Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The Gospel of Matthew and the community for which it was written is a fascinating study. Scholars tell us Matthew’s original readers and hearers were Greek-speaking. Some early Christian writers even claim there was an early Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew. “During the Middle Ages Jewish authors, writing in Hebrew, often quote the Gospel of Matthew in a text different from the canonical Greek. In 1380 the Spanish Jewish polemist Shemtob ben Isaac ibn Shaprut incorporated the entire text of Matthew in Hebrew in his treatise, Eben Bohan. His text often corresponds to the earlier Jewish quotations of Matthew in Hebrew, leading to the speculation that Shemtob’s text preserves an early copy of the Hebrew Matthew.”
Final verdict? We don’t know for sure, but all these clues paint an intriguing picture. Its place of origin usually points to Syrian Antioch or one of the larger settlements in Galilee, normally areas associated with Gentiles. Biblical scholars tell us Matthew’s faith community seems to have been made up primarily of Jews, however, not Gentiles. There are elements throughout the Gospel that indicate this. Examples include Matthew’s use of Jewish terminology such as “Kingdom of Heaven,” which points to the Jewish hesitancy to use God’s name when reading or speaking, Matthew’s concern with fulfillment of Hebrew Scriptures, tracing the decent of Jesus from Abraham and the “Great Family” of whom I’ve shared several stories the past few weeks, and a strong emphasis on Jesus as the Son of David, linking him to the Golden Age of ancient Israel.
Despite its strong affinity towards a Jewish audience, throughout Matthew’s Gospel we also find intriguing examples of universal salvation, stretching the claim of Jesus as Lord and Messiah to those outside the fold of the Jewish flock.
Woven into Matthew’s account is the view that Jesus saw the harvest as the entire world, not just a harvest of the 12 tribes of Israel. Matthew’s full statement of Christ’s Great Commission in the 28th chapter makes this abundantly clear: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:19-20, emphasis added).
Today’s pericope is an interesting passage. A portion of Mark’s gospel is quoted, but then additional material of Matthean originality gets added. Let’s take a closer look.
Mark 8:27-30 reads: “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
Matt. 16:13-20 reads: “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 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. 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. 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
Mark ends the first section of this story with Peter’s announcement that Jesus is the Christ. Matthew, in the parallel account, adds this peculiar blessing:
“Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’” (Mt. 16:18-19 NRSV)
There is a play on words in verse 18 that is certainly intentional, for Peter in Greek was not a surname at that time. In Greek, Petros and petra, the two words used in that verse, have two distinct meanings. In a sense, the translation of verse 18 actually says, “And I say to you, you are stone, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
Which, if we see it that way, causes the next portion of our passage to need a second look. It is not inconceivalbe that Jesus first addresses Peter with an affirmation of his nick-name then moves on to speak about greater cosmic things related to himself. I wonder, when the NRSV has Jesus say, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church;” whether Jesus was referring to himself as the rock? If Jesus is the rock upon which we must build the Church that makes for an entirely different interpretation of this passage; both for the rest of the unfolding of Matthew’s Gospel, and for our life as a community of faith today.
Churches often make a Rock/Church/Jesus kind of mistake during times of transition. People say things like, “When the new pastor arrives…,” and, “Won’t it be nice when…,” or, for bigger congregations, “With different staff coming on, we can have them….” My deep and earnest prayer for you is that you build your church upon the Rock of our Salvation, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Prince of Peace, the Only Begotten One.
For nothing is more true than this: if you want to see the work of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven, flourish, it will take all working together-working as one with Christ as the head, to do the work of ministry we are called to do. After all, like the communities for which Mark and Matthew were written, we too are in the midst of a churning, fermenting time, once more at a major crossroads in history – especially, perhaps, a crossroads of faith. Who do you say Jesus is? Your answer just may be one of the most important confessions of your life.
In the name of the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
Questions for Reflection
When have you succeeded in resisting the forces that seek to conform us to the world? How has that felt like “spiritual worship?” What are the ways you most readily answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Household Prayer: Morning
Today, O God, help me receive your revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. It is in his name I pray. Amen.
Household Prayer: Evening
Holy God, for anything I did this day that was pleasing to you, I give you thanks and pray that you use me to your glory; for anything I did this day that was displeasing to you, I beg your forgiveness and pray that you redeem me for your glory. Amen.
 Howard, George. Eerdman’s Dictionary, Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0
 Hermeneia NT (20 vols.) Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (New Testament) (Hermeneia NT-20) See copyright information at the beginning of the respective books. Published by Augsburg Fortress Box 1209 Minneapolis, MN 55440. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hypertexted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 1.5