By The Rev. Porter Taylor
On January 18th, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter. The readings for the day are Psalm 23, Acts 4: 8-13, 1 Peter 5:1-4, and Matthew 16:13-19. Below is a blog post written by The Rev. Porter Taylor about the feast day.
The Collect: Almighty Father, who inspired Simon Peter, first among the apostles, to confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God: Keep your Church steadfast upon the rock of this faith, so that in unity and peace we may proclaim the one truth and follow the one Lord, our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“But who do you say that I am?”
Jesus and his followers had traveled across the Sea of Galilee (again) and travelled some 30 miles north to a city that was home to both Roman and Greek places of worship. The first question Jesus asks regards who the people think He is. The answers are flattering, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets,” but they are wholly incomplete. This list represents significant figures in Israel’s history, but they are only those who pointed to YHWH and His coming kingdom.
Jesus presses in a little further by making it personal. Who do you say that I am? This question comes on the heels of miracles (feeding the 5,000 and the 4,000), divine healings, and the Sermon on the Mount. The disciples have witnessed firsthand that what Jesus is doing something significant, and Peter’s answer is proof that Jesus is far more than a prophet or forerunner. Jesus is the one who has been prophesied, He is the Kingdom come, He is the Messiah for whom Israel has long been waiting.
Within the context of Matthew’s Gospel then, this story represents a significant shift in the narrative: Jesus’ Galilean ministry seems to draw to a close and His movement toward Jerusalem—and ultimately the Cross—begins to move forward without pause. In fact, it is just a few verses later in the chapter that Jesus tells the disciples that He will be killed and raised again only to be rebuked by Peter! Matthew is giving us a hint, I believe, that Jesus’ identity as “Christ, Son of the Living God,” is directly and irrevocably tied to His crucifixion.
The poetic beauty, if we may call it that, in this whole story is that the revelation of Jesus as Christ, and His statement that the “Gates of Hades shall not prevail” against His Church, takes place in the city where the Romans and Greeks believed the gates of hell to be located. The Cave of Pan was situated in Caesarea Philippi, and within the cave was a bottomless water source believed to be the gates of Hades. Jesus’ statements take on whole new meaning when read in this light: outside of a temple of worship dedicated to a god of the underworld, outside of the cave believed to be the gates of hell, Jesus announces that the church built upon the rock of Peter’s confession shall never be prevailed against. This is not some vague or random spiritual abstraction by Jesus but is a pointed, intentional, and bold claim against all Roman and Greek theological beliefs.
Peter’s ministry is forever shaped by this interaction, as is the course of Church history. The lessons from Acts and 1 Peter assigned for the day demonstrate that Peter continued to boldly proclaim the Gospel of God in Christ and to build up the church. Peter’s example to us is certainly one of bold faith and Gospel proclamation, but even more than that, he shows us Jesus is the source and content of our faith and gospel. It may seem too simple an idea for such a significant day in the church, but the Confession of Saint Peter should point us first and foremost to Jesus. Before we can talk about unity or caring for the flock, we must first see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Cornerstone, and the source of salvation for all.
The rock of our faith is not the Cave of Pan or the mountain at whose feet Caesarea Philippi is settled, nor is the person of Peter. The rock of our faith is the confession of Jesus as Messiah…everything else in our faith is built upon this one foundation. Peter’s exhortation to the church in the epistle makes sense as the outflow of this truth: tend the flock. Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter after his triplet of denials is full of sheep and shepherd imagery: feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep. Peter’s role within the church, his faith as lived out amongst Jews and Gentiles, flows from his understanding of Jesus as Messiah and shepherd. Our faith must do the same!
Peter urged the church to shepherd the flock, just as he was shepherding the flock, until the day when the True Shepherd of Israel returns. When Jesus is the Christ, we are but stewards of His people, caretakers of His church, and Gospel-messengers in His world. Our unity as Church of the Apostles and as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church is nothing more or less than Jesus.
Who do you say that Jesus is? The question is posed to each of us, both individually and corporately, just as Jesus turned and asked His disciples while walking through Caesarea Philippi centuries ago.
How is your faith informed and energized by your answer to that question? These are things we are invited to ponder on this Feast Day as we strive to answer with the same boldness as Peter…