The tension between, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “But who do you say that I am?” is the homiletical tension of this Gospel text. It is the hermeneutical tension of our times. It is the theological tension between the prevalent and popular pronouncements made about Jesus’ identity and our individual confessions of who we know Jesus to be.
When I read once again this familiar exchange between Jesus and Peter, I imagined Jesus walking into the middle of the rally in Charlottesville, in the middle of the next rally and the next and the next, in the middle of Las Ramblas and Cambrils, asking all there, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “But who do you say that I am?”
Dear Working Preachers, it is not enough, however, to imagine Jesus asking others these questions. We have to imagine Jesus asking us these questions and then taking Jesus seriously enough with answers that actually articulate both what we hear and what we believe. We have to answer both of Jesus’ questions to realize the tension inherent in Caesarea Philippi.
I wrote last week that I think we are on the verge of a homiletical reformation — a “who do you say that I am?” homiletic. There can be no more playing it safe. No more silence. No more hiding behind vague theological commitments. No more apologizing for sloppy interpretation of Scripture. No more letters or petitions or statements alone. Out of the plural “you” Peter comes forward. Peter steps out. Peter speaks up. Peter figures out what he has to say, what he believes — and then he says it.
Try out this kind of homiletic. Create the tension present in the text. Not offering responses to Jesus’ question with, “my church says, my denomination says, my pastor says,” but, what do you say? The question, of course, is to all of the disciples, but only Peter steps forward and speaks up. Our preaching needs to do the same, to empower our members to step forward and speak up — out of the crowd, in the middle of the masses, in the face of idolatries, for themselves. Not to defer their answer to another source, even if that source has good intentions. Not to deflect their response with a well-rehearsed assertion from a respectable representative.
The challenge of and key to this homiletic is paying attention. Are we listening for Jesus’ question? Have we indeed heard the question but have chosen to ignore it, to put it off, waiting for the right moment, the political moment, the moment that suits our needs more than the needs of the ones for whom we are speaking up?
Hearing the question means answering the question in the moment — not waiting to gather the facts, weigh the consequences, give the benefit of the doubt, decide what’s the best side to be on, or leverage the possible outcomes. “All too many have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”1
I know what you are thinking. How do you take this kind of risk? How do you harness this kind of resolve?
You listen to and believe in Jesus’ promise to Peter. “On you I will build my church.” This is not reward, but need. This is not blessedness for a job well done but being a blessing to and for others. Does Jesus say he will build his church on Peter because he got the right answer? Or because Peter spoke up? According to Jesus, the church is not the church when it stays silent. “When people’s lives are at stake, cautious silence is not an option. People’s lives are at stake right now.”2
Jesus knew this. Lives are at stake when Jesus’ church can’t figure out how make bold stands and then, and then, Dear Working Preachers, act them out. We forget that lives are at stake when we maintain our hold on theoretical theology. We have also been lulled into believing that remaining silent does not also include acts of omission, blaming institutional “oversight,” and insistence on the “sufficiency of abstract propositions for the discernment of God’s work in the world.”3
“You are the Son of the living God,” says Peter. Our living God who sees but also feels. Who cries for Heather Heyer. For the victims of Barcelona and Cambrils. I wonder if Jesus needed to hear the answer to his question as much as Peter needed to answer it. Because that is the kind of God we have; who is incarnated once again, in the midst and middle of any time or people or place that chooses death over life, because we are courageous enough to come forward and confess once again, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
1 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” (August 1963) https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf
2 “Clothed in Love: Compelled to Act. An open letter to the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.” https://spark.adobe.com/page/i6IzXmN0u86RW/
3 Johnson, Luke Timothy. The revelatory body: theology as inductive art. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015)