Scripture: Matthew 16: 13-20
The United Methodist church is a connectional church. As many of you are aware one of the prominent ways that local churches experience that connection is in how a church gets pastors. Clergy are not hired by the local church but they are appointed by the conference. So in February of 2014 I was set to begin a new appointment at Edinburgh United Methodist Church. As I had some conversations with people leading into starting there, I was told multiple times about Cliff. In fact, I was warned that Cliff can be kind of intimidating. On the first Sunday I met Cliff and he kind of lived up to the expectations. Cliff was tall and big. Back in his high school days he was an unmovable mountain of a lineman, and even though he was now much older he still had that impression. His resting expression was a scowl, his voice gravely, and his presence was commanding. Cliff naturally looked intimidating and if we are being honest he intentionally leaned into that a little bit. However, there was much more to him than that first impression, because Cliff was also a teddy bear. He put countless hours into a program every year to ensure that every single child in town would have a good Christmas with presents. Every year he would help cub scouts make pinewood derby cars. If there was a child who had a need, and Cliff found out about he would use every ounce of his considerable strength to make sure not only was that need met but that it was met extravagantly. Before I ever met him, I was told about how scary and intimidating Cliff was but I soon discovered there was much more too him than what meets the eye.
It is that way with just about everyone really. Everyone is more complex and multi-faceted than they are made out to be. It is common for people to try and define other people by the simplest of definitions and fit them into basic boxes. For instance, Did you ever notice how when adults meet each other for the first time the first question they ask is “What do you do?” Now, what we mean by that is “what is your job?”, but that is not what we ask, we ask what do you do, because the idea is the person’s job defines in them. All of us face a lot of cultural and outside pressure seeking to define not just what we do, but who we are. A lot of times we also put a lot of effort into defining out own identity, we want to be known a certain way and so we take action to ensure that is the image we present. Just what is the identity of the person we stare at in the mirror, is one of the most fundamental questions that every single person wrestles with and even if we do not frame it in that specific way, questions of identity, of who we are is something we all think about. This morning’s scripture is a reminder of one of the key voices that we should be listening to when it comes to understanding who we are. In this morning’s scripture, Jesus revealed to Peter who he is. In the same way, no matter are age, no matter how set we feel in our ways, we should be willing to listen to who the voice of Christ reveals us to be.
This morning’s scripture is all about identity. It begins with Jesus getting a feel with who people think he is, and what boxes they are trying to put him in. I think it is worthwhile for us to shine a light on where this is in the context of Jesus’ ministry. He had really established himself in the Galilee region. He had been traveling around the area, teaching and performing miracles. At this point when he showed up in a town, he tended to draw a crowd. He had already done the miracle of feeding 5,000 and he actually repeated it by feeding 4,000. Jesus had also began to garner some opposition from the religious leaders. In this scripture Jesus pulls back and takes a bit of a break. This morning’s scripture states that Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi. It really needs to be stated, that this is a region that you don’t end up in by accident. It is at the base of a mountain and it is where the headwaters of the Jordan river are. It is a decent distant north of where Jesus had been conducting his ministry, and it was not a very Jewish place. In fact, the area had a reputation of being especially pagan. Jesus is in this area for the second half of chapter 16 and most of chapter 17, and for the most part while in the region of Caesarea Philippi, the gospel of Matthew records that Jesus mostly focuses on his disciples. It seems this was a time to pull back, reflect, recharge, and refocus. Given that it makes sense that Jesus takes time to ask the disciples who the people think he is.
The answers that the disciples give are interesting. The first one given, John the Baptist is the most odd. Matthew chapter 14 records that John the Baptist had been beheaded, but apparently there must have been a fair number of people who believed that Jesus was actually John in hiding or something of that nature. In the context of 1st century Judaism, people thinking that Jesus might be Elijah also make some sense. Elijah was a prophet of God and the stories about him are found in the books of Kings. Elijah actually never died, but he was assumed into heaven by God and the Old Testament prophet Malachi records in chapter 4:5 that Elijah would return before the day of the Lord, and by the time of Jesus it was assumed that Elijah would come as a herald before the messiah. Finally others thought that Jesus must have been some sort of reincarnation of the prophets of old.
Now Jesus knew who he was, but he next asked the Disciples who they say he is, and Peter gets it. For me it is impossible to read verse 17 where Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah” without imagining Jesus saying it with elation, excitement, and joy. Jesus had been traveling with, teaching, and investing in these disciples- and finally it seems that one of them is at least beginning to understand and get it. Jesus is God’s anointed one, it is through Jesus that God’s kingdom is revealed. While at this time, there is no way that Peter could fully know the full scope of what Jesus was set to accomplish as the Messiah, he was clearly and early adopter and believed even if he did not fully know where it was all going.
What happens next is the part of the scripture that sticks out to me the most because Jesus gives a new name. Up to this point, he was Simon but he becomes from this point forward-Peter, the rock. This morning’s scripture starts with Jesus asking what other people think about his identity, but it ends with Jesus telling Peter what is identity is. Because Jesus just does not give Peter a new nickname, but he makes it clear that is who Peter is meant to be.
When I read this morning’s scripture, I cannot help but wonder how Peter felt hearing these words from Jesus. Remember, Peter was a grown man. Before Jesus came and said follow me, he probably felt like he knew who he was. He had likely settled into the idea of living life as a fisherman living in Capernaum. But following Jesus changed that. When he responded to Jesus saying “follow me”, his life took a sharp turn. The point of this morning’s scripture, is a milestone. It is a defining moment because it is when Simon becomes Peter. This was a point of transformation for him, because Simon the fisherman and Peter the apostle may have technically been the same person but who they understood themselves to be was different.
Jesus declared that Peter would be the rock upon which the church, the community of faithful Jesus followers, was to be built on. This did not mean Peter always got it right. In fact, just a few verses later Jesus rebukes Peter and tells him “get behind me Satan!” I am sure on the night that Jesus was arrested, and Peter denied Christ three times that the memory of this morning’s scripture was a bitter pillow to swallow. But I also imagine, that the memory of this morning’s scripture was a driving force in Peter’s life. When he was tired, when he was scared, and when he was uncertain remembering that Jesus himself had declared you are the rock upon which I build my church could have been a grounding and guiding memory for him. It could have been where he came back to ground himself in who he was and who we wanted to be. It is likely that the events of this morning’s scripture became a core part of where Peter found his identity.
This is a pattern that we see repeated throughout scripture. Abraham’s life was changed and his understanding of who he is was transformed when he entered into a covenant with God. The same thing happened to Moses, when we encountered God in a burning bush. To David, when he was anointed as God’s chosen king. To Isaiah when he was called to be a prophet, and to Mary when she was chosen to be the mother of God’s son. It is the same experience that Saul had on the road to Damascus that led him to becoming Paul. We see the same process encountered throughout the bible. When people experience God the Father or Jesus the Son they are changed. Who they understand themselves to be is transformed. Their faith, the encounter with the divine, informs their identity-who they understand themselves to be. We see the apostle Paul express this experience when he wrote 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!”
People having an encounter with Jesus being the basis of their identity is found throughout the bible, but it is found so far beyond the scripture. The continuing story of Christianity is full of people who had a life changing encounter with the divine, and that change became the bedrock of who they understand themselves to be. One such person who this describes is John Newton. Newton, an Englishman, lived in the 18th century. He grew up in the church with a devout mother, but he left that behind to strike out on his own as a sailor. In that profession he earned the nickname “the great blasphemer”. Newton could curse, drink, and be crude enough to make other sailors blush. Newton even got involved in the slave trade. It was that point that his ship was caught in a fierce storm for over a week. Everyone including Newton, thought they were going to die. It was this storm that changed his life, because he realized just how much he needed a savior, and how incapable he was of saving himself. Over the course of the next several years, Newton drew closer to God, found Jesus to be his Lord and Savior. This spiritual change led him to make real changes in his life as well. Newton got out of the slave trade and out of being a sailor all together. He eventually found himself answering a call to ministry. Newton went on to be instrumental in getting England to abolish slavery. The life of John Newton was changed completely by grace. He went from defining himself as “the great blasphemer” to someone whose life was changed by grace, which could save even someone like him. When John Newton reflected upon how much coming to follow Jesus had changed him, he found a way to put those thoughts down as song lyrics. Newton wrote “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found. I was blind but now I see.” Being saved by amazing grace became a core part of Newton’s identity. In old age Newton struggled some with senility and a failing memory. However, he was quick to say, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
Encountering Jesus should change us, and it should help us redefine who we are so that who we understand ourselves to be is grounded in Christ. Perhaps, like Peter or John Newton you also have a powerful experience with the divine that is a grounding memory for you. If so, may you continue to come back to it and may that experience with Christ continue to inform who you are. But perhaps you struggle to think of such a moment. Perhaps you do not have a dramatic story of when Jesus changed your life. Even if that is so, your identity can still be found in Christ. In the modern song “You Say” Lauren Daigle sings: “The only thing that matters now is everything you think of me. In you I find my worth, in you I find my identity.” Even if you do not have a core memory of when grace really broke through in your life. We can still claim the truth of scripture. You are fearfully and wonderfully made by the creator of all things. God loves you so much that he sent his only son and while we were still sinners Christ died for us, proving God’s love. In the eyes of Jesus, you are worth dying for. As the book of Ephesians states, you are God’s masterpiece. We may have a memory of a dramatic encounter with Jesus or we may not, but every single one of us can find our identity in Christ.
This morning’s scripture records the moment where Peter’s life changed. It records the moment when we stopped letting all of the voices in the world define him, and he let the voice of Jesus be the main one that speaks to his identity. Again, if you have had a similar experience. May you remember, and may you remember what the voice of our savior called you to be. May that voice be what defines you. But again, if you have not yet had that experience then may you commit today to finding your identity in Christ. May you hear the voice of Jesus that says you are loved, you belong, you have a purpose, and may you believe it. May the voice of Jesus be the voice that you listen to the most and the voice that continually reveals who you really are.