The text for today’s sermon (delivered for those taking vows on the Feast of St. Dominic) can be found here.
You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
In the name of the Living God, who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us.
It may be the most important question in all of Scripture: “But who do you say that I am?” It’s a question that’s particularly potent for our brothers, Todd, Lee, Mike and Steve, but it’s one we must all face, and face regularly. It encompasses several other questions: “Why are you here?” “What are you doing?” “What do I mean to you?” At the same time the question inquires into Jesus’ identity, it implicitly wonders about our own sense of self, our coherence, our particularity.
Matthew is profoundly concerned with the issue of identity. He tells us that right from the outset. Remember, his gospel begins with a lengthy, complex, structured genealogy. In part, that’s Matthew’s answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” For Matthew, the question doesn’t simply call for some inner exploration, nor even who we spend our time with, but calls us to examine all those who have gone before us.
It’s a question I have to ask, sometimes several times a day, because my answer is often different. In a way, the question is a bit like a kaleidoscope….turn it just a bit, and you see something completely new. And perhaps that’s what’s happening with our brothers here this evening, a bit of a turn, and something very new emerges.
At the outset in today’s Gospel, Jesus invites the disciples to engage in a sort of shift in perspectives. At first, he asks them who the people say the Son of Man is. And the answer is kind of predictable, although kind of telling: ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Each of these candidates for Jesus’ identity have a few things in common. Each of them was a prophet, each spoke as the voice of God and demonstrated the power of God. So, that’s the predictable part.
The telling part in that answer is that it reveals what the people, and perhaps we, expect of God. What they expected of God, what they expected of Jesus, was more of the same. They expected that Jesus was simply one more member of the Dead Prophets Society. And in so doing, they underestimated both Jesus and God—because God was doing something completely new.
So then Jesus asks the follow up question: who do you say that I am? This time, no one speaks up but Peter, Petros in the original Greek. It’s funny you know: how many of us can give the Church’s answer, or the answer we’ve heard about Jesus. But are we prepared to give an individual accounting for our understanding of Jesus?
In part, we can look at this story through the lens of the importance of names. This pericope offers us several to examine: Son of Man, John the Baptist, Elijah, the prophets, Simon, Peter, Messiah, rock, church, Lord. These words all have layers of meaning: theological meaning, the meaning we learned in catechism, just more churchy talk, the meanings implicit in the Hebrew Bible, filtered through a new understanding and the Greek language. Turn the kaleidoscope just a little, and you see something completely different. And the crux of this lesson lies in our reaching an understanding: what does this all mean to me? How does this play out in my life?
Peter faced that moment in this passage we usually refer to as “Peter’s confession.” For Peter, that answer was: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Now, at the time Peter spoke these words, Messiah or Mashiach, didn’t necessary connote divinity. It encompassed several meanings: a religious and a political doyen, a great judge and military leader, and a good, observant Jew. So, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, the anointed, the Christos, that name is laden with meaning and the hopes of political independence.
In both Mark and Matthew’s gospels, this story takes place in Caesarea Philippi; that’s not an accident. The story takes place in the shadow, and against the backdrop, of the city that Caesar built. Thus, Jesus’ identity will arise in the context of God’s relationship with the occupied land of Israel and the regnant empire. But Jesus will turn that kaleidoscope as well….
And there were all sorts of ideas suggested as far as when the Messiah might come: if Israel observed a single Sabbath properly; if a single person could keep all the law for a single day; if a generation were completely innocent; or if an entire generation lost hope. Perhaps the great mistake in all these theories lay in assumption that the Messiah’s arrival depended on human action rather than the impulse of divine love.
On the other hand, to call Jesus the Son of God, well, that’s something else. That’s an entirely different layer of meaning, inescapably implicating the divine, inescapably pointing toward the incarnation.
Brother Todd, Brother Lee, Brother Mike, and Brother Steve, you are all called to answer that question: “But who do you say that I am?” And, as Dominicans, we are all called not only to answer it for ourselves, but to walk with others as they struggle to answer it—from the pulpit, in the classroom, in our pastoral work, in a soup kitchen. Who do you say that Jesus is?
When Jesus asks the question, not surprisingly, Peter is the only one who speaks up. And Jesus offers a remarkable analysis of Peter’s answer: He says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” In other words, Jesus recognizes the divine voice speaking through Peter, recognizes that God is at work in Peter’s life. Now, Peter would screw up again. And again. And again, like most of us. In fact, Peter would go awry in the very next paragraph. And it takes a profound love to recognize that somewhere in that mess, there’s some God stuff, too.
In a movement that has echoed throughout the monastic tradition, Jesus then gives Simon a new name. He calls him Peter; Kephas in the Aramaic, or Petros in the Greek. And here comes the play on words. He tells him, “Upon this rock (petras in the Greek) I will build this church.
So, we might wonder, exactly which rock is that? Some have suggested it was the person of Peter himself. But we should at least consider the possibility that the rock upon which the church would be built was actually Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Perhaps the rock upon which the church stands is our own answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” In our lifelong struggle with that question, as we turn the kaleidoscope over and over, we not only understand Jesus anew, we come to understand ourselves differently. Like Peter, we find a new identity in Christ. And so, the question remains crucially important; in fact, it’s definitive. Who do we say Jesus is?
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019