When we would go to visit my in-laws, there used to be time of day that was set apart. At 11:00 a.m., all other activity stopped and they plopped down to watch “The Price Is Right.” That venerable old “war-horse” of a game show captivated them, probably because of the amount of audience involvement. Called by name, the person would “come on down”, and have to make a bid or a guess at the prize revealed. Get it right, and you advance, miss and you’re over… and as soon as the prize was revealed, the shouts from the audience would begin….their estimations of what that prize was worth. The contestant would take them all in, look around at loved ones with them for guidance, but eventually would have to make their own decision, their own statement of what they thought was right.
It’s not a quiz show happening in the Gospel for today, but there are a few similarities. Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying “The Son of Man” is.
I have always read this as Jesus asking the question directly about himself, because in Mark’s Gospel he does ask “who do people say that I am?”
But when I look at it here, in this context, it starts out as a much broader question. Who do people think the Son of Man is? Who are they looking to for answers?
It’s not insignificant that the question is asked at Caesarea Philippi. This is the seat of Roman power in the province. The Tetrarch Philip named the city after Augustus Caesar as a tribute, and then added his own name as regional Governor for good measure, and so people wouldn’t confuse it for that fishing village further down the Mediterranean coast.
It had a name before Philip changed it when he modernized it. Paneas, it was named for the shrine of the old Greek god Pan, the god of shepherds, flocks and fields that resided in a nearby cave.
In other words, the question being asked is one to do with identity, authority, and power. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Who “rules”? Who is God’s favored or sent servant?
Oh, and “Son of Man” is a rather technical term in Israel’s history. The “Son of Man” is the one who will be sent by God. In some passages it is apocalyptic; the power at the end of time. In others it has to do with chosen kings, who in Israel’s history was the shepherd of the people. Sometimes the “Son of Man” title was associated with the spokespersons for God; the prophets, and so it’s really not a big surprise when the shouts start to come back from the crowd as if this was a “Price is Right” audience. The suggestions run from the ridiculous to the sublime,
“Elijah”, some say.
“John the Baptist,” others.
“Jeremiah or one of the Prophets from of old.” Still others call out.
But it all comes down not to the shouts of the crowd, but to what YOU have to say, and Peter is the one who pipes up and makes his bid. “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It is the winning answer. But what exactly does that mean? What are the prizes, or the consequences for getting it right? Just take a look at the consequences for Simon, the Son of Jonah for getting this question right.
“You are Peter….” Jesus says. Simon receives a name change in full. Jesus had been referring to him as Simon Peter for some time, but this is a declaration. It is a definitive moment in the life of this disciple. You get this right, and you are no longer who you used to be at all! You get this right and you leave behind the old self, the old identity, and the old habits. From now on you will be “Rock”… or is “stumbling block!”
Is this what it is like for us as well? When we confess Jesus as Son of the Living God, is there a name change for us?
When you acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and become a follower of him, you become a “Christian”.
That is a name, a title, and that title has not always been positive. It started out as a term of derision you know. “These “Christians” were a bother to the Romans, and to the religious leaders in the Synagogue, and to all who were in authority. They didn’t follow the rules. They didn’t conform to the societal norms of the day. They had strange ideas about economics, and how people were to be treated.
The Christians were disruptive of Synagogue worship, insisting that Messiah had come in Jesus and that other Jews should believe in him.
The Christians were disruptive of Roman society, refusing to offer sacrifice to Caesar because there is but one God to which one should confess allegiance and give support. A “living God”… not one of stone, or of simply flesh and blood, but a resurrected Lord who is one like us, a man, a human… but not like us either.
The name change ushered in conflict for Peter and for all the disciples. From here on in Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem. From here on in the struggle for Peter will be whether or not he really wants that name. Will he stand with Jesus? Or, will he hide in the shadows, denying that he knows him? That is you know the pivotal scene later in the Gospel, as we wait for the rooster to crow.
All in all, those who take on the name change and who follow a living God instead of a god of tradition, or a military leader, or a god found in stone shrines long dead, find their lives greatly complicated.
Friends in Christ, I submit that the same thing happens still.
When you are claimed by God and are given this name, “Christian” it complicates your life. The title does not make your life easier. Claim this name change and you will forever be asking yourself, “Is this what Jesus would have me do?”
That’s not the only consequence however.
“On this “rock”, this name changed Peter,… Jesus will build the church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Hello?! Gates of Hell? What does Jesus mean by that?
I used to think that claiming the name “Christian” meant that I would become a target for the forces of evil. But as Mark Allen Powell points out, gates don’t move! You get this right, you get this name “Christian” or “Disciple” attached to you and now you can expect to go on the offensive. We are beating a pathway into Hell’s domain that their strong gates cannot withstand. We’re out to bring light to the places of darkness, to bring God’s reign into the places where Satan has his way right now. That’s what this means. Jesus places in the hands of the name changed Peter, into our hands, the power in our hands to go on the offensive. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The power of keys resides in those who have been name changed. You have the power to forgive.
You also have the power to bind, to hold on to things.
So part of the prize for getting this question about Jesus right is not only having to endure the name change, not fitting into society, and facing open opposition from the forces and powers of darkness, but the realization that I am going to be charged with things that have eternal consequences!
The things that I can let go of, God can release.
The things that you can let go of, God can release.
Oh, and what we “hold on to,” that even God doesn’t have the power to change. God waits for us to do it, when we exercise the power now given over to us.
Such is the incredible power and scope of what God in Christ Jesus does to those whom he names. It is a promise that brings freedom and hope and change to this world.
This is a lot more than most of us ever bargained for! I’m not so sure I want to be “called down” if this is what it’s all about.
We have seen the end of the story. We know how it turns out. So while the consequences of following Jesus are still a little scary, a little overwhelming, they are not too much for us. In baptism we have been “called down” by name to join in the work of proclaiming God’s Kingdom and working to bring it about, and to assail the dark places in this world.
So then, get into the game.
Make your bid at the prize.
There is a name for you to claim, “Christian”…. and a Savior who will claim you by name and give you all the promises the come with walking with him.
Come on down, ……..Jesus did, for us. That we might tell the world about that love that has come down for all, a love that all the gates of hell cannot stand against, because the key to the gates has been given to us.