13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah
There are many great benefits of how the internet has improved our access to all kinds of information and services. I can’t now recall how I managed without Google and Wikipedia to find out or check on facts etc. Yesterday evening I even managed to order my foreign currency for a forthcoming holiday on line. However there is a serious drawback or there is for me. We constantly have to create and recreate new usernames and password for almost everything we do. The threat of identity fraud looms large, so online safety encourages us to have different passwords for each separate account. In that way it is hoped our identity is kept secure. I certainly have so many that I cannot remember them all and have to write them down in a note book – not recommended I know. With everything from shopping to banking, from energy bills to holiday bookings all now possible through websites and emails, many of us have multiple internet identities.
Reading through the gospels we see that Jesus appears to have many different identities. In a sense, we could say he is a different person to the different people he meets, especially those who only encounter him in one-off situations. To some, Jesus is an insightful teacher, a compelling preacher or an intriguing storyteller. To other, he is a gentle heater, a compassionate pardoner or a magnetic leader. It is interesting to ask people who are seeking to learn more about Jesus what image best captures, for them, who he is. I wonder what image, what picture of painting, expresses for you, the person of Jesus?
For the disciples, the ‘getting to know you’ process with Jesus was a gradual one. It grew step by step. Jesus’ identity became clearer as they spent more time with him, even if, sometimes, they took one step forward and quite a few back. From the first time he met Jesus on the Galilee seashore, Simon Peter knew there was something special about him. Jesus’ invitation to follow was irresistible and Peter’s desire, though hesitant was whole hearted.
Of course, we know that despite everything Peter experienced and witnessed, he went on to betray Jesus, denying him three times. It would take another seaside meeting with breakfast on the beach, to restore Peter to a loving friendship with Jesus. There he accepted the commission to feed Jesus’ lambs, to look after Jesus’ sheep and to follow wherever the belt of discipleship might lead. When Jesus asked Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ it was really a means for Peter to answer his own unspoken question: ‘Jesus, Son of God, do you love me?’ Peter’s faith was shaky. He lunged from absolute conviction to doubting betrayal. But his true identity was that he was loved and forgiven by Jesus.
Today Matthew shows Peter full of faith, overflowing with the truth about Jesus’ identity and an apparent willingness to stand up and shout it from the rooftops. Well that is one interpretation of his words but equally he might be someone who cannot stand a silence so blurts out whatever comes into his mind. I think I can picture the disciples with Jesus. They had been happy to repeat what others had been saying about Jesus but now Jesus is challenging them – ‘who do you say I am? I can imagine them not wanting to look at Jesus, possibly staring down at their feet. There is an embarrassed silence which Simon Peter just has to fill.
Whatever Peter’s motivation, there had been endless rumours about Jesus, not least because he proclaimed the kingdom and accompanied it with miracles. This meant there were questions on everyone’s lips. Who is this man who forgives and heals, who does things only possible for God. Jesus has taken the disciples away from all this speculation. They are in the region of Caesarea Philippi which is in the far north of Israel. It is well outside the territory of Herod Antipas who saw Jesus a a threat to his power. It is a good two day’s walk from the Sea of Galilee which is where most of Jesus’ preaching and healing had occurred. Here they can talk freely and just between themselves. Jesus knows that he is running out of time and needs to know that his disciples have learned enough to carry on his mission once he is no longer with them.
Probably after discussion and anecdotes, the disciples begin to answer Jesus’ question about who people say he is. Some say John the Baptist come back from the dead, others say Elijah who is expected to return before the Messiah comes, some say Jeremiah or another prophet. But that was not the most important question. It was just a preliminary for the main enquiry. What about you, asks Jesus. You know me, you have lived with me, you have heard me speak and seen what I do. Who do you say I am? It is at this point that I can imagine the sheepish silence and the looking at the ground.
It is impulsive Peter who fills the silence. ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. Maybe until he blurted out this words Peter had not realised this himself. Maybe there was a cheer, or at least a mutter of agreement, from the other disciples, not because they had not had to answer the question out loud, but because Peter’s answer was what they too felt in their hearts but lacked the courage to say. The truth about Jesus is revealed by God the Father, but takes an act of faith, an act of trust to activate such a gift and allow its blessing to flow. It was Peter’s faith-filled declaration which led Jesus to establish him as the Church’s bedrock.
Peter’s faith, brought to life by encountering the Son of the living God, is an encouragement for every one of us. Not withstanding Peter’s imperfections and inconsistences, it was his faith which secured his leadership among the first Christians. If Jesus can love Peter who, like us, is so fallible then Jesus loves us equally.
Our faith and identity are bound up with Peter’s. We meet the risen Lord through prayer, worship and service. Our response maybe is sometimes lack lustre. Our commitment can be intermittent and fragmentary. But the desire of our heart, is to name Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter testifies to the power of faith which overcomes weaknesses and denial.
At the end of this passage we hear Jesus forbid the disciples to tell others he was the Christ. Most commentators think this was because Jesus knew that the Roman and Temple authorities would kill him if they knew people were recognising his as the Messiah and the time was not yet right. There is another way of looking at Jesus’ command. Maybe Jesus meant that each person has to work out for themselves the place Jesus will have in their lives – as the Messiah or not.
Today we are encouraged to tell other people about Jesus. Something many Christians find hard to do. There are of course many ways to spread the good news of Jesus. It might be through words if that is God’s gift to us or it might be in the way we live, in the service we give or in the generosity of our giving. However we express it, the truth is that our identity, our username is disciple and our password to heaven is faith.