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The Reverend Kathleen Killian 

Proper 16, August 23, 2020

Matthew 16:13-20 

Journey with Jesus 

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul exhorts the newly forming Christian community to humility as they are one body in Christ, though with many members and differing gifts according to the grace given each (12:4-5). And I would add, that they were, as we are now, on one journey with countless footfalls, paths, and ways of getting there. But where is “there”? “There” is the essential quest or pilgrimage to home—to Self, to God, to Wholeness, to Peace; and it is the longest, most humbling journey a person will make—though but a modest hand-span or two—from the head to the heart. 

The heart is the abode or dwelling place of the Holy One; but, as we read in our gospel last week, from out of the heart come evil intentions and all wickedness (Matthew 15:19). So vital to our humanity is the heart, the Bible records over 800 verses about this spiritual center, that is the seat of love, will, and wisdom, and the wellspring of our actions and desires. Proverbs counsels: above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it (4:23). In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches: where your treasure is, there will your heart also be (Matthew 6:21); and, blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8). And from Romans again: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (12:2). The renewal of the mind is the transformative journey of the Word itself from head to heart. 

When Jesus asks the crucial question—who do you say I am?—from where do we answer? The head or the heart? 

After teaching, healing, and feeding thousands, Jesus and his disciples have just arrived in the lush region north of Galilee known as Caesarea Philippi, when he asks them, who do people say I am? His disciples have heard the crowds talking. Most folks identify Jesus as a prophet, a high honor indeed, but no savior of the world. And so they answer: some say you are John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. 

But then Jesus presses further: but what about you? who do you say I am? As one might expect, Peter takes the lead, and perhaps even surprising himself, boldly declares: You are the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God. 

Suddenly, this dusty figure standing before the disciples is no longer simply their leader, rabbi, and teacher, but the long awaited Messiah, the Anointed One, the One who Saves, the King of Israel. Jesus commends Peter: Bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am. And now I’m going to tell you who you are, really are. You are Peter, a rock; and the rock upon which I will found my church (The Message trans). 

Peter must have been beaming with pride at this profound moment of truth, a turning point. But this newfound awareness is short-lived, as we will see next Sunday: Jesus, the newly revealed Messiah, tells the disciples of his coming passion and death, after which Peter, the newly minted Rock, dares to admonish him. Jesus sharply rebukes Peter: get thee behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. From the rock to the stumbling block, Peter tumbles down. 

Peter has indeed revealed the “messianic secret,” but without really understanding what it means for Jesus, as well as for the disciples and their journeys with him. And it is no different for us. With heartfelt belief we can declare Jesus the Messiah, Lord, and Savior, and yet not grasp its deeper meaning and implications. 

Who Christ is matters; for as the body of Christ, we are intimately connected to the person and work of Christ. Our vocation, or the purpose we are called to, springs from identity with this. But before there ever was an official Church doctrine that “answered” who is Christ? and what is his work ? there was Jesus— just Jesus—and the stories passed down about him as the child he was, son, brother, friend; a teacher and wonder-worker; Jesus of Nazareth, a person on an arduous journey, also known as Son of David, Son of Man, Beloved Son of God, Lamb of God. I am, Jesus tells us, the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). The Good Shepherd (John 10:11). The Door (John 10:9). The True Vine (John 15:1). The Light of the World (John 8:12). The Bread of Life (John 6:35). Before Abraham was, he says, I am (John 8:58). 

Jesus is One, but not one thing. 

So how do we come to an answer when Jesus asks: Who do you say I am? My guess is that we will answer differently at different ages, times, and seasons of our lives; differently today than even a year ago. For me, Jesus has been the One who has come to my rescue, and the One who unexpectedly overturned the apple cart of my life; he is the Incarnated One whose  healing grace has coursed through my flesh, and the One whose presence I must continually seek. Jesus is my beloved, as close as my breath, and the almighty Lord, whose glory of power and light is too vast to behold. Thankfully too, Jesus is sweet simplicity and peace. 

We get to say who Jesus is—yesterday, today, and tomorrow—or daily, as the root of the word journey means. God doesn’t twist our arm for the correct answer, but as with Peter, illumines an eager and faithful heart that we might catch a glimpse of the Christ. 

In our post-modern, reductive, and fraught world, it’s perhaps too easy to assume that there is no answer or one that will truly make a difference. But as scripture and the prophets insist, the world is stranger and more multivalent than we might imagine. Unseen purposes are at work in us and among us—God works in mysterious ways—often contradicting appearances and assumptions, as in our Old Testament passage and the story of Moses’ most unusual beginnings in a basket among the reeds on the bank of the river (Exodus 1:8-2:10). 

At the end of our gospel this morning, Jesus sternly orders the disciples to tell no one who he is, which doesn’t seem to make sense. Isn’t this the good news that they were and we are to proclaim? But therein lies great wisdom; for in bearing the mystery of Christ inwardly, we resist the triumphant clamor of the ego, and the discharge of what must, by its nature, gestate in the womb of our hearts. 

In pondering Christ’s identity, so also is the heart searching our own, for who we are in Christ. May we answer Jesus’s question, who do you say I am? and also ask of Jesus: who you say I am? who am I, really? 

As Peter found out, these answers are indeed life-changing. But whatever they may be, and wherever we are in our journey home, one thing we can know without question: we are children of God—fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14)—loved here and now, and eternally. 

I am with you day after day after day, Jesus assures us, always, unto the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).