Who do people say that the Son of Man is?
There are lots of answers to that question, even as there were in Jesus’ own day.
A couple years ago, now Assistant to the Bishop, then Pastor in Trenton, Aaron Richter, attending our Tuesday morning study group, talked about a conversation he had with a family member who was waiting for Jesus’ return as the One who would kick butt and take names!
That’s a particular viewpoint that many people hold today, especially in more fundamentalist circles. They’ve formed an entire worldview around a militaristic mentality – I mean, you’ve probably heard people talking in terms of a “culture war”. These people are usually the ones who hold an unrealistic, idealized vision of the so-called good old days. And their hope is for a day when Jesus will come, and by force, and with a strong arm, squash like so many annoying gnats those who are opposed to their worldview. That’s how convinced they are that
- They’ve got it all figured out and
- That God agrees wholeheartedly with their assessment of the world
God help us!
Of course, this way of thinking isn’t really anything new. We see it in our first reading today, as well, as Isaiah points to the coming end of the Babylonian exile, and following his reminding them of God’s comfort, he takes the all too human next step of connecting God’s deliverance and violence. He says lift up your eyes to the heavens and look at the earth, for they’re both going to be destroyed, and everything that lives on the earth will die like gnats – insignificant, pesky little bugs!
But is that what we believe? Is that what we think God thinks of us – of humanity? That we’re that worthless? We who are created in God’s own image and likeness? I mean, Jesus came in human flesh – he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and he became truly human, and in doing so he elevated, redeemed, hallowed, made holy, all humanity. Did he do this as some stopgap measure? Is that what we think it means when we confess that this One who took on human flesh is the same One who is coming again to judge the living and the dead? That he’s coming back to kick butt and take names?
Is that who people say Jesus is?…
You’ve probably also heard some say that Jesus was a good man – a holy man – a great moral leader and teacher. Only, as Christian theologians, like C.S. Lewis and others before and since, have pointed out, this really isn’t an option if we take Jesus at his word. Even here in today’s Gospel Jesus calls himself the Son of Man – or the Mortal or Human One depending on how you translate it. And that term is loaded with meaning that we might miss unless we know that in the years leading up to Jesus, from the time of the prophet Ezekiel, up through the years between the end of the Old Testament era, and the start of the New Testament era, this term carried clear Messianic meaning. The Son of Man was the One who was coming as savior and deliverer.
And Jesus calls himself by this name.
And then he doesn’t object when Peter ramps it up from there, calling him the very Son of the living God! – not just any old son of any old supposed God, like the Caesars, but the real and only son of the one and only living God!
If Jesus were a good guy – a good teacher – a holy man – then when Peter said this, or when in the previous chapter where the disciples worship him in the boat, or when the Canaanite woman called him Lord in last Sunday’s Gospel reading, or anywhere else where he is called, or treated like, or worshiped as God – if Jesus were just a good guy and not God – he would have stopped them dead in their tracks and said: Uh, no… you’ve got it wrong here. I’m not God. But he never does that. So he’s either got some sort of mental illness that causes him to think he’s God when he’s not, or he’s evil – a man trying to make himself God, or he’s what he says he is – the Son of Man – and what Peter calls him – the Messiah, the Son of the living God!
He can’t call himself such things, and accept worship as such, and be considered a good moral teacher and guide, if he’s not God. And since he does call himself these things, and he does accept worship as such, he must be God – the Messiah, the Son of the living God, who was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and became truly human…
There’s so much more that could be said, of course, about this first question, and the various ways the world has tried to answer it, but there’s a second question in this text: “But who do you say that I am?”
And Peter’s answer is loaded with religious, cultural and political meaning.
The Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, these are all ways the Greek word Christos has been translated. The Messiah, Meshiach in Hebrew, was the long-expected One who would come as a King greater than David, and as a Prophet greater than Moses.
In times of hardship, like the Roman occupation, the word took on new meanings. The Messiah was thought to be the one who would come and conquer the nation’s enemies, by violent means and even the disciples are caught up in this sort of thinking.
Peter, after all, lashes out and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s soldier in Gethsemane when they come to arrest Jesus. And Jesus refers to it elsewhere in his trial before Pilate when he says: I could call on 10 legions of angels to come and fight for me, but my kingdom is not of this world. That’s not what God’s kingdom looks like and it’s not who Jesus is, or who he came to be.
Likewise, he isn’t another Moses, in the sense that Moses came to give a moral code – a legal system – by which God’s people were to live. But Jesus isn’t a moral teacher in that sense. Jesus came to make us righteous, not by requiring us to follow a set of rules – do this and don’t do that – and God will be pleased with you and save you, as if we could ever live such a life. Jesus came to make us righteous precisely because we couldn’t do it on our own.
Jesus is not the kind of Messiah Peter is expecting – as will become all the more clear next Sunday when Jesus turns on him, saying: Get behind me Satan!
But he is the Son of the living God. Only, again, Peter may not actually know what he’s saying here.
In the Roman empire, Caesar was commonly referred to as Kyrios, meaning Lord: Caesar Kyrios – Caesar is Lord was a common confession. And more, Caesar was thought to be a God, or at least, a son of the Gods.
So Peter’s confession that Jesus is Messiah – the One expected to overthrow the nation’s enemies – and that Jesus is the Son of the living God – the One and only true God, in other words – was a powerfully political statement. Not you, Caesar, not Caesar kyrios, but Jesus is Lord – Iesus Kyrios! – the early Church confessed in the face of the power of the Roman empire.
Only the power of Jesus as Lord and Messiah – the power of this One who is the only begotten Son of the only living God doesn’t look at all like they expected. And, truth be told, probably still doesn’t look like what we expect today. Again, this isn’t about winning some supposed culture war.
Jesus came and died, and in this display of what looks like earthly weakness and defeat, Jesus wins the victory over sin and death once and for all! And it’s in that power that the arm of the Lord is revealed. God’s salvation will be forever, and God’s deliverance will never be ended. Here Isaiah hits the nail on the head, and gives us the framework to understand Peter’s confession 100s of years later. And in the end, if this confession is to mean anything, it really needs to become, for us, a call to mission in the world.
Check out what Jesus says next: On the rock of truth of what Peter has just confessed I’m going to build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Now, notice, who’s on the move in this metaphor?
Gates don’t move. Gates keep people out!
We’re to be on the move! We’re to be doing the missional work that God has given us to do in Christ’s name. And as long as we’re engaged in that missional activity, then the gates of Hades can try to hold us back, or keep us out, but they will not prevail!
This, of course, begs the question of just what that missional work is. And it’s right here in the text. The very next thing Jesus says is: I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven so that whatever you bind or loose on earth, will be bound or loosed in heaven. In other words, the work of mission in the name of Jesus , who is Christ and Son of God, is a work of forgiveness – it’s about binding and loosing.
We, fallen humanity, are in bondage to sin, but God has given us, in Christ, the keys to break those bonds and to be set free, so that we might, in turn, proclaim freedom to others in the power of his name. And that’s it in the end. That’s what Jesus is all about. That’s who Jesus is. That’s the answer to the question in the end.
Jesus is the One who sets us free and empowers us to share that freedom with the world.