i was recently asked to lead the staff of westside: a Jesus church, in portland, in a time of devotion. here are the reflections i gave on matthew 16:13-17, the story of peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ.
who do others say that I am?
Jesus begins this episode by asking His disciples who other people are saying the “Son of Man” is. and if you’re familiar with matthew’s gospel, you know Son of Man is one of Jesus’ favorite titles for Himself.
and so what we find here is Jesus asking what the crowds are saying about Him. “what’s the watercooler conversation about me been like,” Jesus is asking.
what all of the disciples’ responses have in common is that people are saying that Jesus is one of the prophets. perhaps, even, one of the greatest prophets.
and the interesting thing to notice here is that Jesus seems wholly uninterested in their response. He doesn’t even acknowledge it, as far as we can tell.
which begs several questions: why does Jesus even ask in the first place? does He not know what others are saying? is He going through some sort of existential crisis and is in search of validation?
and why doesn’t he acknowledge their response? if He disagrees, why doesn’t He say so?
instead of acknowledging their response as we might expect, Jesus asks another question.
but who do you say that I am?
“but who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks.
and the thing i wish scripture told us is how much time passed from Jesus’ question and peter’s response.
you can just imagine the disciples–sensing the weight of this question, and not wanting to get it wrong–doing all they can to avoid eye contact with Jesus. staring at the ground, kicking the dirt. whistling to themselves.
of course, it’s peter who finally breaks the silence.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” peter says.
and unlike before, Jesus not only acknowledges peter’s response, He praises it.
“blessed are you!” Jesus says, which is about as close as we get to Jesus giving an a-plus on one of His pop quizzes.
but He doesn’t stop there, which is the really interesting part.
in the same breath that He uses to praise this response, Jesus tells peter that he could not have answered this question rightly were it not for the Father giving peter the words.
“flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my Father who is in heaven.”
isn’t that odd? why would Jesus ask the disciples a question that He knew they could not answer rightly without God’s help?
“but who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks the disciples. and this is, i would argue, one of the most important questions in the entire bible. which brings me to my third and final point for reflection.
not a one-off question
the more i think about this story, the more confident i am that this is not a one-off question that Jesus asks and then leaves alone. nor is it simply a question posed to peter.
instead, i think this is a question that scripture, as the living and active word of God, and Jesus, as the living, resurrected Lord, continues to ask each one of us anew each day. moment by moment, even.
this is a question that we can never get away from, never get ahead of.
it is a question we must answer in the seemingly mundane realities of life, as well as the incredible highs and the tragically low points of life.
but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, in your buying habits. in the television shows you watch. in your internet use.
but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, when you finally get that job offer that you’ve been waiting on for what has seemed like an eternity.
but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, when you’ve been trying for years to get pregnant, while everyone you know is welcoming a new child into their family, and all your efforts have been met with nothing but closed door after closed door. or when the lab results come back, and it’s cancer.
who do you say Jesus is then? In those moments?
the full, painful reality of the world
i was listening to the radio the other day when i heard what was easily one of the grisliest, most tragic stories i’ve ever heard.
apparently someone opened up a locker in a public transit station in canada recently after noticing a terrible smell. to their horror, they found several newborn baby bodies stuffed into the locker.
the worst part is that these bodies had been there so long that the police couldn’t actually tell how many were there. maybe three, maybe four. they couldn’t make out where one baby’s body ended and the next began.
friends, who in the world do you say Jesus is when you hear those sorts of stories? because whoever we say Jesus is, however we respond to this relentless question, our answer must be able to hold the full, painful reality of the world in which we live.
listen to your life
frederick buechner is a presbyterian minister, novelist, and memoirist whose work i have clung to after being introduced to it a couple years back. he’s incredibly thoughtful, beautifully written, and exceptionally honest about the painful realities of the brokenness of this world.
and one of the repeated themes in buechner’s writing is that of our need to pay attention.
“pay attention,” buechner writes. “pay attention to your life.” to the monotonous, mundane bits just as much as the exciting or even tragic parts.
because if you listen really closely, buechner insists, you will see that your life itself is telling a story.
and that story, i believe, is the only answer we can offer to this question that Jesus asks each and every one of us over and over again: “but who do you say that I am?”