So Who Do You Say I Am?

Previously, is a word that evokes for me the TV program 24. In 24 each new episode begins with an authoritative baritone voice solemnly intoning Previously on 24. We then see a selection of edited highlights from not only the episode immediately previous to the one we are about to view, but highlights from a number of previous episodes. I have been watching each episode, feeling slightly ridiculous that I should be wasting my time with such predictable rubbish, although I do admire Keifer Sutherland’s incredible energy and tolerance for unspeakable pain. Although the storylines in 24 are far from complex, they are bewilderingly numerous. By beginning each new episode with a recap of the editors selected highlights from previous episodes the program makers are ensuring that we arrive at the correct interpretation of the plot.

Last week, or I might say previous in this pulpit, I suggested that in receiving the Gospel readings week by week requires of us an ability to listen to two parallel storylines, the storyline of Jesus, and the storyline of Matthew and the Matthean Church. As with so much in life, we have to develop bifocal facilities of vision, and in this instance, listening. My main purpose is to address verses 13-16 in this passage but I have to first make a detour from my primary purpose and comment breifly on 17-20.

Over the millennia, Christians have wrangled, often violently, over the meaning of the Jesus storyline in Matthew 16:13-20. These verses provide the Roman Church with direct scriptural authority for the assertion of Papal supremacy. The Magisterium, which is the term used for the teaching authority within the Roman Church does not often resort to the actual letter of scripture as authority for its impetration of the Catholic tradition of Christianity. Yet, here it is in bold black and white. Jesus says: your are Peter (the rock) and on this rock I will build my Church… and I will give you the keys of the kingdom.imgres

The Churches of the Protestant Reformation, who do normally require the black and white words of scripture as authority for teaching go into an amazingly complex avoidance of the direct meaning of these words, because the denial of Papal Supremacy is what it was all about in those far off days of the Reformation. Catholics of the Roman variety love to taunt Episcopalians, who are also catholics, but of the Anglican variety, with: you remember old Henry VIII, who founded your church because he wanted a divorce – dirty old man? The conversation usually deteriorates from there-on.

I don’t want to get into whether Anglicans, and therefore Episcopalians recognize the supremacy of the Pope or not. The short answer is we do. The Bishop of Rome is the successor of the Apostle Peter, and because of this we recognize the special voice, which Tradition has accorded to the chief of the Apostles. Two of the significant titles claimed by the Pope accord with our understanding of his authority. These are: servant of the servants of God, and primus inter pares, translated as first among equals[1]. What we do reject is the politicization over the centuries of papal authority into that of an earthly, temporal prince, with the earthly power to enforce conformity.

If we employ my suggestion that there are always two storylines in the text, a Jesus storyline and an early church – in the form of a particular Evangelist – in this case Matthew storyline then let’s listen bifocally to Matthew 16: 13-20.

The Jesus storyline

Previously in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus after being rejected by his family and deeply hurt by the death of John the Baptist, in an attempt to get some alone time finds himself being pursued by the crowds. At the end of a long day he feeds 5000 of them with the meager rations on hand. After this he’s seen walking on the water in the midst of a storm that threatens to drown his disciples. He returns to the populated areas where he gets into an argument with the Pharisees over the kosher laws, and perhaps smarting from their stinging rejection he sets off for the borderlands where he is challenged by a foreigner and woman to boot. At first he rejects her unreasonable claims on him. Then the most astonishing thing happens. In the face of the woman’s challenge, Jesus seems to experience an expansion in his self-understanding and then rewards the woman for having great faith.

Pausing now to catch our breath in this hectic Jack Bower-like series of events we find Jesus has returned to solid Jewish territory, where for the first time one of his disciples, Simon echoing the salutation of the foreign woman recognizes him as Messiah. We breath a sigh of relief because finally, the inside people who should have known who Jesus was all along, now catch up with the understanding that an outsider has already beaten them to. In return for Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus seems to promote him to the status of rock upon which he intends his church to be built and entrusts him with the keys of the Kingdom.

The mention by Jesus of the word church gives us a clue that Jesus probably did not say this, or at least, not as Matthew reports it. Jesus comes to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Building the church does not seem to be part of his understanding of what the arrival of the Kingdom of God means. However, building the church is very much at the heart of what Matthew understands the coming of the Kingdom to mean. The Jesus storyline gives us a chronicle of events, the meaning of which remains indeterminable in the sense of open to interpretation. Therefore we have to switch to the Matthew storyline to continue our exploration of events.

Matthew’s storyline

Matthew takes the chronicle of Jesus’ events and weaves them into a theological narrative. At the heart if this narrative lie the themes of inclusion and exclusion, of clean and polluted and the sources of defilement, of legitimate and illegitimate authority. These are all the issues of a growing community seeking to promote its own identity in a world that is hostile to it. These are the issues of a fledgling community seeking to weld itself together from Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, hitherto separated by the mutual antagonisms of differences of race and religion.  Matthew reports the feeding of the 5000 and then a few verses on he reports the feeding of the 4000, not as a different eye witness report of the same event, but to indicate the movement of inclusion from the 5000 symbolizing the inclusion of Jews, to the 4000 symbolizing the inclusion of Gentiles, within the same dispensation[2].

Matthew sets Jesus’ return not simply to the Jewish territory of Galilee, but in particular to the city of Caesarea Philippi, that most Roman of cities symbolizing the quisling accommodation of the Herod family to Roman power and Greek culture. In yet another twist in the Matthean theme of insiders and outsiders, the head disciple finally understands Jesus’ identity, and this is set against the backdrop of Imperial Roman power. For Matthew and his community the issue of inclusion and exclusion has moved-on from Jew and Gentile, to a recasting of insiders and outsiders according to whether they can proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the son of the Living God. In this sense, while the antagonism between church and synagogue remains a pesky problem, for Matthew it is Roman Imperial power that symbolizes the ultimate rejection of Jesus.

The present-age storyline

Imagine Jesus standing before you and asking: who do you say I am?

When I sat on the Bishop of Arizona’s Commission on Ministry, after having interviewed a candidate until we had reduced them to a quivering nervous wreck, I would wait for the coupe de grace when the Bishop would nonchalantly ask the candidate: so who is Jesus for you? In those moments I would pray that the candidate would have the presence of mind to put aside the latest trendily, heretical opinion they’d picked up in the seminary and simply say: Jesus for me is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

I whole heartedly echo Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Yet what does this phrase actually mean for me? At the heart of Jesus’ identity lies a profound mystery that I cannot fathom. I am afflicted with the modern suspicion of mystery. My fear is that if something cannot be cognitively understood, can it really exist?

The history of Christianity reveals the struggle of the human mind to come to some intelligible answer about Jesus’ identity. Brian Stoffregan in his Textweek blog has listed some of the historical responses to the conundrum of Jesus’ identity[3].

Any cursory glance at this list of beliefs, over which early Christians slaughtered each other in droves, reveals how alive and kicking these so-called heresies remain present in our own thinking.

From cognition to intuition

As I see it, the task is to try to get behind the formulaic words in order to intuitively grasp the implications of believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Cognitively, I can’t begin to grasp how Jesus comes to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God. However, intuitively I experience the power of what is being implied by this confession of faith. I will try to summarize my intuitions:

  1. I empathically connect with the yearning, so full of expectation of Isaiah and the whole of the prophetic tradition of Israel – a yearning for the change that can only accompany the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.
  2. Jesus is the Son of the Living God and this means that Jesus is part of the Trinity. The Trinity offers me an image of God, not as a solitary being, but as a community of persons. This encourages me to seek God within the intimacies of relational and communal experience. Jesus is important to me because he is the bridge between the community of God within the Holy Trinity and our participation in the community with God within our daily expectations of Kingdom of God.
  3. I believe that in Jesus there existed two autonomous natures, one human and one divine. This is a lot for the rational mind to swallow. A review of the heresies shows the temptation has been to either combine these two natures or to deny one or the other. I believe in the two natures of Christ, not because it makes any cognitive sense to me. Even the New Testament is mixed on the question with Paul and Mark seeming to favor a form of adoptionism, i.e. it all happened at Jesus baptism. Matthew and Luke favor different virgin birth stories, while John alone emphasizes the Trinitarian origin of Jesus without further reference to events. Yet, I believe in the two natures in Christ because without this belief the chasm between God and humanity remains unbridged. In the person of Jesus, I believe God builds an unbreakable bridge between creator and creation. Across this bridge a two-way traffic moves as the creator comes to share the experience of the creation, and the creation is invited into the communal life of the creator.
  4. I believe in the identity of Jesus as Son of the Living God because for me the consequences of not doing so are too terrible to contemplate. Robbed of faith I am defenseless against the forces of the nihilistic wilderness. This is my equivalent to Matthew’s Gates of the Underworld. The Nihilistic wilderness is for me symbolized in this statement by Timothy Simpson:

 We live in a cultural moment in which the religious impulse in community life is beating a hasty retreat. Every other month a new poll comes out showing a decline in religious belief, a decline on church attendance, a decline in personal religious practice and so on. Those secular polls are interspersed with bulletins from denominational headquarters about church closures, administrative down-sizing and other acts of retrenchment. We go to meetings of our parish councils and see the bills for shoring up our collapsing physical plants, while absorbing the treasurer’s report of the decline in per capita giving, all this after listening to a reading of the names of those saints—tithers all—who have been raised to the church triumphant since the last meeting. Having no idea how we’re going to make it into next year, we shuffle home from our meetings and watch the evening news, only to be told that there are crazy people chopping off the heads of our fellow Christians in other parts of the world. “How can this go on,” we ask ourselves. Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology.

  1. My intuitive grasp of Jesus as Son of the Living God liberates me from carrying the burden of my personal failure to live-up to the moral, ethical, and emotional emulation of Jesus as a kind of superior avatar, a super-conscious, enlightened human being, like the Buddha. I am liberated from the pursuit of spiritual excellence through the intuitive knowledge that God meets me where I am, because in Jesus God meets me, and holds me within the experience of the muck and messiness, of the joys and sorrows that characterize my human existence.
  2. I am so relieved that by the sweat of my own brow I do not have to haul myself up, rung by rung, on the ladder to heaven. I am filled with the joy of knowing that God embraces and enfolds me within the Kingdom, where I find my true identity as a child of God.

Any confession of faith is important, not because it suddenly opens our eyes to see and understand God more clearly, but because it opens us to the experience for which we so long, that of being seen, and being loved by God.

[1] It is from primus inter pares, that Anglicans derive our understanding of the role of an archbishop. Except in the case of the Episcopal Church, which mirrors the political structure of the US Constitution, and is led by a Presiding Bishop, an archbishop, who is referred to as a Primate, leads other churches of the World Wide Anglican Communion, referred to as Provinces. This is not a reference to biological genus but to the concept of the archbishop as primus inter pares. An archbishop is accorded a special authority as in the case of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is rooted in the notion of being the first among equals in the college of bishops. Although not technically an archbishop, the office of Presiding Bishop enshrines this concept.

[2] For a fuller explanation of this got to my sermon blog for last week at

[3] Ebionites Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary. He was the Messiah, but he was not divine. Dynamic Monarchianism or Adoptionism Jesus was a unique man who was divinely energized by the Holy Spirit (at baptism) and called to be the Son of God. That Spirit left just before Jesus died.

Arianism “There was when he was not” = Jesus was not co-eternal with the Father. He was an intermediary between the Creator and the creation. (Today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses have adopted an Arianistic Christology.) Origenism or Subordinationism Christ is a divine being somewhat below the highest divine principle. He derives his existence from the highest divine level.

Nestorianism Jesus is split into two distinct persons: one human and one divine. Mary was not theotokos (“God-bearer”). The divine logos(“Word”) was not involved with human suffering and change. Christ could only be truly human if his humanity was not fused and overcome by the divine nature.

Chacedonian Definition or Orthodoxy (the “right” stuff) Jesus the Christ is one. He has two natures preserved in one prosopon (“person”) and in one hypostasis (“substance”). Both natures are unimpaired, “perfect” consubstantial with God and man. Christ was both pre-existent and born from the Virgin. Christ is eternal and dies on the cross. Monophysitism There is one person, one substance and one nature. The manhood of Christ becomes unimportant. He was God. Modalistic Monarchianism God was revealed at one time under the mode of Father, at another time under the mode of Son, and at another time under the mode of the Holy Spirit. Docetism This view begins with the Greek idea that matter is essentially evil. Jesus was not a real “flesh and blood” human. He just “seemed” to be human. He was a god appearing in human form.

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