Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2020

Matthew 16:13-20

Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” What do you think about Jesus? More than anything else, this is the central question of Christianity. Depending on how you answer, it is the central question of life itself.

In the first century there were all sorts of ideas concerning who Jesus is. King Herod, who killed John the Baptist, saw Jesus as a resurrected John, riling up the people with his calls to repentance. Others heard of Jesus’ teaching and miracles and thought Elijah the greatest prophet, who never died and was carried to heaven, had returned. Yet others hearing Jesus rail against the leaders of the people and the hypocrisy in the temple and at Jerusalem saw Jesus as another Jeremiah, the prophet who wept for the doom of their nation to come. All of these were wrong but had some element of truth to them as well. People heard the amazing things that Jesus did – preaching, healing, raising people from the dead – and having some knowledge of scripture tried to develop informed opinions. One could imagine the arguments around dinner tables in Capernaum or Bethsaida about which prophet Jesus resembled more.

Arguments about Jesus continue in the twenty-first century as well. Scholars talk about finding “the real, historical Jesus,” and specials about this historical Jesus seem to come up every year around Easter and Christmas. Many breathless articles are written on popular sites and magazines about some new archaeological discovery that “proves” they found something new about Jesus, or they found his wife, or even that they found his body. Usually they ignore more of the gospels and pick the parts they like a “authentic,” then define their historical Jesus from there.

Or there’s even people who don’t care about an historical Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, these kind of people like Jesus. They think he’s great. If you ask, what do you think about Jesus, they think of whatever the best things are and attribute those to him. They say, “Jesus is kindness. Jesus is love (in the sense of warm feelings). Jesus is the ideal of what all humans aspire to be.” They seek for the best things in their experience, apply them to what they may have heard about Jesus, and form their thoughts from there.

Who do people say the Son of Man is” in the twenty-first century? Some say an ancient teacher we can’t really know much about who is an inspiration to people even to today. Some say a prophet who sums up the best teachings of all religions. Some say a friend to connect to spiritually for comfort. Other says the one who shows the way to get our lives back in order. And there are doubtless many other opinions about Jesus, thought most seem to not care about Him at all. Like in the first century, while these all have elements of truth to them, they are wrong. They are not answering the question.

When Jesus asks the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” He is not asking “What do I mean to you?”  He is not asking to form an opinion or bring some Jesus idea into your life. It’s easy for us today to form Jesus in our own image, as some kind of ideal or general attribute. It was much harder when people had to deal with this man, walking around, making claims about being the Son of God, healing and teaching. By making Jesus into generic “kindness” or “who I want to be,” his existence on earth almost becomes irrelevant. A character does not need to be real for people to aspire to be like him. Anne Shirley or Harry Potter or Scarlett O’Hara can inspire people without needing to have ever existed.

So really it is the historical Jesus people, even the ones from the History channel, who are closer to the right track. At least they are attempting to deal with this man who existed, however little they may claim to know. Yet historical inquiry only gets you so far, and you still will need to formulate conclusions based on your own experience and biases. And so these historians will say a lot, talking for an hour minus commercials, and really say nothing at all.

Yet Simon Peter speaks with certainty – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In a simple sentence, Peter answers the question perfectly. How? “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” All the others who formed opinions about Jesus did so from their own reason, their own faculties, and never could reach the truth. Only the Father reveals who the Son of Man is to us.

We really skimmed over the fact that Jesus’ first question was “who do people say the Son of Man is?” The Son of Man has a very particular meaning. It’s not just Jesus’ nickname for himself. The Son of Man is Jesus himself as the Son of God in his state of humility. The Son of Man is Jesus, God and man, holding back his divine power to fulfill the Father’s plan to save us. The Son of Man actively fulfills the law on our behalf, doing everything the Father requires perfectly. The Son of Man passively accepts that he will be delivered over to be crucified, to take on all our sins and the wrath of God that was meant for us. In simple terms, “who is the Son of Man?” is asking “who is the Jesus we read about in the gospels?” In the inspired gospels, the Father reveals to us by the Holy Spirit who Jesus, the Son of Man, is.

Not by our own reason or strength but by the enlightening of the Holy Spirit can we know who Jesus, is the Son of Man is. This is not a question you can deal with on your own. You can ignore it, you can avoid it, but in the end everyone must deal with it. When we die we will all give account for ourselves. All will face the final judgment and none of us will be able to stand before God’s perfect law. We have all broken the commandments. We are born with sin. Yet then will be the most important question: “Who do you say that Jesus is?”

Yet you, baptized and redeemed children of God, will not need to rack your brains to come up with a good answer. You can confess with Peter, “The Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Father has revealed this to you by His Word. Christ lived the perfect life you could not, died to redeem you from your sins, and rose from the dead. Trusting in Him, you will not fall in the judgment but live with God forever. Right now the Father works that trust in you through his Holy Spirit, through his Word, your baptism, and His holy Supper.

For Jesus promises to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The rock that Christ builds his church on is Peter’s confession that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Yet a confession does not just exist on its own. A confession must be confessed by someone. That is why Jesus makes a play on words with Peter’s name, which means “rock.” For on the rock of Peter’s confession, confessed by Peter and all Christians afterwards, the church will be built. This confession is one that the Father freely gives to make Christians, the confessors of Jesus Christ.

Where is God’s church found? Where is this rock? Wherever God is revealing Jesus Christ, making confessors. This is wherever His Word is preached and His Sacraments are administered. His church is where the kingdom of heaven, Jesus’s reign through the church, is working, where sins are being forgiven, on earth as already done in heaven. To make the good confession like Peter is to receive the gifts of God which make his church, to be standing on that spiritual rock with all the confession Christians before and after.

Then we can know that we do not need to fear death or the judgment. We do not even need to fear the church shrinking or disappearing. For Christ says, “the gates of hell will not overcome it.” We have a twofold promise. First, there will always be a church on earth, God will be making more confessors, the Holy Spirit will be working through Christ’s gifts. Second, those who trust in Christ do not need to fear anything overcoming the church, not even hell itself. The rock which God has established is that mighty fortress which will shield us forever.

Thus “what do you think about Jesus?” is the most important question for this life and after. May God grant us the ability and desire to confess with Peter that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” until the end of our life and into eternity. Amen.  

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