Sunday 24 August 2008

Proper 16(21)A

The question of our own unique identity is always an important one. Although we've all occasionally met someone so sublimely self-confident that it seems impossible that they've ever experienced doubt or uncertainty, most people do seem to have felt the need to ask questions like 'who am I?' and 'where am I going?' at some point in their lives. We ask ourselves and we ask others and, when we have answers, we try them on for size, to see how we like them, and how other people do. We try out certain styles in clothes and makeup, a certain set of friends, maybe certain classes in school or kinds of job. Sometimes they fit and sometimes it's back to the drawing board to try again.

Jesus was no exception -- the story of his baptism and temptations shows us someone making a difficult and unusual choice to proclaim his identity to his family (in the form of his cousin John the Baptist) and to the world. And he received the kind of affirmation for his choice that most people only dream about, affirmation from God his Father. It was in the strength of that affirmation that he entered the wilderness with its temptations and the encounter with Satan able to respond in ways that affirmed his Heavenly Father and his mission in the world in turn. So it seems surprising that in today's reading, Jesus seems to be seeking some sort of human approval or affirmation by asking the apostles, 'Who do people say that I am?'. Or is that what he is doing?

Answering that question requires us to look closely not just at this particular incident that we read about today but at the wider context in which it is set. The key here is, I think, the feeding of the 5,000 -- Matthew, Luke, and John (representing the two great strands of gospel tradition) actually put three events in close proximity to each other: the feeding, the walking on the water, and a challenge from Jesus and its response from the apostles. We've been reading Matthew's version of these events over the past several weeks as our Sunday gospel readings.

What's important enough about the feeding of the 5,000 to make it a key to understanding this encounter at Caesarea Philippi? We know that this has been a difficult period in Jesus' life and ministry: he has been faced with the arrest and death of John the Baptist and increased conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Part of the response to John's death was the feeding, and it in turn aroused the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why? Because, however it was achieved, this miraculous offering of food to the hungry was a messianic act. Many people believed that when the Messiah came, he would offer a banquet, a miraculous bounty such as God had provided in the Wilderness of the Exodus and such as Second Isaiah had spoken of being offered anew. This would be a foretaste of the provision God had promised through the prophets to make for God's people in God's Kingdom.

It is no wonder that in John's account of the feeding, the reaction of the crowd is to want to make Jesus king! However remote the Galilean location may have been from the centres of religious and political power in Judaea, Jesus may as well have put up an illuminated sign saying, "Messiah appearing here!". When he comes to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has reached a turning point in his journey of teaching and healing. By this miraculous act, itself inspired as the evangelists tell us by love and compassion for the people, he has offered a sign demonstrating who and what he is. Some who understood it were hostile or demanded more proof. He needs and wants to tell the disciples what is on the horizon for him and for them, the suffering, betrayal, and death of the Son of Man, but there are things that he needs to know first. He wants a sense of how widely understood his sign was and he wants to know if the apostles themselves have understood it.

And so our text for today begins with two questions. First Jesus asks what people are saying about the Son of Man, a mysterious and messianic title based on Daniel's vision of the end times and often applied by Jesus to himself. He is trying to find out what the general reaction is, not that of the Pharisees and Sadducees (which he already knew was not good). The apostles tell him that popular opinion has fallen short: all the answers they relate identify Jesus with past prophets, whether from the recent past like John the Baptist or the more distant past like Elijah or Jeremiah. The apostles may have been expecting Jesus to talk about ways and means then, where they would go from the city of Caesarea Philippi, in fairly remote Upper Galilee, north of the Sea of Galilee and of Judaea. Instead comes another, and much harder question -- "But who do you say that I am?"

You notice it never says how long it was before Simon answered! Did they look at one another hoping for someone else to go first? Did they all look to Simon as the leader? Was it a long pause? Or did Simon jump in impetuously with both feet as he did so often? I don't think it was a long pause -- my guess is that Simon answered right away -- it's his style. In any case, when the answer came, Simon spoke for them all and he gave a spectacularly right answer -- "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

Jesus' response shows clearly that the purpose of his questions was not a search for affirmation of his own identity -- instead he blesses Simon, praises him for receiving the Father's inspiration, and gives him a new name. Henceforth Simon will be called Rock, Petros, which we turn into the English name Peter. And Simon the Rock, as leader of the apostles, will become the foundation of the new assembly of God's people, the church. So Peter's answer to Jesus' question does not so much affirm Jesus' identity as it creates Peter's.

From now on, Peter is called to a new identity -- to be a leader, a foundation, in short, a rock. He doesn't do a very good job at it at first. Not only does the very next turn in the conversation at Caesarea Philippi lead to a stinging rebuke from Jesus to Peter, but still to come is Peter's denial on the night of Jesus' arrest and trial. He didn't come across as much of a rock then. But he grew into the new identity that Jesus called him to that day.

But the question Jesus asks is addressed to all the apostles, not just to Peter, though they all seem content to let Peter answer for them and to be in agreement with his answer. And so the authority to bind and to loose (technical terms for the rabbinic authority to allow or disallow certain actions under the law), here apparently granted to Peter only in recognition of his faith, is bestowed explicitly on all the apostles only a few chapters later. But they too have a rough time growing into the identities to which Jesus was calling them and, as we know, one of them did not make it past the first check. The scope of Judas' betrayal is far more serious than Peter's denial, but it's his failure to repent and keep striving to become the person Jesus was calling him to be that set him apart from Peter and the other Eleven.

Jesus' question is addressed to us too. We would not be here in church if we had not chosen to consider that question, "Who do you say that I am?" There would be no point. But as we've seen in the case of the apostles, it's not an easy one to answer. In fact, answering it is more a process than a single, once-for-all reply. We may answer as positively as Peter did and then find ourselves entangled the same mistakes and same denials that he did. And how do we discern the identity to which we are being called? Peter after all gets a lot more explicit directions than most people and he has difficulties!

Well, Paul talks about this question of being called into an identity in our epistle reading from Romans -- he has just concluded a long theological reflection about our absolute human need, whether we are Jew or Gentile, for God's saving work in Jesus, and now he is turning to the practical implications of that salvation for our behaviour toward one another in community. In the passage we just heard Paul with characteristic bluntness cautions his readers in Rome, "not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God assigned". What is he talking about? The following verses with their picture of being members of a body in which each part has its own unique role to play shows that he is talking about discerning and using our gifts, not for ourselves but for the good of the body we belong to. That body is the church, the same church for whose good Peter, already the leader of the apostles, was called to be a foundation.

To grow into the new identity to which we, like Peter and all the apostles, are being called by Jesus, involves looking hard at the gifts God has given us according to God's grace, discovering honestly what they are, and then being guided by them into our role. The identity we find by discerning God's grace in our lives is defined not by our idea of ourselves or our vision of our future, nor by our relationships with other people, but by our relationship with God. We will know that we are beginning to live it out by the authenticity that it brings to our lives, because the identity to which Jesus called Peter, and calls us now, is our authentic, our true self. To enter into it, we must be grounded in grace and the faith that made Peter able to become a foundation stone, the faith that made him receive the Father's revelation that Jesus speaks of. That faith enables us to know who Jesus is, and when we know who Jesus is, we will know who by grace he calls us to be.