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.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Matthew 16.13–9

What does it mean to be a church? Any church, but certainly a church dedicated to the two greatest apostles, St Peter and St Paul?

In this morning’s reading from St Matthew’s gospel we are told about the foundation on which the church is built: the foundation of our life, our speaking, our worship, our praying, our life as Christians beyond the walls of our churches, is to be characterised by St Peter’s answer to the question: ‘who do we say that Jesus is?’ He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

The proclamation of Jesus as the Son of the Living God is the heart and soul of the Christian faith. He is the Messiah, the true King of Israel and of the world, who prophets foretold, for whom Israel had waited. He was the one who would liberate Israel and gather in the nations that there would be one flock, worshipping the one God. Not only is he the true king, he is also God himself, the true Son of the Father, perfectly showing us who God is. Infinitely more than a prophet, he is the one in whom all of God’s purposes for the human race are brought into focus.

The precise way in which the Lord Jesus would bring God’s purposes to completion, the way in which he would reign, remain something which St Peter would discover after the events of Holy Week. His understanding of who the Messiah was needed to be refined, but he had at least reached this point. Jesus was no mere prophet. He was the fulfilment of all prophecy.

The Church can’t equivocate on this. Jesus isn’t merely a good man or an inspiring guru. He is the the God whom we worship, the creator of the universe, the saviour of all, the one to whom every knee will bow. This is the heartbeat of the Christian church.

Notice though, how long it took for Jesus to ask this question of his closest disciples. This happened at Caesarea Philip, at the end of Jesus preaching and healing ministry in Galilee, shortly before they began their journey to Jerusalem, to the upper room, the cross and the tomb. The Lord Jesus seems to have spent considerable time with his disciples, the vast majority of his time with them, teaching, healing, showing them the way of God, before he ever started to teach them in any detail about who he was.

Jesus seems to have preferred to bring his disciples gradually to the conclusion that he was the Messiah. This is the only time in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus asked his disciples to talk with him explicitly about who he is.

Perhaps this is a sign of being confident that Jesus is the Son of the living God, that we don’t feel the need to force that on people too soon. Perhaps it takes greater confidence in the gospel to acknowledge that people will grow in their knowledge of the Lord Jesus in stages. It might start with being interested in the work which the church does in the community, perhaps volunteering at Tuesday Cafe or something like that. Or it could start with an interest in Jesus as a spiritual teacher, or as someone in whom spiritual wholeness can be found, not with a great deal of certainly about what that means, but still an intuition that in him there is goodness and beauty and truth.

To think that becoming a Christian, a disciple of the Lord Jesus, can only start when a person makes full acknowledgement of Jesus as the the Son of God, with all that entails, is to ignore the very basic observation that this was not true for Jesus’ original disciples, and that he seemed fine with that.

I must admit that as I thought about this I started to wonder whether some of the courses and materials we use to introduce people to the Christian faith in the hope that they might sign up, might be better if they allowed more space for people to explore who Jesus Christ is to them, what it means for them to believe in God, and what their hopes for life might be. It might not deliver new Christians, signed on the line, every couple of months, but perhaps it will help people have a richer, less formulaic faith as a consequence.

Perhaps this is one of the things that might characterise a church dedicated to St Peter in the 21st Century, that we make sure that we, like St Peter, have the Lord Jesus at the centre of all we do, but that we also leave sufficient space for people to find their own path to him. Perhaps this is what we are called to be: a community in which Jesus is worshipped as Lord and God, which leaves room for manoeuvre, so that people can arrive at that belief by a variety of means.