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This particular scene that is recorded in Matthew – as well as the other Synoptics – is a very important one, because it really is a point where the beginning of transition takes place in the gospel. Jesus, in the prior episodes recorded by Matthew, has fed the 5,000, has walked on the sea, has fed the 4,000, and so there is this culmination of activity by which Jesus has been manifesting his identity.
And now he asks the disciples – and particularly we’re focused here on the Twelve – Jesus asked them who do the people say that I am? What have you been hearing from the people? As we have gone through these different experiences, and the response that comes back is some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, some Jeremiah or one of the prophets, or they’re kind of pulling together all the they have heard in the murmuring of the people as they have experienced these different events.
But now Jesus focuses and he says very simply to them, okay you’ve been with me, you’ve seen and heard. Who do you say that I am? And it’s a critical question, because it is actually the question that will determine what type of disciples they will be when they answer that question.
One who immediately rises up, as we have seen in the other scenes leading up to this, is Peter, Simon as he is known at that moment, and he immediately responds to Jesus by saying you are the Christ, the son of the living God. Jesus has an interesting answer to him: he says this is not something you have come to this conclusion on your own, but the Father has given you the ability to see and understand. In a sense the Spirit has come upon you. But it has not come upon Peter fully.
Because, if you go a little bit further in this particular section, you will find the conflict, because Jesus uses this, as I say transition. He now begins to talk about and teach them what it means to be the Messiah, and he’s basically telling them that to be the Messiah is to live in ultimate trust of the Father, even when it includes suffering and death. And Peter hears that, and Peter says, no, no, that’s not what I understand by what I said.
So he’s got the words, but he doesn’t have the understanding yet, and as a result of that Jesus uses very harsh words for Peter. He says to him, “get behind me, Satan!’” Very, very harsh words – I think it’s the only place you find Jesus making that kind of response to anybody in the Gospels.
And I think again the response is that Peter is trying to take control of the situation, and Jesus is saying to him, Peter you’ll never be in charge, you’ll never be in control. Remember how you came to utter those words – you are the Christ, the son of the living God – not by your wisdom, not by your study, not by any of those things. You came to that conclusion because the Father gave you the Spirit to open your heart and your mind to the truth of Jesus. And now you want to be in charge. They say no.
What you will have to learn is what every disciple must learn: that you are never in charge. God is in charge. The Father is in charge, and the Father guides you by the Spirit so that you may ever be more faithful to the one in whom you live, Christ. It’s a powerful, powerful story and it has great impact, it has great impact for the Church, because Jesus uses this occasion to say that on this faith I will build the church, on the understanding of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, the one who has come not by our will; by the will of the Father, and has manifested the way of the Father in teaching us how to walk on the face of this earth.
It is in that sense then that discipleship is defined. And this comes almost at the end of that sermon. You know Mark’s… Matthew’s Gospel is five sermons and one of the sermons – I think it’s the third – is all on discipleship. And this is the section leading to the conclusion of the section on discipleship. And what Jesus is basically teaching is the way of discipleship: the way of being a follower of Christ, is the willingness to live by trust and that could be used in conjunction, or almost, uh, equivalent to faith. Because faith is really an act of trust – trust in God and in God’s ways. And Jesus is saying, oh the real heart of discipleship is trust. You trust the love of God so entirely, so completely in the sense, you mirror Christ by your actions and those actions often will be challenging.
Those actions will not gain you glory, will not gain you grandeur, but they will often gain you suffering by way of misunderstanding, of why are you doing that? Why are you living that way? Why are you speaking that way? Why are you acting that way? What are you hoping to do?
Well again, the disciple has one role, and that role is witness. The disciple is the one who trusts in the Lord, who lives by the way of the Lord. And in so doing gives witness, gives witness to God’s love at work in the world. And so Jesus is saying there is the pattern of discipleship – not the glory, not the grandeur, not the power, but the sacrifice, the trust, and the service for that makes up the heart of the life of the witness.
We pray then on this Sunday, as we are called to answer that question in our own lives – who do you say I am? – that our understanding of the response we make will lead us to more faithful discipleship in the name of Jesus.