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Who Do You Say That I Am?

Wandering Heart, Week Three

March 3, 2024

David Collins

Scripture: Matthew 16:13-20

Today in our series, Wandering Heart, we’re going to look at a story in the Bible, a conversation between Jesus, and Peter and the other disciples where Jesus asks them to answer one simple question: Who do you say that I am?

What do you believe about me?

What do you believe?

Too often, our “I believe” statements are really more “I agree with” statements. We don’t feel qualified to come up with our own answer, so we borrow someone else’s.

I Agree With?

When I was younger, that was me. When it came to the church and being Presbyterian, I didn’t think it mattered what I actually believed: only that I could articulate and defend the faith once handed to the saints. I didn’t think it mattered what I actually thought. In fact, when I started the process of going into ministry with the presbytery, and had to submit my statement of faith, I just sent in the Apostle’s Creed.

And I wasn’t just being lazy! I really didn’t think it mattered what I really believed.

I spiritualized it, to be sure. In my mind, it was me being humble. Or being a good Calvinist. “I’m totally depraved! Why would I ask myself what I believe when I could just read the creeds and confessions to find out what I believe?”

Looking back on it now, though. I can see that I was afraid. I was scared to figure out what I really believed. I certainly didn’t want to be wrong. It was easier to just hide in the crowd, to just agree with whatever my church said or what the creed said. It was easier to point at someone else’s beliefs and say “I’m with them.” There’s power in being “right” right? There’s security in thinking and believing and being the same as everyone else. No need to go out on my own when someone else has already come up with the answer. Some really smart believers a long time ago came up with the creed. What do I have to add to that?

Maybe you get asked “what do you believe?” And you answer “I’m a Christian.” Or “I believe in God.” Or “I believe what my church believes because I go to the very best church in the whole world and you should come with me.”

That last answers a good one. But it’s not the question Jesus is asking in our passage today. It’s not the question Jesus is asking you. Because Jesus doesn’t ask “what did they believe and do you agree?” Jesus asks “what do you believe?” Really Jesus is asking “what do you believe about me?” Let’s take a look.

Matthew 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’

That’s a natural question to start with isn’t it? That’s where we always start when we’re considering a question we have: What do other people think about it? Or, to use a question we ask ourselves even if we don’t admit it “What do other people think about me?”

This isn't just curiosity. Jesus is using a universal human instinct: our need to gauge the crowd, to get the lay of the land, to know what others think and believe.

I mean, we usually know what our parents would think without even asking them, don’t we?   Same with our friends, because we want to fit in with them as much as possible. Often our neighbors let us know everything they believe because of social media. Some of you get on Nextdoor and know more about your neighbors than you would ever want to.

But it’s not just our friends and neighbors. We even want to know what the people we're not too fond of think—you know, the ones we follow on social media so we can read their posts out loud to our spouse. Their opinions matter to us too, in a reverse-psychology sort of way. We're want to know what they think, if only to ensure that we think the opposite or to at least solidify why we are right and they are wrong.

14 And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’

That’s great company to be in!

John the Baptist was a revolutionary, a truth-teller who wasn't afraid to confront the powers that be.

And Elijah, was that great prophet who was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and was expected to return. He performed miracles and challenged the status quo

Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet, but he wasn't just about doom and gloom; he was about heart—about God’s deep, aching love for his people who had lost their way.

So if people saw Jesus as a continuation of this prophetic tradition, it means they recognized something divine in Him, something powerful and transformative. They saw a man who spoke with authority, who cared deeply for the marginalized, who challenged the religious and social norms of the day.

And prophets like that were great and important, but for most people in Israel back then, they were a lot like our leaders today. They didn’t demand personal transformation or deep introspection from the masses, just their support. They were external to the daily lives of regular people. They were people you respected or supported, but from a distance. They spoke and you listened.

That’s what other people were saying about him. But now he asks the real question, a question the disciples couldn’t hide from.

15 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

It’s not enough for them to just be able to play back other people’s thoughts and opinions. The most important thing is for them, and for each and everyone one of us, to be able to say what it is that we believe.

16 Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’

17 And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

The Rock

A long simmering controversy in the church is what rock is Jesus referring to when he says he’s going to build his church on it here? Is it the content of what Peter says? That’s what many evangelicals would like for it to be. Or is it Peter himself establishing the papacy, the pope? That’s what a lot of Catholics would like for it to be.

There was a time when I sided with the evangelicals on this, mostly because I didn’t want the Catholics to be right. But I no longer feel that way and here’s why:

If the evangelicals are right, and Jesus is saying that he will build his church on this thing that Peter just said, this mountaintop insight, this moment of clarity, if the thing that the gates of Hades will not prevail against is Peter’s feeling of certainty, then the point of church is just to re-create that feeling of certainty, over and over again to make sure that everyone feels and believes the same way about Jesus all the time, every moment of the day.

(Don’t talk about your doubt! Don’t say anything negative! Don’t voice your hesitations! God will hear you and then you’ll be toast!)

If that’s the case, then our job as a church and my job as a pastor is to help you silence those feelings of doubt and cling to those moments of certainty and if you can’t then you just need to fake it till you make it or maybe you should leave.

So no, I don’t think that Jesus was saying that he was going to build his church on this thing Peter just said, but I also don’t think he was picturing Peter in a nice pointy hat and setting him up as the first pope.

He was saying that he was going to build his church on and through Peter. The man, the human being, warts and all. He was going to build the church through his faith, and through his doubt. Through his wandering heart.

You see Peter doesn’t know who Jesus really is yet! He has an initial idea and it’s exciting and powerful because it’s new. But his idea of what he thinks he means, and what he thinks he’s excited about is far short of who Jesus really is. He’s gonna have to go through some major disappointment and failure and heartbreak and restoration. The rock that this church is built on is not one moment of naïve, childlike certainty.

19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’

God's choice of Peter—and by extension, each of us—is not about capturing us in a moment of perfect faith or understanding. Rather, it's about who we become through our journey with Him. It's about the way we learn to trust Him more deeply, love Him more sincerely, and follow Him more closely, even when the path leads through valleys of shadow.

Our faith journey, then, is not about trying to recapture and defend a singular moment of spiritual clarity from our past. Your job is not to re-create and defend one mountain top moment when your faith was rock solid. It's to go forward and continue what God began in you. It's about taking another step, growing in your understanding and your relationship with God. It’s allowing Him to continue the good work He began in you.

You see, Peter’s initial idea about Jesus was kind of wrong. I mean, he was right that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, but he wasn’t very right at all in what he meant by Messiah. In the next few verses in Matthew, with the youth will unpack next week, Peter shows that he thought being the Messiah meant having the most power, and being the one in charge…he thought Jesus was going to be a military and political leader who never lost, one that needed to be defended and protected so he could defend and protect them.

Maybe that’s why Jesus told them to keep it a secret, this insight about who he was.

20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Because even though they knew, in a sense, but they didn't truly know. They grasped the title but had no idea what it all really meant.

The term "Messiah" was loaded with expectations—of a political savior, a warrior king who would overthrow Roman oppression and restore Israel to its former glory. That was the widely accepted script for how the Messiah would act. But Jesus was scripting a different narrative—one of sacrifice and servanthood…a kingdom, but not like one the world had ever seen before.

His path to kingship was paved with suffering and humility, not military might and political power.

So, when Jesus says, "Don't tell anyone," it's not because he's unsure of his identity, but because he knows that the disciples' comprehension of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah has to evolve.

And that’s exactly what beliefs are supposed to do. Beliefs evolve, even the most tightly held. Especially the most tightly held. Because you are supposed to change too.

Beliefs Evolve With Us

Back before seminary, I thought I needed to have the right answer to “what do you believe?” I thought it was about knowledge, about making sure I agreed with the right people.

But over the past twenty years I have seen my answer to that question grow and evolve. Because it was never just about what I believed, it was what I believed about Jesus. And that answer evolves as my understanding of who he is grows too.

Maybe you came to church with certain preconceptions. Maybe you were looking for answers. Maybe you wanted a community, a sense of belonging. Maybe you just wanted to find a way to fix your life.

You can find all of those things in Jesus. Community, belonging, answers, change in your life.

But you won’t find it by thinking your way there, or just signing off on the apostles creed.

You won’t find it by being certain you have the right answer of what belief is.

You won’t find it in one mountain top faith moment where you are certain you know God.

You’ll find it as you follow Jesus. As you listen to Him and learn, as you live out his teachings.

You’ll experience the radical nature of love, and the transforming power of grace.

And as your understanding evolves, so do you. Your tightly held beliefs start to breathe, expand, and sometimes even shift, as we grow. And that’s okay. Because Jesus didn’t build his Church on Peter’s belief as articulated that one day. He built it on and through Peter.

He builds it through and in us.

Jesus asks you too “what do you believe?”

Not because you’ll have all the answers.

But because it’s the first step to a real relationship with Him.


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