Sermon Seeds: Identity
Sunday, August 27, 2023
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Proper 16 | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124 • Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138 • Romans 12:1-8 • Matthew 16:13-20
The Keys (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Most of us do not remember the first time we heard our name. It’s one of those rites of passages that is embedded in our lives if not our memory. Even if we were to remember the first time our name is spoken, we don’t know it. We have to become familiar with our identity. It’s a process of being called a name repeatedly and learning to associate that particular collection of sounds with who we are. Once we know it, it becomes second nature. If we hear our name spoken in a crowd, we turn toward the speaker. We may reply in the affirmative as if to confirm our identity. We may inquire if we are the one being sought or mentioned. Ignoring the utterance of our name would be counter-intuitive.
Sometimes, we change our name because who we are does not seem to fit the associations the name conjures for us. More often, we assume or receive nicknames. We don’t go through a formal or legal process, but our identity gets expanded or adjusted. We may revise how we are called in an effort to control our own story, but names are essentially the way that we are identified by other people. We are given our names by others and our names are used to address us. Naming, and identity, is communal.
In the gospel text, Jesus asks questions of identity couched in naming. He begins by asking about the communal understanding of the identity of the Son of Man, a name used for Jesus often in Matthew’s account. In their response, the disciples list specific prophets from different eras of biblical history, but that are tied in some way to the Messianic promise. There does not seem to be one answer, but different perspectives may be associated with the nature and context of those prophets. John the Baptist, a contemporary of Jesus, had a different ministry from Elijah, one of the earliest identified prophets in biblical literature. Jeremiah brings his own particular connotations as a prophet that Matthew emphasizes in his account :
Only Matthew mentions Jeremiah in this line up. Jeremiah was a prophet who railed against Israel’s infidelities, preached repentance, and was rejected by the people. He is an appropriate choice both in terms of message and in terms of reception. The mention of the prophet Jeremiah is significant for Matthew. There are two earlier texts that draw upon Jeremiah. They are fulfillment formulas. Matthew 2:17–18 concerns the slaughter of the innocents drawing upon Jeremiah 31:15 (“Rachel weeping for her children). Matthew 27:9–10 tells of the purchase of the potter’s field (the Field of Blood) with the thirty pieces of silver Judas returned to the chief priests just before his suicide. This connects with a “call to repentance” passage in Jeremiah 18:1–11. The association with Jeremiah befits the description of Jesus’ destiny (16:21). Jeremiah was a prophet of “woe, persecution, and desolation.” Jeremiah was also the prophet who predicted both the fall and the restoration of Jerusalem as it occurred in his own day. This would have been an especially apt association for Matthew’s audience, who were coping with how to understand and survive the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) in their own time. Divine judgment for rejection of the prophetic message (Jeremiah’s and Jesus’) served as a kind of explanatory theodicy in both cases. If the parallel holds, then Matthew’s faith community may also hope for the kind of restoration Jeremiah’s community experienced if they likewise repent and respond to the message of the prophet.
The Messiah (or Son of Man) as prophet is not a perspective unique to Matthew. Luke also situates Jesus and his ministry in the lineage of prophetic ministry. (Those two gospel writers used more source material in common than any other as they both built upon Mark’s account and an unavailable resource identified as “Q” by biblical scholars.) Because there were already foundational accounts accessible, Matthew and Luke (and much later John) are able to focus their writings in order to form and reform their particular audience. Matthew writes at a time when the people need a prophet. We read and examine this work at a time that also seems profoundly in need of the prophetic voice.
In his book, Where Have All the Prophets Gone: Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America, Rev. Dr. Marvin McMickle asks the pertinent questions:
“Where have all the prophets gone? Why is prophetic preaching so rarely heard in the pulpits in America, and why do so many pressing issues in our society go unaddressed and unexamined by many who preach the gospel Jesus Christ?”
This seems to be the heart of this encounter Jesus has with his disciples. He has traveled to a locale, “in the region of Caesarea Philippi, on the northernmost border of Israel, ‘as pagan a territory as one could find.’” (Matthew Woodley) This is where Jesus chooses to raise the question of his identity. It’s not in the temple or during a high and holy feast observance. Jesus and his disciples are in the world, and this is where his identity will first be proclaimed by the ones he chose to follow him on the journey and continue the work upon his departure.
This is another indication that the entire Matthean account serves as a commissioning process for the disciples that culminates in the Great Commission. Biblical scholars have noted that it is “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” is appropriately translated as “as you are going” rather than “go.” In Matthew’s gospel narrative, Jesus is constantly going. Shifts in passages may be identified by the movement they make from one place to another. Even the progression of the journey and the location of these encounters encourages Matthew’s audience to not isolate themselves but to continue to move in the work even in hostile territory and times. The questions that Jesus asks read similarly to the theological reflecting that candidates for authorized ministry are asked in their process.
The next question becomes more personal. “But who do you say I am?” Jesus indirectly identifies himself through a parallel question that associates him as the Son of Man. He invites the disciples to name his identity. Once again, Peter stands in for all the disciples:
Peter’s affirmation, however, is the first time a disciple has used the term “Messiah”. Peter gets it. Jesus makes a resounding affirmation of Peter’s perception. This is when Simon becomes “Peter.” Jesus makes a play on words, “You are Peter (Greek petros), and on this rock (Greek petra) I will build my church.”
Once Peter appropriately acknowledges his identity, Jesus renames him. Peter’s identity changes, but is it just Peter…or does Peter stand in for us all with this new name?
Tradition interprets this passage as Peter’s call to be the leader of the church upon Jesus’ ascension. This scripture, under that understanding, serves as a succession plan. There is probably truth to that, and it is also true that the church of Jesus Christ is not built by one person but the foundation has been and continues to be laid by the faithful ministry of all who follow the way of Jesus.
This is the first mention of the church in the New Testament. In fact, among the Gospels it is only in Matthew that there is direct reference to the church. He uses the Greek term ekklesia, “called out.” This is the same term used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) to designate the assembled or called congregation of God’s people. Matthew makes a clear identification between his community of faith and the congregation of God’s people in the Hebrew Scriptures, even as it differentiates from both the institutions of Temple and the synagogue. There will follow, in Matthew chapter 18, a fuller discourse on the church. This new community is to be “marked by humility, forgiveness and service.” Jesus declares that the “gates of Hades” will not prevail against the church. Scholars generally agreed that “the gates of Hades” is a metaphor for the powers of death and the saying assures that the church will endure to the new age and never be overcome by this power.
The church needs more than a single Rock; we are all the rocks of the church. We are all Peter. We are all called to be the church as we are going into the world.
All the identities in this passage (Jesus, disciples, and the church) are connected, commissioned, and called to the same prophetic ministry that proclaims good news, enters the world, challenges the forces of evil, speaks truth to power, and demonstrates the kindom of God.
Who do you say that you are? We are Peter, the rock upon which the church is continually, today, tomorrow, and into the future being built. We will prevail, and Jesus has promised us keys to the kindom.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
–Paul Laurence. Dunbar, We Wear the Mask
For Further Reflection
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” ― Charlotte Brontë
“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” ― George R.R. Martin
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” ― Patrick Rothfuss
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
McMickle, Marvin A. Where Have All the Prophets Gone: Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Woodley, Matt. The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the gathered community to consider names. Explore the history or origin stories of the community in which the church is primarily located as well as the name of the church. Ask members of the church to consider how they would be identified by the wider community based on their interaction and engagement.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (firstname.lastname@example.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124 • Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138 • Romans 12:1-8 • Matthew 16:13-20
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=156