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.
With it well established that the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ is a gift of God’s revelation, a preacher may want to turn to the role of the church. Again, the temptation to enter deeply into the historical debates around Peter and his specific role within the church may be great, so proceed with caution. That said, it is valuable to address the questions that are on your people’s hearts. So if tending to this matter that has been a source of division within the Church is a burning concern of your people, risk the rabbit hole while being cautious to be clear and concise.
When considering the role of the church, it is worth addressing and emphasizing at least three points. The first is connected to the gates of Hades. The second is the topic of binding and loosing. And the third is Jesus’ caution not to tell others that he is the Christ. I’ll only touch on each of these briefly. In a world that is on fire, it is easy to think the gates of Hades will prevail. Where racism and hatred is on full display across the country, where terror and destruction fill the news reports from places across the globe, where unjust wealth accumulation and wealth depravation force some people to starve while others die from gluttony, it is easy to believe that the gates of Hades are prevailing over Christ and his church. Yet, Jesus’ assurance to Peter is that the bondage of death, decay and destruction do not have the final word. So the church can rest on the foundation of Jesus as the Christ—the king and ruler of the world.
The church founded on Christ is called to the task of binding and loosing. Scholars point out that this binding and loosing can be thought of in two ways. First, the act of binding and loosing can be thought of doctrinally. The church is called to discern what believers are free to believe and practice as well as those things from which believers should abstain in thought and deed. This is a critical correction for any who try to walk the road of faith alone. The communal discernment of the church is vital for right belief and right practice. Second, the act of binding and loosing can be thought of as it relates to participation within the community of faith. While the practice of excommunication is not practiced in most churches (and for good reason), Jesus speaks of the church’s authority to call people into a certain way, and to acknowledge when living outside of that way creates a break in the community. This form of binding and loosing is another aspect of the church’s call to discernment, and one that must be done carefully—always remembering that the Lord who called the church to this discernment is the Lord who dined with tax collectors and sinners.
Finally, the church must listen carefully to Jesus’ caution to the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christ. Jesus’ command was surely rooted in the fact that the disciples assumed Jesus was a different kind of Lord. And until they knew him as the Cruciform Christ, they could not proclaim the truth of his Lordship. This is a warning the church must continue to heed. We must be careful to proclaim the Christ of the cross, hoping and praying that the Father will inspire confessions of faith in us and the world around.