The collect and readings for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16A, may be found here. The appointed gospel is Matthew 16:13-20.
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 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. 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. 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
“But who do you say that I am?” I wonder sometimes if we hear this question as Jesus’ mid-gospel exam. We are about half way through Matthew’s account of the gospel. So it makes sense that Jesus might gather the guys and say, “Ok let’s see what you’ve learned, if you really understand. Who am I?”
Most of us know the right answer. We’ve read Peter’s answer. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Today’s gospel is not, however, about giving the right answer. This is not a test. This is not about what is in our head but what is in our heart. It’s about what lies at the core of our existence. Jesus is asking the disciples to consider what centers their lives. What is the axis about which their world turns? It is not enough to just give the right answer. They are to become and reveal the answer by their lives, words, and actions. Those things, for Jesus, are foundational to a life of discipleship.
We all have some center from which we live. People, things, and experiences tend to become our anchor point, the center of our life. They give us our bearings and stability. Our center orients our life and the direction we go. It not only shapes how we live but, more importantly, who we are becoming.
Our spouse, children, friends, or other relationships can easily become the center of our world. Sometimes it is our beliefs, opinions, or prejudice. Anger or fear can live at the center of our life. For some profound loss and grief become their world’s center. For others love and beauty may be the defining axis of life. Who or what is our center? Whatever it is that center is capable of propelling, enlivening, and growing us or it can keep us stuck and stagnant.
We often discover what lives at the center of our world when the experiences and circumstances of life knock us off kilter. Everything is thrown out of whack and we struggle to regain our center. Sometimes that means we have settled for something other than Christ on which to center our lives. Christ is the true center. That does not mean there will not be difficulties, pain, or losses. It means that when they occur the center holds and we all need a center that will hold.
In Jewish midrash, the rabbinic teaching and preaching on the scriptures, it is said that Israel is at the center of the world. At the center of Israel is Jerusalem. At the center of Israel is the temple. At the center of the temple is the holy place. At the center of the holy place is the ark, the presence and glory of God. Underneath the ark is the foundation, the rock upon which all rests.
The imagery of that midrash takes us deeper and deeper to the center of the center of the center. That is exactly what Jesus is doing with his questions in today’s gospel.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
“But you, who do you say that I am?”
In the first question Jesus is asking what the disciples hear and see around them. In the second question he wants to know what they see and hear within themselves. Jesus is always pushing us to go deeper, to look within and discover who or what our life is centered on, and then to re-center. But we are followers of Christ. Isn’t he already our center? Maybe so, but the life of discipleship is one of continual re-centering.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the living one,” Simon Peter answers. This is more than just an answer. With those words he has re-centered his life. Christ is the axis around which Peter will present his body “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…. I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus renames Simon. His Greek name is Petros which in English means rock. Simon is now Rock. Whenever we re-center our lives on Christ we become a new person. Every time the lines of our lives converge on Christ we become rock-like. We become the foundation, the rock, on which rests the church, the new ark that holds and reveals the presence and glory of God.
With all its frailties Jesus chooses human life and relationships to be the rock on which he builds his church. We are not, however, rocks that are unmovable or unchangeable. As water slowly forms and shapes a rock over time so does a lifetime of re-centering form and shape us to be Christ’s foundation in this world.
Re-centering is our life’s work and it is not easy work. It means we must continually let go of what we thought centered our lives and move to our true center; the Messiah, the Son of God, the living one. The opportunity for re-centering is hidden within the ups and downs of our life. It is something we do over and over and we don’t always get it right. Look at Peter. He is the one of little faith sinking in the water. He doesn’t understand the parables. He argues with Jesus and ends up being called Satan. He falls asleep when he is supposed to be praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He denies knowing Jesus. Through it all he was being shaped, formed, molded into the rock Jesus knew him to be. Ultimately Peter was crucified for re-centering, following, and loving Jesus.
Despite what it may look like Peter clung to the center. There is really nowhere else to go. Jesus’ words, “You are rock and on this rock I will build my church,” are words of life. They were for Peter and they are for us. What Jesus says to Peter he says to all.
“Who do you say that I am?” Don’t just answer his question. Go live the answer. Discover the “rockness” that Jesus knows you to be. Live with hope in the midst of despair. Love your neighbor as yourself. Though the gates of death open to you know that they cannot prevail. Care for the poor, feed the hungry, and defend the oppressed. Offer forgiveness despite your anger. Pray when you are too busy to pray. Love your enemies despite your fear. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. Practice generosity in a declining economy. Re-center even when it feels like you cannot stand up. Do these. Be the rock. Be the rock on which Jesus’ church stands before the world.