all have experience of divine intervention or guidance. If we pay attention, we can recognize those moments.
Preparing this message gave me a chance to look back upon my own faith journey. I remember listening to an interview with an actress who portrayed Marilyn Monroe in a movie. She said she grew up with a huge Marilyn Monroe’s poster on her wall and that she felt like an intimate friend; this is how she started her journey of analyzing and portraying this big star. I remember growing up constantly listening to the stories of Jesus, and even scholarly debates about the gospel texts in my living room. This is what happens when your father is a gospel scholar. Jesus has always felt like an intimate friend to me. No matter how the Church teaches about who Jesus is (for example, saviour, friend, coach, counselor, or a pilot guiding our way in the storms of life), what matters is experiencing Jesus personally. This is the only way we can know him; this is the only way we can know anyone for that matter.
This week, I invite you to a personal journey and encounter with God through Jesus. Take time meditating on your life events. Meditate on the images of God and Jesus that you have been taught and find one that feels right for you. Or think of a different one that fits you. Pray to meet God on a personal and intimate level. God is not a one-size-fits-all kind of God. Locate God and Jesus in your lives in a personal and intimate way. Blessed be your journeys. Amen.
Rev. Sunny Kim