The Foundation of our Hope
There are many great, inspiring, helpful texts of scripture. There are a few, however, that are so crucial, they make all the difference. This text we just read is one of those. Encountering this text is like finding the light switch that makes
sense of all the shadowy shapes in the room that we keep tripping over in the dark. This is not only important, its foundational for everything – the very foundation of our hope. So let us look at it carefully, because all of it is significant.
A Man Buys Coffee at Starbucks
I want to begin this way: This past week there was a photograph that made a huge stir in China. It a picture of a nicely dressed man standing at the counter in an airport Starbucks carrying a backpack over his shoulder. Who was this man?
Apparently, for Chinese people, he’s got to be nobody special. A Chinese man reported that “even a township chief, which is not really that high up in the hierarchy, will have a chauffeur and a secretary to carry his bag.” He would never go up to the counter and order his own coffee, much less carry his own backpack.
The picture caused a stir because the man turned out to be the new U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke. “How in the world could a man of such high rank from such an important country be acting so humbly?” they wondered. It was not what they expected to see.
But the truth is that the simple act of wearing his own backpack and buying his own coffee had everything to do with what he represents. We are a democracy, not a monarchy nor a totalitarian state. For us, leaders should be servants: the power they wield in our name comes up from us, the people. Everything about what Mr. Locke did that day in the airport was hugely significant; the Chinese were right to notice.
Messiah and the Coming Revolution
Everything in our text today is important; included for a reason. Our text from Matthew’s gospel is also about someone who appears in a way that confounds expectations. What will Messiah be like? People in Jesus’ day expected him to come with power; swords drawn, a war horse and a battle cry.
But Jesus had come differently. He hailed from a peasant family, from an obscure town a long way from anywhere important. He had not been educated by a famous rabbi. He had not gathered a credible opposition force nor had he put forward a plan for the post-Roman period.
Instead, he had come announcing that the Kingdom of God had come already. He had fed hungry people, he had healed diseased people, he had restored lost souls to the community. This was not what the people had expected Messiah to look like.
The “Who” Questions
Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself was as the “Son of Man.” We could re-phrase the question, “Who do people say that I am?”
The disciples have been listening to the crowds; they are aware of a variety of opinions.
14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
All three were important for what they said. All of them got in trouble for what they said. All three confronted the reigning “powers that be” in their times. But none of them was the messiah, or we would say, the one anointed, or to make the meaning of anointing explicit: the newly invested King.
Jesus presses the issue with his little band of former fishermen and civil servants:
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
That is exactly the question. We have to feel the sharp edges of that question against our skin. Who is Jesus to us? The answer is going to make all the difference.
Location, Location, Location
Before we get to the answer, let’s notice were we are in this story. We are not at the temple; we are not even in Jerusalem, the seat of power of the Kings in David’s ancient line. We are way north of the sea of Galilee in the foothills of Mount Hermon. It’s a place of flowing water that comes down from that mountain, eventually becoming the Jordan River.
What doe we see there in “the region of Caesarea Philippi”? Well, there is the huge palace-complex that King Herod’s son Phillip built and named after himself and after Caesar in Rome – to show allegiance. But also in that region we see a huge face of rock sticking up importantly. At the base of this huge rock face is a huge cave out of which water flows (in Jesus’ day; now, after earthquakes, it comes out different places).
The Temple of Pan
There, carved into the rock and built up all around the base of the rock face is the temple to the goat god Pan. There are places for worship and sacrifice, places for ritual washing – the place was probably swarming with the devoted faithful.
There, among the monuments to political power and the temple of a pagan god, Jesus asks the question: “But who do you say that I am?”
In one of most climactic moments of the New Testament, we hear Peter say the words of his confession of faith that make all the difference.
6 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Right next to the palace of political power, Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, anointed as God’s King. Right next to the shrine of pagan worship, he proclaims Jesus as the Son of the God who is alive and Living.
Did you notice that Matthew calls him “Simon Peter” to remind us that Jesus is the one who had changed his name to Peter. And so right in front of this amazing face of rock, Jesus says to the man whose name means “rock:”
17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Solid Rock Foundation
This rock is the solid ground on which we stand. The very foundation of the church is this confession: Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed King; the Son of the Living God.
The church has no other foundation. We are are not a group of people who gather because we are all similar in our views, our politics, our economic condition or any other human reason. The foundation of the church is our common confession that Jesus is the King of the Kingdom of God, the Son of the Living God.
The Keys of the Kingdom
Peter has a critical role to play as a leader among the original disciples. He is going to preach the Good News on the Day of Pentecost that unlocks the doors of the Kingdom to the Jewish world (Acts 2).
Peter is going to take the Good News to the Samaritans, the mixed race population, and by doing so, unlock the doors of the Kingdom to them (Acts 8).
Then, Peter himself is going to go to the gentile, Cornelius, and preach the Good News to him and his whole household, unlocking the doors of the kingdom to non-Jews, just like us (Acts 10). This is exactly what Jesus said he would do:
19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The Gates of Hades
The doors of the Kingdom of God are unlocked by the keys in Peter’s hands. And the doors of death, which is what “gates of Hades” means, will not stand up against the powerful force. Death itself is going to have its gates plundered because the King who is the Son of the Living God is going to conquer death itself as he rises from the dead.
But this is still to come. Because Jesus has not yet risen from the grave, he has to be careful about proclaiming himself as Messiah. People might get the wrong idea and start sharpening their swords and pointing them at the Romans. Jesus warns them about this:
20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
What does this mean for us?
What does this mean for us, right here, today? Everything! We study Jesus, we try to internalize his teaching, we see his whole life of ministry as a model for us. We are impressed by his insight, challenged by his ethic, amazed at his openness to the downtrodden and marginalized.
But we are also impressed by John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah. They did not do what only Jesus could do: break down the doors of the last enemy, death itself.
The Foundation of Hope
The foundation of our faith, the basis for our hope is that Jesus is God’s anointed King, God’s Messiah, the Son of the Living God. He fought Israel’s final battle against the powers of evil and defeated them on cross. Then God raised him from the dead, vindicating him as the Risen King.
This is why, when we gather together, as we will tomorrow, to give thanks for the life of one who has died, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our hope is that Jesus has opened the doors of God’s Kingdom to people like us, who by faith make the same confession that Peter made, by the power of the Spirit: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Jesus is Lord
There is only one possible conclusion to draw after making this confession: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is our Master. Jesus is the one who sets our agenda. Everything we do is now measured by whether or not it is congruent with the Jesus-shaped life. All of our politics, all of our economics, all of our social views, all of our entertainments, all of our relationships, all of our goals and dreams are now subject to review and revision in this shinning light: Jesus is Lord.
Who do we say Jesus is? This is our confession: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God!