In what was likely something of an unusual occurrence, this morning we have Jesus asking the disciples a question: who do people say I am? Who knows what the scene actually looked like, but I always imagine a prolonged pause, with some uncomfortable shifting in place, eyes darting around to see what everyone else was doing-to guess who was going to go first, and desperate mental searching for the right answer. A few of them finally trotted out the 1st century Palestinian equivalent of, “dude, you are trending on Facebook and Twitter”– likening him to the rock stars of their faith. So Jesus tried again, but who do you say that I am? Peter, bless his blurting out whatever comes to mind first self responds “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. You are the Christ–the anointed one. Bingo, says Jesus, well done Peter. Of course just a few short verses after Peter nails it, he is in hot water with Jesus for protesting against the path Jesus was on, the path to Jerusalem. Peter, you see, had indeed stumbled upon the right answer but it took him a lifetime to figure out what he meant by it.
Interestingly, Jesus asked this key question and Peter made his bold declaration of faith not in the Temple, or on a mountaintop, or at any other site sacred to the Jews, but rather in Caesarea Philippi. An exceedingly odd place for Jesus the rabbi to take his students. Caesarea Philippi was the global center of Pan worship–Pan, the Greek god with the flute- the one who looked like a goat and around whose worship were some definitely sketchy practices involving goats. And that is where Jesus took the disciples on a field trip- and that is where he chose to ask the identity question. Why? Why go into this wild, possibly hostile, definitely Godforsaken place? Why not go somewhere safe, clean, neat, comfortable? The sort of place nice Christians would go.
Perhaps it was because he wanted them to see and experience the wildness of the world. Perhaps it was because only when the disciples were completely out of their comfort zone that they could see clearly what was right in front of their eyes all along. Whatever the reason, it is there, in the darkness of that strange place, Peter is able to see the Light in the Darkness. It’s there that he’s able to see the Messiah in ways that he wasn’t able to see him at the Temple, or the mountaintop, or by the Sea of Galilee.
Wherever we find ourselves when the question “who do you say that I am” comes our way, Jesus’ question is the critical question of our faith–and it is one each of us has to answer individually and collectively as the Body of Christ we call the church. There are fancy theological answers about who Jesus was and is–many books have been written about what Messiah-ship means. The Church has an official answer worked out. In our Creed we say that Jesus is light from light, very God from very God, begotten not made, the only Son of God. And that is poetic, elegant, and orthodox. And, as lovely as it is, this formulaic answer in a sense helps us keep Jesus at arm’s length. We can recite the words the church has written for us and not have to wrestle with who and what Jesus is for ourselves. Because, at the risk of letting my inner heretic loose, and as much as I love theology, in a sense, the formula, the doctrine doesn’t matter a whit. When you get right down to it the question of who each of us says Jesus is is a practical one- and our answer is revealed in and shapes our lives. The claims I make about Jesus are the very same claims he makes on my life. If I say that Jesus is God’s way of closing the gap between the Divine and the Human–that God came to be one of us to reveal how God feels about us- then I need to live in a way that reflects my understanding that all of life is sacred. If I say that Jesus reveals God’s heart–then my heart needs to break with those who are depressed–my heart needs to get angry when a family is ripped apart by deportation, my heart needs to break with grief at the racism, sexism, and violence that infect our society. If I say that Jesus shows us what is possible in the world-then I need to look at the world through heaven’s eyes and feed the hungry, care for the sick, and show compassion to all. If I say that Jesus heals wounds, then I need to be a reconciler, a repairer of the breach. If I say that in Jesus God’s love is more powerful than death, then I need to live boldly- not necessarily fearlessly because to be human is to sometimes be afraid, but in a way that does not let fear and death win.
Now if, like me, you are currently on the verge of wallowing in a vast pool of guilt over how little your life in Christ matches your definition of Christ, take heart. Because along with all these other claims we make about Christ, we also claim, we say, that he is the source of all compassion and forgiveness. That he sees our ugly, wounded, divided, breathtakingly beautiful world–our ugly, wounded, divided, breathtakingly beautiful selves– and he forgives us, always giving us another chance to be picked up and go in a different direction, loving us into being whole and holy.
And because while Peter is Peter, in Matthew’s Gospel he is also functions as a stand in for the whole church–Jesus is looking right at us, at St. Peter’s and asking us who we say he is. How we answer shapes who we are. If our claim is simply that we are great fans of his, then what we do is just come here and worship, then go out in the world unchanged, uncharged, unclaimed. But the story this morning tells us Jesus desires much more, expects much more from his church. Just as he took his disciples, the rag tag beginnings of an institution that would shape the world, out into a wild and hostile place to really meet him, so he expects, he calls us to do the same. The Church does not exist so we can feel safe and comfortable, hunkered down behind beautiful walls. In fact, by the middle of this morning’s story Jesus is using battle language–a conflict between his followers and the gates of hell. He is urging us to march right up to those gates and look all those forces both within each of us and without us that oppose God right in the eye–to take them on with unyielding love. So if the gates of hell come at us trying to divide us, to deport our siblings in Christ born in another country, we link arms with them and declare them to be our kin. When these forces, within and without, come with systemic, institutionalized racism and sexism, we are to bring respect for the dignity of every human being. When they try and starve our siblings in Haiti, Eritrea, and North Philadelphia, we, together, are to bring food. When they try to perpetuate poverty and inequality in education, we bring mentors and tutors, we use our power and privilege to agitate for systemic change. When they come with addiction and depression, we are to bring hope and comfort. When they come with isolation and loneliness, we are to bring community and connection. When evil comes with the dark, we are to bring light. When it comes with despair, we are to bring hope. When parts of myself seek to stir up darkness and look for violence, the part of myself rooted in God is to bring light and healing. For those of us who proclaim Jesus to be the Christ, this is our call and the pattern for our lives. Now, as in Jesus’ and Peter’s time, this is a hard call. Now, as then, it often seems like evil and darkness not only have the upper hand but are clearly on their way to winning-to declaring the battle over. But we who know Christ know that the end of the story has already been written and it ends in love-the battle has been won and it has been won by love, by light.
Who do you say that I am? In and through the love of Christ, may we spend the rest of our lives living into the answer.