Part of my spiritual discipline is to read the upcoming Sunday's lessons every day during the week. At some point--usually in the morning--I navigate my web browser to the lectionarypage.net site and look at what's coming up on Sunday. This week, a funny thing happened. I made it half way through the week before I noticed the last line of the gospel lesson.
The last sentence of the reading is, "Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah" (Matthew 16:20). Someone in our weekly staff meeting pointed that sentence out to me, and I reread it thinking, "Wait a minute! When did that get in there?" I'm not 100% sure why I missed it, but I think it was partly because Peter's confession--"you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God"--was so bold that my brain did not pick up what my eyes read in the last line. In other words, I was so excited about the revelation of Jesus' true identity that I didn't hear him say to keep it a secret. I wonder if the disciples felt the same way.
In my role as a priest, I am occasionally told things before they become public. "We're getting a divorce, but we haven't told the kids yet." "We're expecting a baby, and we need your prayers, but we aren't telling anyone about it yet." "I'm getting ready to retire and close my business, but that isn't public knowledge yet." Usually, when someone shares news like that with me, they don't need to tell me not to repeat it. It's pretty well understood that clergypersons keep things like that to themselves. Still, sometimes the news is so big that I find myself pastorally reacting to the first part without considering the second. "Oh, you're getting a divorce" runs through my mind long before "Wait, you haven't told your kids? When will that happen?" In truth, sometimes the not-telling is bigger than the news not being shared.
How would Peter and the other disciples keep that news to themselves? This isn't an ordinary sort of realization. We're not talking about someone who found out she has cancer or who just got a big promotion. This is the messiah. Note that the NRSV capitalizes the "M" and the "S" in the titles given to Jesus by Peter. That reflects an interpretation that Peter isn't just attributing anointedness to Jesus--that he has messianic properties. By saying "the Messiah," Peter means the one we've all be waiting for. How do you keep that to yourself? Why would Jesus want them to keep it a secret? What does that say about Jesus' messiahship--that it wasn't time to share it yet?
Sometimes we, like Peter, discover a truth that is bigger than we can imagine, and it takes us a while to figure out what it really means. With a gift from God above, Peter stumbles onto the truth about Jesus. He makes the intellectual leap, connects all the dots, and identifies the miracle worker he's been wandering around with as the one Israel has been waiting for. Although the truth was out, it wasn't time to share it yet because, even though Peter said the right thing, he didn't know what he was talking about. The verses that follow show Jesus predicting his death and resurrection, Peter objecting, and Jesus saying to Peter, "Get behind me Satan!" That's because knowing the answer doesn't mean understanding the concept. It's not that Peter made a lucky guess, it's that he had the right answer even before he was ready to give it.
What about our faith?
Have you ever met someone who had recently experienced a conversion of sorts and who couldn't stop talking about their new-found truth? Although they usually can't see it, others quickly discover that they can be pretty annoying. Have you ever been that person? I have. The good news is that getting the right answer is an important first step, but it is only the first step. The journey of faith is about figuring out what to do with the truth that God has led you to see. Inspiration comes in a moment, but understanding takes time.