The Rev. Canon Michael Wyatt, Ph.D.
Romans 11:33-6; Matthew 16:13-20
The Gospel story we have heard today is recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, that is, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In all three, Peter’s clarity hits in a burst of euphoric insight. But only in Matthew does Jesus embrace Peter’s Confession and, some say, crown it, founding the Church. Given such divine endorsement, Jesus’ question now appears closed.
The point of my sermon is precisely the shift of this question—“who do you say that I am?”—from open to closed. It mirrors the Church’s shift from exploration to rhetoric, from wonder about Jesus to proclamation, which occurred at the beginning of Christian Tradition; we need only compare the Gospel accounts. Matthew, using Mark’s Gospel as his template, adds and enshrines Peter’s words about Jesus’ identity in the strongest possible theological terms: Peter’s insight is divinely inspired, a rock on which to build.
This is startling on two fronts. First, Luke, also a later Gospel using Mark as a template, does not include this triumphant moment. So whatever the development of doctrine about Jesus in the Early Church, this particular self-congratulatory story was not universally received. Second, and more troubling, for Mark, this moment is not divinely safeguarded, but ambiguous and tense, Peter seeming somewhat self-deceived.
In Mark’s Gospel, Peter calls Jesus “Christ”—though not “Son of the Living God”—but there, Jesus’ response to Peter’s insight is immediately to announce Jesus’ own crucifixion and resurrection. Peter is then as quick to rebuke Jesus for that as he was to call him the Christ; and he receives Jesus’ rebuke in turn. Now, Matthew does include that false step, but I stress that Mark omits any divine endorsement of Peter’s confession. Mark instead effectively intercepts it and strips it (and us) of all confidence and satisfaction. Mark, the most ruthless conveyor of Good News, does not question the Divinity present in Jesus; but he is also clear that human beings know neither what that claim means nor what to do about that fact.
Matthew, in reworking Mark’s story, seems either not to agree with or not to understand that. In Matthew’s Gospel—the most ecclesial of the four, the only one to use the word “church,” as it does in the passage we heard to today—Matthew has taken Mark’s original story and retold it with a fanfare of certainty that directly contradicts Mark’s cautionary ambivalence.
Why ought this to matter to us? Because Mark’s original already emphasized the problems involved in extravagant metaphysical claims. Because we must see clearly the Church’s inclination, enshrined in Scripture, to aggrandize her insight into God; we must see clearly this urge to defend herself when no defense is necessary, when God is our only defense. Because we must observe compassionately our urge to prefer security to truth, to prefer reassuring formulations to surrendered discernment; and we must learn to let false security, for God’s sake, go.
Why does this matter? Because we are once again in an age that must ask who Jesus is. Because our urge to make hyper-claims about Christ is a stumbling block for interfaith discourse—and today we must ask who he is with partners from other traditions. Because our dogmatic claims no longer work, answering questions no longer being asked, using vocabulary and worldviews that have lost their vitality, which shift dangerously close to being nothing more than extravagant metaphors. And if calling Jesus “Christ” or “Son of God” is only metaphor, we stand dangerously close to agreeing that the life of faith is really only of interest to spiritual dilettantes with a taste for nostalgic religious poetry, rather than of vital concern to all.
God forbid that I should at any point deny that Jesus is the one I follow, or deny that my life only makes sense in him and arrives at hope by him, or deny that through him I have access to God! But may God also forbid that I ever come to believe that I follow by mouthing the Creed on Sunday, that my salvation depends on whether or not I can recite orthodox claims, that my access to God is only a matter of insight. To follow Jesus is to make known to others God’s irrevocable and unalterable love for us all. To be saved in Christ is to understand that he invites me also to sit at God’s table, at once a sinner and a saint, where I am sustained along with many others beyond my ability to anticipate or comprehend. To have access to God through him is to grasp that Jesus’ vision of reality and life is accurate, to understand that to live as he lived is to be sustained and nurtured by God.
The fundamental Christian mystery is the Incarnation, the unalienable copresence of what is human and what is divine. The person of Jesus, fully human and fully divine, is the prototype of the Christian life, in which, if we are faithful, we always have double-vision, seeing the human and the divine together. Of course this is difficult, and we are doomed when we lean only on one or the other. Heresy is the choice between scholarly camps, either a Jesus not only deconstructed but also decomposed or a Christ not only transcendent but also transferred beyond comprehensibility or human contact. Because this necessary double-vision is impossible for us by our own effort, it is itself the product of faith and the description of faith. Peter’s Confession, then, seeing simultaneously Hebrew Messiah and God-with-us, is in this sense the foundation of our faith. Today I only ask you to struggle with the battlements Matthew throws up around that insight.
Given this, it seems to me crucial—in every sense—to reach for the portion of this story that you will hear next Sunday. Peter’s Confession is instantly followed by Jesus’ prediction of his Passion. Now what if this is the deeper mystery—not simply Jesus’ identity, but, as Paul claimed, the crucified shape of that identity, Christ’s practice of self-emptying, Jesus’ surrender into the reconciling interweaving currents of his father God?
Perhaps we are living now in the days when our dogmatic certainties about Jesus are to undergo their own passion, a surrender for the sake of reconciliation, a handing over to God for safe-keeping of all that we affirm as it undergoes dissolution for the sake of atonement. Just as Jesus gave his life, our foundational beliefs must also submit to God’s larger activity, for the sake of our reconciliation with those who are not Christian. This is, in fact, what happened to Peter’s understanding of the Messiah: when attached to Jesus, it was transformed. Our own understanding of Christ also waits to be opened to embrace even more than we had conceived. We need have no fear of the crucifixion of our dogmas, because we already know God’s power to resurrect the One they describe into fuller life—and when Christ is raised, then we also have new life. When we see Christ already active in other religions, in terms we would not have chosen, perhaps only half the response is to correct misperceptions; perhaps the other half is to listen carefully for who Jesus is as he moves in other cultures, to learn how incomprehensibly greater than we realized the One we call Lord is.
This is hardly a new or heretical doctrine. Paul, writing to the Christians at Rome, struggles to articulate how it is that God holds both the original Covenant with the Jews as the Chosen People and the new incorporation of Gentiles. Paul affirms that God does not revoke promises, but has enlarged mercy to all humanity. We stand once again where Paul stood—not that the Covenant we have with God is revoked, but that God, by already acting beyond our own boundaries, is enlarging mercy. And when we ask who people say Jesus is, we find veneration across the world, though the terms are not ours: the miracle-working virtuous prophet named Isa in the Koran, or the acknowledgment of a Western bodhisattva in Buddhism.
Dante, as he moves up through Paradise, arrives at the sphere of Jupiter, the heaven of justice, and is stunned to hear that even virtuous pagans have a place in heaven. When he stumbles over this, the saints who meet him there point out that God’s justice is like the floor of the ocean: though you can see it close to shore, as you sail over the depths, it is no longer visible, though you know it is still there. In fact, our joy is to know that what we cannot comprehend of mercy and reconciliation is still possible to God. The saints then add, “even we, who see God, do not know all the number of the elect, and our good by this good is refined, so that what God wills we also will”—that is, our own faith is perfected by our ability to affirm that God’s reach is infinitely more embracing than our own, by our opportunity to give thanks for what exceeds our understanding.
This is the story form of Paul’s exclamation: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! … For from God and through God and to God are all things.” The circulation of Divinity is endless. What we received from God, we have received through Christ, whose work is to restore all things to God. This secure work of spiritual fulfillment is in far better hands than ours, where what is willed can also be accomplished.
So I believe we Christians are obligated to turn to those of other traditions and say: this is what we have received, have experienced, have come to affirm. As such it has (and must have) absolute claim over us, as we know that your faith must have an absolute claim over you. But we still do not know everything that Jesus is. We long to hear from you—Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus—“who do you say Jesus is?;” and in the midst of this, we must ask ourselves also who we say Jesus is. Open the question again. And if we are to say who Jesus is from radical depth, we cannot forget the young man, who on the night before his execution, asked his followers to remember him, as we hear him ask us, Sunday after Sunday, “do this in remembrance of me.”
Father Pieris, the Sri Lankan Jesuit scholar, in An Asian Theology of Liberation, claims that the Christian gift to world religion is neither psychological nor metaphysical insight, at which the Eastern religions are more adept, but the gift of the radical practice of compassion. Only in the Jewish root of Christianity, he says, do we find a God radically committed to the world and to justice for its poor. Only in Christianity does God insist that right practice—that is, social justice, the restoration of the marginalized and the enfranchisement of the rejected—is where God acts and how the Divine is encountered and known, confirmed by the Incarnation. Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?,” cannot be answered if we are blind to the world’s poor, if we do not stand next to them, if we do not work with them to ease their burdens, to give them hope and freedom from bondage.
What then are we to remember? The claims made about him? I say, no; we are to remember his life. What we remember is spread throughout the Gospels: tenderness with children, encouragement of women (startling in his time), readiness to heal and to set free those suffering, concern over our blindness and fear and anxiety, and finally (crucial today) an impatience with religious rigidity, with the use of religion to dominate and to barricade, rather than to enlarge at any cost, the access of humanity to God.
We need only add, as we speak to those of other religions, that this practice of reconciliation, not any dogmatic claim, is where we find life. And because we find this new life in him, then following this Jesus, at once the young Hebrew man and the Word by whom all things were made, is absolute to us. What is absolute is not our interpretation, but our surrender; not dogma, but devotion; not the Confession only, but the compassionate action on behalf of those for whom God already gave Divine Life. And this is what the gates of Hell will never prevail against—our willingness to follow where Christ has led the way—until the day we are gathered into the depths of the riches of God’s embrace, beyond wisdom, beyond knowledge, to praise the One God, who is the Eternal Source, and the Only-begotten Word, and the Life-giving Spirit, forever, as we praise the One God this day. </P