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Matthew 16:13-20

To preach but one sermon on a text each Sunday is often a challenge for me, especially when a passage is as historically significant as the text from Matthew 16 this week. The historically significant questions raised in this text (for example, what precisely is Peter’s role in the church? In what way is Peter foundation for the church? What does it mean for him to be given the keys of the kingdom of heaven?) have filled books and fueled church controversy and division, and so they offer an endlessly deep rabbit hole for any so inclined (as I sometimes am) to pursue these questions. And beyond the questions of church controversy, this text includes huge themes that invite full sermons in and of themselves. Consequently, it is the burden of discernment for the preacher to know her congregation and what word from the Lord she is to proclaim this week. I want to suggest two major focal points a preacher of this week’s text might use as anchors for her sermon. The first is the Father’s gift of faith (vv. 13-17), and the second is the role of the church (vv. 18-20).

When focusing on the first anchor, there are several particulars of the text that are ripe for developing a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, who God is, and how and where God is at work in offering the gift of faith. The first key point here is that the confession that Jesus is the Messiah—the king and redeeming savior of humankind—is not a revelation attributed to the wisdom of humanity but to the work of the Father. The people have spoken that Jesus is a prophet in line with the great tradition of the faith. They have said he is like Elijah and Jeremiah, the ones who heard the voice of the Lord and faithfully proclaimed the (often unpopular) word given to them. The people have said that Jesus stands in line with those who proclaim the truth of God, calling God’s people to faithfulness. And the people are right. Jesus is the prophet of prophets—willingly challenging God’s people, especially the religious elite, to know the God they serve and follow more faithfully.

Yet the people’s revelation is incomplete. From the human point of view, one might come to the point of knowing Jesus as a teacher, a wise guide, a person who challenges and calls out, even one who speaks for God. But Jesus is more, and so he asks his closest followers, “Who do you say that I am?” The ironic thing is Peter and the others with him say that Jesus is the Messiah not by their own insight but by the revelation that comes from the Father. We learn that the faith by which one proclaims Jesus as Messiah is a received and revealed faith—it is not one mustered up through determination but one given through grace.

It is worth noting the setting of this confession of faith as it gives insight to the places where God’s revelation is likely to take place. Caesarea Philippi is a city at the boundary of Israel and the world. Caesarea Philippi is on the edge; it is on the border of Israel. At the place of boundary and border, at the place where Israel’s reign runs out, on the margin is where Jesus is proclaimed as king. The location of God’s revelation at the margins both attests to Jesus’ lordship being for all people, especially those outside of the traditional bounds of God’s people, and to the fact that throughout the Gospels Jesus is revealing his lordship at the margins. Jesus is revealed as Lord as he touches and heals marginal people from marginal places and as he eats with and comes to know the people on the fringes of society. If people are looking for faith and searching for the revelation of God, they might just need to go to the places of boundary, border, fringe, or margin.