Sunday, August 27, 2023
Do you have a special nickname? Or, like me, are you not a fan of nicknames? Growing up as a Rebecca, I was always called “Rebecca” by my family. However, as some of you know who have names that can be shortened, some people assume you go by “Becca” or “Becky” without asking what you prefer and just start calling you a different name! At the beginning of third grade, for example, my teacher assumed my name was “Becky.” I think there was another Rebecca in the class, and she was trying to distinguish the two. I was too shy to correct her. At the first parent-teacher conference of the year, my teacher kept talking about “Becky” to my parents. My mom said, “Who’s that?! Her name is Rebecca. She goes by Rebecca. No one ever calls her Becky.” From then on, I learned to assert myself better in being proud of my name and how I prefer to be called! Names are important, aren’t they? What do you like to be called?
Our gospel for this morning is all about names – names for Jesus, names for Simon Peter, names for us as the church. Jesus poses a question to the disciples that is crucial for us to still ask ourselves today, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Who is Jesus? And, who am I? What does Jesus prefer to be called, and what do WE prefer to be called? Who does Jesus say that WE are, as children of God, members of the body of Christ?
A few weeks ago, those in the boat who witness Peter and Jesus walking on water call Jesus the Son of God. Last week, the Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” And this week, Peter literally confesses Christ – he correctly identifies Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” We are unpacking these names for Jesus so that we understand better who Jesus is, and in so doing, understand better what it means to call ourselves “Christian,” or “Christ-followers.” Understanding Jesus as the Messiah is central to Matthew’s gospel. He begins his very first sentence in his book identifying Jesus as the Messiah. As a Jewish Christian living under the Roman Empire’s occupation, it is important for Matthew to connect Jesus to God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel from Abraham to King David to the present day: the living God! He traces God’s salvation history through the Old Testament stories and prophecies people would have known well down to Jesus. The disciples note that people are wondering who Jesus is – if he is Elijah or John the Baptist resurrected/reincarnated, or one of the prophets like Jeremiah. This conversation between Peter and Jesus reveals that Jesus is more than any of those answers. He is both human and divine; the promised One who has come to restore God’s creation back to the Creator, the agent who will bring about the kingdom of God that Jesus has been teaching and preaching about.
Here’s where it’s important for us to understand as Christians today that Christ is not Jesus’ last name! Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah” which means, “anointed one.” Prophets, priests, and kings in the tradition of Israel were ritually anointed with oil to signal their blessing and appointment by God. Throughout the gospels, we see how Jesus acts as all three – prophet, priest, and king as God’s anointed one. But the prophets also foretold of a coming Messiah who would overthrow evil with righteous violence. Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, but as we will see, Peter and the disciples don’t fully understand who Jesus is as the fulfillment of the promised coming Messiah. Instead of using violence, no matter how justified, Jesus will practice what he preaches in turning the other cheek and loving his enemies. Jesus the Christ will conquer all evil forces and bring about the kingdom of God through his suffering, death, and resurrection; something completely unexpected in terms of what people expected the Messiah to do. For us today, we may also struggle to understand Jesus as God’s Anointed One, the Messiah. When we look at the evil rampant in the world, where has Jesus conquered and how? We long for his coming again.
Here is where Jesus the Christ gives us the keys to the kingdom of heaven through renaming Simon Peter. Confessing Jesus as our Messiah, Jesus then asks us to consider who we are IN Christ. We know Peter as a common name today, but virtually no one, Greek or Jew, was named Peter at that time. How many people do you know who are called “Rock?” That’s about as unusual a name Jesus gives Simon. Did Simon even like his nickname, Rock? Did he feel that he deserved it? Simon the earnest follower of Jesus is not always like a Rock. He sinks when trying to walk to Jesus on water. We’ll see next week that he really doesn’t understand who Jesus even though he recognizes him correctly as the Messiah. He wants Jesus to stay with them forever instead of suffering, dying, rising, and ascending into heaven. He acts violently by cutting off a guy’s ear at Jesus’ arrest. He denies Jesus three times. And yet the early church is built on his leadership, as we see in the book of Acts. He blunders but remains faithful to Jesus’ call to follow and build up the church. He lives into his name “Rock,” despite his faults and struggle to follow Jesus the Christ.
It is easy to see ourselves in Peter in this gospel story. We strive to be faithful, and sometimes we mess it up. We don’t fully understand who Jesus is, even when we say the right words. We probably don’t fully understand who we are, either! We are members of a church that we see is not perfect but a human institution. And yet, Jesus’ words live on. The church lives on. Through our baptisms, we also became anointed ones by God, marked with the cross of Christ forever, and took on a new nickname, Christian. Like Peter, we become agents of God with Christ’s own name and authority, to BE the church out there in the world, looking for signs of the kingdom of heaven at loose in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit and living out BEING the kingdom of God as God’s own chosen people.
Today we are wrapping up our summer discussion on episodes of the free streaming show, The Chosen. In season two, there’s an episode where Philip has a conversation with Matthew, the former tax collector, about leaving the past behind. He says that what’s important is who I AM, not who I was. Matthew WAS a tax collector, now he is a follower of the Christ, the Messiah, God’s chosen anointed one. “Jesus chose you, that’s where your confidence comes from,” Philip reminds Matthew. In the gospel for today, we see how Jesus chooses Peter to build up the church. The church is not built on Peter, however, but on the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God. Our confidence comes from knowing Jesus chooses us, too! Jesus chooses us, flawed human beings, to follow him because we know who he is. Jesus Christ the great I AM calls us to proudly live in the present, stating I AM a child of God, I AM a Christian. And in knowing Jesus the Christ, may we begin to know ourselves as Christians, who we are in Christ and place our confidence there! Amen.