This morning’s Gospel does not make much sense separated from last Sunday’s Gospel, so I am going to begin by reminding you of how this story begins.
Jesus and the disciples have been wandering in Galilee and they come to its northernmost point, the slopes of Mt. Hermon. Specifically, they are on the road to Caesarea Philippi.
The site of Caesarea Phillipi was an ancient site for the worship of Baal and later the Greek God Pan. Augustus Caesar gave the city to King Herod, who built there a temple to Augustus. Herod, in turn, gave it to his son Phillip. At that time the city was called Panion. Phillip rebuilt the city and re-named it for his two favorite people: Caesar and himself. It became the seat of Phillip’s governance of that region, left to him on the death of his father.
Jesus and the disciples are walking into this politically-loaded Gentile city, a place where the rule of Rome and its puppet kings was on display for all to see and experience.
With this setting in mind, Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him. Who do people say that I am? They give him a variety of answers, but then you can almost sense him stop walking, turning to them, and asking. “Who do you say that I am?
Again, you can almost see the disciples shuffling their feet, looking furtively at one another. Who’s going to say something? It is Simon, who has the nickname “Peter,” from the Greek word for “rock.” Rocky steps forward and says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Jesus bestows a blessing on Peter and tells everyone that on this “rock” (pun intended) his followers will organize themselves, and he gives Peter, if you will, “the keys of the kingdom.”
Strangely enough, Jesus also instructs them not to tell people about this Messiah thing. Why is that?
For the children of Israel, “Messiah” meant “anointed one” (in Greek, the same word is “Christ”). It was a prophetic and a royal title. Only prophets and kings were anointed in ancient Israel. In addition, “Son of God” was Caesar Augustus’ favorite name for himself. They were headed into a city where there was a temple to that son of god.
The question, “Who do you say that I am?” was a loaded one. The answer put Jesus on a collision course with the power of the state. His disciples, and Christians for all time, were going to have to be clear about just who was the primary authority in their life.
Jesus then starts the process of re-working the Messiah image for the disciples. As Messiah, Jesus was not going to be the conquering hero, restoring Israel to its former, independent, glory. Quite the opposite, he was going to be the Messiah who suffered and died.
Peter is beside himself. “No,” he says, “God forbid it. That is not going to happen to you.” And in an instant Peter goes from rock star to an instrument of Satan. Jesus’ declaration should remind us of the temptation story, where Satan tempts Jesus with, among other things, political power, the kind that was many people’s expectation of what the Messiah would do. Jesus had said an emphatic no then, and he says and emphatic no now.
Furthermore, he says that this way of changing the world—that appears positively insane to his followers—will be how his followers live and face the world around them. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
What we usually do with this story is individualize it. It is up to each one of us, as followers of Jesus, to be able to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do say that I am?”
That’s all well and good. But what if the question is also a communal one. What if it is a question that the church must answer, and not just about Jesus, but about ourselves? Who do we say that we are?
St. Paul taught us to answer the question, “We are the body of Christ.” Jesus taught about the “kingdom of God,” suggesting that was our true citizenship.
Who do we say that we are?
There are many ways to go in tackling that question, but let me suggest just one by reading the Collect for Labor Day,
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives; So guide us in the work we do, that we do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord… (BCP. P. 261)
Who do we say that we are?
We are people always committed to the common good, cognizant that our lives are linked to all other lives. This is as old as the tales of Genesis, which taught us that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We cannot subscribe to any movement that puts some people “first” above anybody. To do so denies our very identity.
Just an example. I encourage you to wrestle not only with the question of who Jesus is for you, but what the church is for you, and how we are the church in the world.