Matthew 16:13-20 (NRSV)
Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
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?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 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. 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.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Sometimes it’s the simple things we can overlook in a text. I’ve never thought to myself, “Why did Jesus ask the question of His disciples here in Caesarea Philippi?”. Feel free to (carefully!) google it — it was quite the place. It was the centre of worship for the goat god, Pan. That guy with the horns and the goat legs, kind of like an evil Mr Tumnus from Narnia. Here there was a cliff with a crack in it that the followers of Pan believed was a portal to hell, where spirits came and went. The name of this crack?
"The Gates of Hell."
Interesting isn’t it? Jesus took His disciples on a 26 mile walk from Galilee to a place where a pagan god was worshipped through orgies of all kinds beside the metaphorical gates of hell.
We love to sanitise so much of what Jesus did but Jesus didn’t sanitise anything of what the world was truly like. So many Christians love to sanitise. They have their own music, clothing ranges, tv shows, cook books and so on. You know, just in case ‘the world’ could corrupt them or their kids. That’s not what Jesus was like. He didn’t keep the disciples in the temple discussing the finer points of Torah, he took them on fairly outrageous field trips. It is here in a place of devotion to a mythical creature who was celebrated through having sex with goats that Jesus asks ‘Who do you say that I am?’. What a question. And what a place to ask it. It nearly feels like he is asking it in a place akin to hell.
I think that is the best place to ask the question. So often the answer from a comfortable place about 'who Jesus is' is about us. We take him as our personal saviour and our get out of jail, ticket to heaven kind of saviour. Ask us in the middle of hell who he is and it’s a totally different kind of question. He may ask it beside Hodaida, Yemen, on a migrant boat in the Mediterranean, in a poverty stricken neighbourhood, at a brothel where victims of sex trafficking are held captive. Those places can be hell.
'Who do you say I am here?’
That’s where it matters. If you can’t bring your Gospel to a trafficked 8 year old in a brothel, you have no Gospel at all. It’s why the ‘Name It & Claim It' theology is such a Western concept. These precious souls don’t want to know that God gave you a parking space, changed the weather for your church bbq or sent you a cheque in the mail because you ‘declared' that during your church offering. They don’t want trite first world prayers. They need to know they are loved and known and there is one who will make all things new and they need justice. Justice being love in action. Justice being Jesus.
Peter in the middle of ‘hell’ on earth responds to Jesus' question with ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’.
You are the hope we need. You can make all things new. You are the light in the midst of this great darkness. Jesus tells Peter that on this Rock his Church will be built. The revelation that Jesus is the Christ and the hope of the world. The surrounding gates of hell will not prevail against those who come in love boldly proclaiming the love and grace of Christ.
Boldly proclaiming that racism, systematic oppression, pain and despair will be bound and acceptance, freedom, peace and hope will be loosed. We can use our imagination endlessly to think of all the things that are to be bound and loosed with the keys of heaven. Practically we can hear the voice of Jesus asking us in the midst of darkness, ‘Who do you say I am?’. Our response I think is, of course, a deeply reflective, life-changing thought and action but it is also to be a practical one. Who around us needs the love and grace of Jesus or who around us needs to be advocated for and their voice championed? When evil creates a man-made famine in Yemen, we come with food or support those who are bringing it. When it discriminates against our LGBTQ friends, we stand beside them in love. When it ravages people with loneliness, we bring friendship. When it sits atop a power-wielding man, we bring prayers and forgiveness and a voice for the oppressed. When it comes in the form of a racist with a fire torch, we speak up and admit our own privilege. When it comes in sickness, we bring prayer and presence. When we act like Jesus, we loose the Kingdom of Heaven all around us.
Ferg Breen is married with two kids and is a counsellor, psychotherapist, lecturer and pastor in Dublin. He also performs motivational seminars inspired solely by the work of David Brent.