TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST: Matthew 16:13-20
I remember the very first serious leadership role I had. I spent the first nine months terrified people would discover how much of a fraud I was as I felt I did not know what I was doing. I did not know who I was.
Our identity is something that we almost try on for size to see if it fits, particularly when we are younger. We try a range of different identities to find out who we are. It changes over time. This feeling can go into older life, although mostly, I find people settle into who they are and accept themselves as they reach mid-life. It is a hope-filled sign of youthfulness, that one can imagine, as I did, that I could be super mother, super wife, super lover and probably the prime minister of England and still have time to cook tea. All things were possible and no-one would gainsay this. Although even now, I can hear myself commenting, mostly with amazement and surprise, in my quieter moments, that who I am is a priest.
In this story, Jesus asks the initial question: Who do people say that the Son of Man is? And, already knowing the answer they give, Jeremiah or another of the prophets, Elijah or John the Baptist, is generally what people are speculating about, he goes quickly to the real question to the disciples: Who do you say that I am?
Simon Peter gives a very clear and direct answer: You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
On being given that answer, Jesus goes on to redefine Peter identity and to give him another way to think about himself.
Jesus’ question is a question we face every day.
Who do we say Jesus is? In our hearts and minds, and in the words we testify each day and each Sunday, we say what our church and our faith believes.
Nonetheless, our acceptance of Jesus’ identity is one we test, deny, redefine and mold to suit ourselves each and every day of our lives, individually and in community.
And the next question Jesus asks is also critical, as it is in the conversation with Simon Peter: Who does Jesus say we are?
Just like my own sense of identity which has been shaped and defined by others and myself over time; while I started out thinking I was to be everything I could imagine in this world, I met Jesus and my life is changed. Our sense of who we are is completely redefined and reshaped when we meet Jesus.
In the end, people judge me by what I do, what I say, how I think and behave. They recognise who and what I am by how I live, in the past, now and into the future.
Our recognition and joy in accepting Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God is unquenchable, if that is truly our answer, and not simply a custom and practice, made familiar and comfortable over time. Such an answer demands and invites us to live and be in a way that brings our new identity as Christians into view so other people can see the Christ we see and in whom we believe.
As we live in community, Paul reminded us in the reading in Romans that we are many, but we are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. What sort of testimony, or witness do we offer about him through our words, through our deeds, by our lives.
What will our families, our congregations, our neighbours, our communities know about Jesus through us? What sort of Messiah do we have faith in and how does our faith, words and deeds bring him alive for others around us?
Our identity as Christians is shaped by our response to Jesus’ question. Who do you say that I am?
And in the verses that follow on from the reading, Jesus describes a destiny which is leading him to Jerusalem, to accept the confrontation, the horrific violence, betrayal, death and resurrection, rather than glory and power in this world.
Peter rebukes Jesus for making such a choice and pointing to a different option. Jesus rejects Peter’s temptation outright. We too must avoid Peter’s mistake.
Â We must not make easy promises about Christianity being comfortable and socially acceptable as part of our Western culture, a cosy club anyone can join then they have the right pedigree, skin colour, education and money.
We cannot promise that, we cannot offer that; and we must accept we cannot be Christians without paying a price.
We must not say, God forbid the righteous suffer, that saints are killed. Faithful discipleship cannot avoid the walk to Jerusalem and confrontation with the principalities and powers of this world.
Jesus leads us the way we must go, rather than letting us off the hook. He is the Messiah, beloved of God and this makes of us members of his body, adopted children of God. We are not bystanders in the fulfilment of Messianic life, hoping to get some of the benefits without committing to our faith.
This means we do not march down an easy street, but must march down the streets of economic exploitation, actively seeking new means of economic participation, not simply increasing consumption where only a few prosper because they are able to make the system work; while blaming in the poor for their circumstances and washing our hands of them.
We must enter the halls of unjust policies to challenge the view it is alright for some suffer, just as long as it is not us.
We must visit prisoners even those whose actions we despise and fear.
We must dismantle the systems that are unjust.
We must welcome strangers even those we fear, and who are different, through race or religion, including refugees even if it is considered a scandal.
We must become scandalous, as we seek to open the hearts and minds of others through our actions.
Such opening of doors and hearts and new possibilities may involve our suffering, our arrest and even our death.
Such is the way we are following. Or, perhaps I should ask: are you seeing and following a different Christ, one who has been domesticated and tamed to fit your culture and your social, economic expectations and our times?
Have we become complicit in and addicted to the ways of the world such that we can no longer see Jesus as showing a different way of living and dying when he asks us to follow him, and so we no longer hear his message?
The question cannot be avoided. Who do we say Jesus is?
Our answer depends on our faith and our witness. It is as simple and plain as that.
The Lord be with you.