Matthew 16:13-20 & Romans 12:1-2. You Only Know if You Know.

A reflection by Dan Spragg

 I’ve always been curious about Jesus’ telling the disciples not to tell anyone he was the Messiah. It seemed a little at odds with what he was doing. Apparently it was ok for him to travel around ministering in amazing ways, preaching with captivating stories, doing his thing, but it wasn’t ok for his disciples to do any sort of promotion for him. What was so bad with telling people who he was?

I remember when I was about 13 I was in a band, we got asked to join some folk from our church to go into the prison on an outreach type thing. The plan was that we would play some songs and then someone from the church would do a little gospel message then we would all talk to the prisoners about Jesus, revival would break out, and all would be well in the world… that was the plan anyway… The music went well – we were pretty good. The talk seemed to go ok – I’m fairly sure I lost interest at that point so I can’t say for certain – then we started mingling and chatting with the prisoners. I remember the conversation I had with one guy: He liked the music and we talked about that for a bit, then I asked him if he knew Jesus… I’m fairly sure it took ½ a second for him to respond with a very polite, ‘It’s been cool talking, loved the music, see you later…’ and I was left standing there by myself wondering what on earth I said wrong! I don’t remember talking to anyone else, we packed up the gear, went on our way, and that was that. I do remember thinking to myself, ‘well that didn’t go so well, should have kept your mouth shut!’ I wonder if I, or perhaps all of us should have taken Jesus advice – ‘don’t tell anyone!’

In reflecting on this conversation as I’ve got older I have come to realise that the guy I was talking to probably wasn’t so much reacting to me asking him whether he knew Jesus right at that point in time, but rather I suspect he was reacting to an experience from his past, or an idea he already had in his head about Christians or about Jesus or God or religion. Who knows, there was far more going on there than I realised.

Who do people say that I am? This question from Jesus is a very good question. This scene in Matthew’s gospel could be read as painting a scene of Jesus sitting his disciples down and giving them a pop quiz – ‘Right, we’ve come this far, time for a test. Who are people saying that I am? And who do you say that I am?’ – almost like testing them to see how much they have learnt. It seems though to have more of a feeling of an ‘on the way’ kind of conversation. A conversation being had while walking on the road as they are coming into a town. It reads kind of like Jesus is testing not them but the waters, seeing what the word on the street is. ‘Who are people saying that I am, where are they at, what’s the vibe here?’ The disciples give him some answers and there is a push back, ‘so what are you saying to them in response, who are you telling them that I am, what are you saying?’ At this point is where Peter makes his declaration, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of God. That’s what we’re saying to them!’ The flow of the conversation went, ‘Who are people saying that I am? What are you saying? Now, stop saying it!’ It is a curious conversation! Why weren’t they to say anything? Didn’t Jesus want his message to be spread to as many people as possible? What was it about the claim that he was the Messiah, that made him want it to be kept quiet?

There is something in Peter’s declaration that was different to what the word on the street was. Peter’s declaration went a little bit deeper towards to the truth it seems. Word on the street was that the Messiah had come, yes, but word on the street was that a particular type of Messiah had come – depending on which historical hero, or section of society you followed. Just as there are in any human societies there were different groups of people who seemed to follow slightly different ways of understanding the world. And so, if we follow this logic, it would be easy to say that if there were rumours of the promised Messiah coming to town of course the first jump is to make this messiah in the image of who you think it should be. In Israel at the time there were many expectations of who the promised messiah would be. God had promised to deliver them once and for all by sending ‘the chosen one’ to them for their liberation, but there weren’t so many details on how or who so in the absence of any sort of easy answer, speculation was the name of the game. And so, some thought that the messiah really was a return of John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. There was something different in Peter’s declaration however and Jesus saw it in him. I get the feeling that it was an intuitive thing on Jesus’ part. He knew on a gut level that Peter got it. Peter knew, deep within, that this Jesus was indeed the Messiah, but not in the way that  most others were expecting. We of course know from our point in history that he was right. There was something about Jesus that was different to what they were all expecting, and so the story played itself out towards its violent end as it did. The question is though, how did Peter know what he knew? I think he knew, because he knew… what I mean by that is, he knew because he had experienced it, he had seen it first hand, he had been participating in it. He knew because he had come to know by being around and involved with Jesus, by getting his hands dirty in the work with him, and the truth of who Jesus was had been revealed to him because God’s truth seems to have a way of getting us deep in our ‘knower’. He knew because God’s ‘yes’ had resonated in his heart with his own experience. He knew because he just ‘knew’ it to be true. I wonder if Jesus were to have that conversation with us today, what would we say? How would we know? Who do we say Jesus is?

It seems that it does get dangerous when we make claims against what the majority might believe. To make the claim that Jesus is the Messiah – or in other words, that Jesus is Lord, is whether we think it is or not, a dangerous claim. It is an act of defiance to utter these words. If we confess that Jesus is Lord, we are essentially saying to all powers and authorities of any kind – social, political, economic, structural – that they are not in control how they would like to think they are or at least how they would like to one day be. It is quite a serious claim. Certainly Jesus experienced this. As the reality of the type of messiah he truly was became known those who didn’t agree – because of who they thought he should be – got angrier and angrier. This is a serious claim, one not to be taken lightly, Jesus is Lord. In our day and age it may be a little bit simpler to utter these words without any sort of immediate consequence. What freedom we have to go about our lives pretty much however we want without much fear of those three words getting us into too much trouble. Not the same can be said for other parts of our world. But, even in our relative safety they are still some very disruptive words. ‘Who do we say that Jesus is?’… the challenging thing for us is to say it truthfully for us where we are. The claim it has on us is that Jesus is Lord over all – everything – so can we make it truthfully with utmost integrity? What does it mean for us in our relative freedom with our time, our money, our privilege, and yes I’m going to say it… what does it mean for our vote in the season we find ourselves in? Who or what are people around the town saying will be our messiah for the season ahead? It is a tricky question, not simply answered by any means – who do you say that Jesus is for you?

I have a feeling that Jesus instructed his disciples not to tell anyone the truth about who he was because their picture of who the messiah was to be, wasn’t the sort of messiah Jesus actually was. The people’s assumptions about who the messiah was to be simply made them blind to see who it truly was and what it truly meant. If we say that Peter knew because he knew, we can say for certain, that the people about town didn’t know because they didn’t know and simply telling them wasn’t going to do much good. How did Peter know? Because he’d experienced it, it had been revealed to him. What he knew in his mind and in his heart was a deeper sense of divine knowing, one that only comes with being in the presence of and being a witness of God’s love. Peter had seen and so he believed.

As I have already mentioned, this is an intensely personal wrestle we must have – who do we say that Jesus is for us? But it is also a rather communal challenge as well. There is a suggestion that Matthew’s gospel often uses Peter as a representative for all the disciples. So when Peter talks it is on behalf of the whole group. And here Matthew has Jesus mention the church, the gathering of the called out ones of God, the people of God together as one. The church Jesus suggests, will be built on a true understanding of who Jesus is, a revelation born of knowing the love of God truly in our minds and hearts. The outcome of this true revelation is that not even the powers of death (Hades is the Hebrew name for the realm of death) will prevail against us, that life from God will be ours to lay claim to. So what if this conversation between Jesus and the disciples was to happen here and now with Jesus and us as a church? ‘Who are people around the town saying that I am?’ Jesus asks, ‘and, who do you say that I am?’

I mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer earlier in the service. Bonhoeffer was a remarkable pastor and theologian of the church in the 20th Century. Ultimately what got him into trouble and what ultimately led him to be executed at the order of Hitler was that he actively refused to acknowledge that there was any other Lord other than Jesus. In 1934 he was an influential contributor to what became the Barmen Declaration released by the Confessing Church in Germany. It claimed this: “We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and must recognize yet other happenings and powers, personalities and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God.”[1] In other words, there is only one Lord and the church cannot think or act otherwise – which is what the State church of Germany had done when it backed Hitler in the early days. Bonhoeffer took literally the claim of Paul that the church was ‘the body of Christ’. For Bonhoeffer, the shape of Jesus in the world is the church. So, who do they say that Jesus is? Well it depends on what they see when they look at the church! That could be a scary thought… What is it for us? Who do they say that we are?

It is probably a well known fact that we as the church are often known for what we are against rather than what we are for. Those unfortunate times when prominent Christian leaders in this country seem to get in the news for all the wrong reasons, and the rest of us get tarred with the same brush. It is unfortunate that our voice in society is often the loudest when we are shouting against something. Why can’t we be known for being for something?! If we are the shape of Jesus in the world, can’t we do a better job than appearing as we have appeared? If we are the shape of Jesus in the world could it be possible for us to tell of who Jesus is by what we speak out in support of, by how we act for something? How will people come to know that Jesus is the Messiah? I wonder if Jesus says, don’t tell them, but show them. Let them like Peter, come to know for themselves who Jesus truly is by seeing, and experiencing the love of God made real for them where they are.

Bonhoeffer’s time in history was different to ours, but, when it comes to the powers of death, the powers of self-promotion, the powers of discrimination, the powers that don’t seem to have in mind the good of all, the powers that don’t want to work for a just and equitable society, and when our planet groans under the burden of what we ask of it; I wonder, is our time much of a different time at all?

The church is built on the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, the one true Lord of all. We know it because we know it. How will others come to know? How will others come to move past who they think we should or shouldn’t be? How will others move through their own assumptions about who Jesus should or should not be? Don’t tell them, their own assumptions will get in the way, the loudest voices occupying the sensational spots in the media will get in the way… But rather show them, be the true shape of Jesus in the world. Romans 12:1-2 says it well, I believe Paul was saying this: Live your whole lives as a worshipful response to God, as you live let God’s ways transform your minds, and through living this way you will discover God. And Jesus says that as we discover the claim of ‘Jesus is Lord’ to be true, we will discover the ways of life, and not death, and in this all will come to know the beautiful truth of God’s love for all.

[1] A good overview of Bonhoeffer is here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/dietrich-bonhoeffer.html and a translation of the Barmen Declaration can be found here: https://groups.csail.mit.edu/medg/people/doyle/personal/