Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Vicar Schleusener
“[Jesus] says to them, ‘But who do you yourselves say that I am?’”
English translations invariably obscure such things, but Matthew’s use of the rhetorical device known as the “historical present” to introduce this question makes it clear. This question is crucial. Not the “He said to them”, that English translations smooth the text to in order to make a consistent past tense narrative, but a sudden and jolting switch to the present tense, “He says to them.” And the question that follows is vital. Literally, “Who do you yourselves say [Jesus] to be?”
The answer is as crucial as the question itself, and Simon Peter, who’s often maligned for speaking before he thinks, blurts out the impossible truth. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus’ response to Peter makes it clear. This is the correct answer. This vitally important truth which is at the heart of this entire passage is often obscured by people making the mistake of focusing on something else. Namely, the exact nature of the rock upon which Jesus will build His Church.
For example, Roman Catholics claim that the rock is Peter himself (followed of course by every succeeding Bishop of Rome). Besides the fact that “Πέτρος” means “a small piece or chunk of rock” while “πέτρα”, the rock on which the Church is built, refers to a massive formation of rock, this approach focuses on that which is not the central point.
Protestants aren’t necessarily any better. They generally insist that the rock is Peter’s confession of faith, but all too often they focus on the act of confession itself rather than the content of that confession. When they do, they too obscure the central truth of this passage. The central truth that also illuminates the true nature of the Rock upon which the Church is built.
What is that central truth? “[Jesus is] the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” What is the Rock upon which the Church is built? The Holy Spirit will emphasize this through Matthew’s own pen just a few chapters later when Jesus pointedly claims to be the “head of the corner.” That is to say, the Cornerstone. The stone from which a structure is built. Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” is Himself, in His own person, the Rock upon which the Church is built.
And it’s this truth that makes it so dangerous for people to focus on things that are not the point in this passage. It’s the Church that’s built upon this Rock that stands firm against all foes. Only the Church that’s built upon the truth that “[Jesus is] the Christ, the Son of the Living God” will prevail over even the gates of death. And make no mistake. The gates that Jesus speaks of here are not the gates of hell, the eternal destination of the damned, but “the gates of Hades.” The gates of the place of death. The death that is coming and will continue to come for all humanity until Christ returns in glory and destroys that final enemy of death (1 Corinthians 15:26).
“The gates of Hades” will prevail over a so-called “church” built on wealth and investment portfolios, because earthly possessions are worthless in death. “The gates of Hades” will prevail over a “church” built on maintaining a good reputation with the world, because earthly reputation has no value in the final judgment. “The gates of Hades” will prevail over a “church” built on human effort and human strategies for growth, because “God [has] made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Corinthians 1:20). If you, dear brothers and sisters, have started placing your faith in earthly things such as these, that faith will fail you when the hour of your death draws near. For there is only one Church and one faith that will prevail over “the gates of Hades.”
The Church that’s built upon the truth that “[Jesus is] the Christ, the Son of the Living God” will prevail over “the gates of Hades.” The faith that believes this simple truth will not be shaken by death, because Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” has promised. He who was by His very nature God, and therefore life itself, suffered on the cross for you. He tasted the death that was yours so that you might have His life forever. And to each person who believes as Peter believed, “the Son of the Living God” says what He said to Peter. “Μακάριος εἶ.” “Blessed are you.”
Now to understand what that really means, we have to unpack that first word a little bit. It refers to an idea that isn’t really prevalent in today’s culture. You see, the ancients believed that everything was fated. You were fated from the day you were born, and the best thing you could do was to man up or woman up and face it. The folly of attempting to run away from one’s fate was portrayed in tragedies like the story of Oedipus, where first his father and then he himself attempted to avert a horrible fate by running from it, and in the end it was the very act of running from fate that accomplished fate. To the ancients, all were fated, but some happy, fortunate few were somehow able to rise above their fate. To break the chains that shackled them to their destiny, whether good or bad. The μακάριοι. The blessed ones.
This is what Jesus spoke of when He told Peter, “Blessed are you.” This is what is being said when Jesus tells you who believe that He is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” that you too are μακάριος. You too are blessed. You have been set free from the fate that has bound humanity from the day Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God had forbidden. The chains of sin and death that have shackled the human race for millennia are shattered and cast away from you. Because the blood of Jesus “the Christ” washes away your sin. “The Son of the Living God” who tasted death for your sake has destroyed death. And now. You are μακάριος. You are blessed.
So don’t be deceived. “[Jesus is] the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” He is in His own person the Cornerstone. The Rock upon which the Church is built. The foundation that is so unshakable that even “the gates of Hades can’t prevail against it.” And you who believe this are μακάριος. No longer chained to the fate of all the human race. Blessed by God with freedom from the power of sin and death and hell.
So rejoice and be glad, dear brothers and sisters. Because “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but [the] Father who is in heaven.” And the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding will continue to guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.