Who is Jesus? That question doesn’t need to be asked here, does it? This is a Christian church, after all. A Lutheran congregation. That’s the kind of question we ought to be asking out in the world. When was the last time you asked that question? And what sort of answer did you receive? How would you answer it yourself?
Questions abound in this morning’s Gospel. “Who do men say that I am?” :”Who do you say that I am?” Jesus first popped the question to His disciples at Caesaria Philippi, a scenic town at the foot of Mt. Hermon. Baal had once been worshipped there by the locals. Then Pan by the Greeks. Herod the Great built a big marble temple to Caeasar Augustus. At the place where Caesar was confessed lord and god, Jesus turns to His disciples and asks, “Who do men say that I am?”
The answers were varied and predictable. Some say John the Baptizer, returned from the dead. Some say Elijah, who as supposed to appear before the Messiah. Some say Jeremiah or one of the prophets. In so many words, a great religious man among religious men. Just like people say today when they want to say something nice about Jesus without confessing the big thing. He’s a great teacher, an example (What Would Jesus Do?), an inspiration, a buddy, a friend, a healer. All of it nice; true even. But not enough. Not even close.
Who do all of you say that I am? Now He gets to the heart. Never mind what the polls say, what about you guys? Simon Peter speaks up for all of them. He always does. Good old Simon. He’s like the pesky kid in class who has all the answers. “You are the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of the living God.” Peter gets it right, at least on paper. Jesus is the anointed One, the Messiah of Israel, the fulfillment of all God promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the prophets. And He is the Son of the living God. You couldn’t get a more correct, more orthodox answer than that.
“Blessed are you, Simon son of John. Simon Johnson. You didn’t think this up on your own. This came straight from my Father who is in heaven.” No confessional merit badge for Simon Peter. To confess Jesus as Christ and Son of God is not ours to do, by virtue of our own religious intuition and intelligence. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him.” Or even confess Him. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” If that were not the case, only the smart could be saved. There’s hope for the rest of us!
Confessing Jesus as Christ and Son of God, Simon is rock solid. In fact, Jesus calls him exactly that – Petros – Peter, the Rock-man. “Rocky”. Let’s run with that, shall we? Simon “Rocky” Johnson.* I like the sound of that. You can almost hear the theme music playing in the background. You are “Rocky,” and on the rock of your confession, which God the Father put in your mouth, I will build my church, my gathered people.
On Peter’s confession, not his peron. There’s nothing solid about Peter at all! The church is not some personality cult of Peter, or any other man, whether pope, bishop, or teleevangelist. In the very next paragraph, Peter the confessor is Peter the denier. He later even denies knowing Jesus to a little servant girl. Hardly living up to the name Rocky. More like Muddy. Muddy as in Adam, the man of the mud, the first denier.
A church built on Peter would be on a slippery slope. An idol’s temple. The church is built on the rock of Peter’s confession not on his person or any person save Jesus. Peter as confessor doesn’t point to himself but to Jesus. And you can’t be more rock solid than crucified and risen Jesus. Even the gates of Hades – sin, death, devil – cannot prevail against such a confession.
A house is only as sturdy as the foundation it sits on. We in shaky California know a bit about that. The hidden strength of the Church is down at her foundation. Not her glorious cathedrals, her splendid liturgies, her finely-honed doctrines, her institutions and influence, or even her vast numbers. The church’s strength is that she is built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, with Christ – the rejected Rock – as her cornerstone. And she is bolted to the rocky foundation through the faith that confesses Jesus as Christ and Son of the living God.
Did Peter realize what his words meant that day? Not fully, not yet. When Jesus explained to His disciple that being the Christ meant that He must suffer, die, and on the third day rise, Peter pulled Him aside and scolded Him. “God forbid it! This must never happen to you!” That wasn’t what Peter had in mind when he said, “You are the Christ.”. “Christ” for Peter meant God’s anointed warrior, the divine terminator, the conqueror, the Davidic king who comes to put Israel back on the map again.
To confess Jesus as Christ and Son of God is to confess Him crucified and risen from the dead. There is no other Jesus, no other way to be Christ than dying and rising. This is the way Death is defeated, sin atoned, life restored – by His death on a cross once for all people, once for all time. Those who would flatter Jesus with pious titles, but refuse His bloody death are on very shaky ground. Even “Rocky” Johnson became the devil’s spokesman. “Get behind me Satan, you are a hindrance to me,” Jesus said to him.
You either speak for Christ or the anti-christ. There is no comfortable middle way, no neutral ground, no happy agnostic, “Gee I just don’t know” place to run and hide when the Jesus question is popped. Either Jesus is Lord or He isn’t. Either Jesus is the Messiah of Israel or He isn’t. Either He is the Son of the living God or He isn’t. And either the church is a communion of saints proclaiming Jesus the Christ crucified and risen for the life of the world, or it’s a synagogue of Satan.
Confession is a crisis of faith and unbelief. What you believe with your heart, you confess with your lips. Thanks be to God He doesn’t leave it up to us to decide our own way or figure out for ourselves. We wouldn’t, and we couldn’t. To confess Jesus as Christ is God’s gift to you, worked by the Word and the Spirit. It is given you in your Baptism to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Consider yourselves “blessed.” Blessed are you, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but the Father through the Son in the Spirit.
On this rock of confession where Jesus is proclaimed Christ and Son of God, there the keys of the kingdom are found. Keys are authority – the authority to open and shut, to bind and loose. It’s a huge thing to have the keys. When we take ownership of a house or a car, we get the keys. When we entrust someone with our stuff, we give them the keys. I remember when I got my first set of keys. I could open what my parents had shu, any time day or night. Freedom. Permission. What are kids always asking for? “Dad, can I have the keys?”
Imagine having the keys of heaven. Now there’s a set of doors! Jesus promises the keys to Peter of all people. Not to make him bishop or pope, but to make him preacher, confessor, and servant. “The things you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. The things you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” You don’t have to search for the keys to heaven like some misplaced set of car keys stuck in a forgotten pants pocket. “Now where did God put them?”
The keys of heaven are found right smack in the middle of that gathering of solid as a rock Christ-confessors, even as few as two or three gathered in the Name of Jesus. The congregation of saints. The church even has an “office of the keys,” the office of the holy ministry, where the keys are always at work for certain so that you might know and be certain that heaven is open to you.
The keys of heaven belong to Jesus, to whom “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been given. They do what He did for all on the cross – binding sin, Satan, death and hell, loosing sinners from their guilt and shame, freeing them to be the children of God, swinging wide the gates of salvation.
You are all in on this, built on the rock, baptized, believing, confessing Jesus along with Simon Peter. Every Baptism, every word of absolution, every proclamation of Jesus, every communion in the Body and the Blood, the keys of heaven are turning – binding and loosing, opening heaven to faith, shutting it to unbelief.
Jesus warned Peter and the rest not to tell anyone that He was the Christ. Don’t worry. He’s not talking to you here. You can tell anyone and everyone that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God. They just had to wait until Jesus died and rose, until the darkness and the wood and nails and the blood; until the rock was rolled away and the tomb revealed empty and the body risen and seen and touched. Then the world would have its rock solid proof, the hard evidence. Crucified and risen He is most Christ, most Son of God for you.
There is nothing more sure, more certain than Jesus. Jesus the Christ. Jesus the Son of the living God. Jesus the Giver of the keys of heaven. And you, my dear baptized believers, confessing Him you are as solid as the Rock who saves you.
In the name of Jesus,
*Thanks to my former pastor and dear friend Rev. Ron Hodel for this little play on Peter’s name. I’ve remembered it all these years and have been waiting for an excuse to use it.