8/21/11, Who Do You Say That I Am?

Twenty-first week in Ordinary Time
ISIAH 22:19-23,  ROMANS 11:33-36,  MATTHEW 16:13-20

The following joke was found on the Internet. (The four men named in the first paragraph are all theological “heavy hitters” — sort of the theologian-equivalents of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie. James Cone is an African American.)

Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and James Cone find themselves all at the same time at Caesarea Philippi. Who should come along but Jesus, and he asks the four famous theologians the same Christological question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Karl Barth stands up and says: “You are the totaliter aliter, the vestigious trinitatum who speaks to us in the modality of Christo-monism.”

Not prepared for Barth's brevity, Paul Tillich stumbles out: “You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the ground of all possibilities.”

Reinhold Niebuhr gives a cough for effect and says, in one breath: “You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming oughtness in the midst of our fraught condition of estrangement and brokenness in the contiguity and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships.”

Finally James Cone gets up, and raises his voice: “You are my Oppressed One, my soul's shalom, the One who was, who is, and who shall be, who has never left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed struggling for freedom, and whose blackness is both literal and symbolic.”

And Jesus writes in the sand, “Huh?”

The question of Jesus’ identity has been with us ever since he spent that brief 33 years on earth.  If you had the opportunity to look at the list that I sent along by e-mail, you would have noticed that Scripture gives many names to this one man in an effort to describe who he is.  And then there has been the long history of theological pondering, resulting in statements like those I just read, to which even Jesus might have said, “Huh?”


The gospel passage that we read today is found in all three synoptic gospels.  This makes it apparent that at the very beginning of Christendom, when the gospel writers were making choices about which Jesus stories to include as they wrote the gospels with different communities in mind, the question Jesus posed was considered a crucial question for all followers of Christ. Who was Jesus for the people who walked with him in 30 AD?  Who is Jesus for us today?  Who do you say that I am?

 As I reflected on today’s scripture, I wondered what Jesus was really getting at when he had this conversation with his disciples.  Notice that he is careful to introduce this penetrating and personal question in a non-threatening way by first asking who others think he is.  The answers are easy for the disciples, because they come from head knowledge. The disciples report that they have heard that some think Jesus is John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or the return of some other significant prophet.  But then Jesus begins to dig deeper, probing into the hearts of his disciples with the question, “But who do YOU say that I am?” 

Peter, who we have come to know as the impetuous, opinionated, passionate disciple who denies his master even though he deeply loves him, is the one whose answer is recorded in all three synoptics as foundational gospel truth (good news).  “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

But only in the Gospel of Matthew does Jesus respond to Peter’s declaration with the rather startling statement, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”  This verse, along with John 2:15-17 (“Feed my sheep.”) and Luke 22:32 (“Strengthen your brothers.”) has been used to promote the Catholic tradition that in this statement, Jesus is designating Peter as the father of the church, the first pope.  This doctrine is one of the few that continues to separate other Christian denominations from the Catholic communion.  While we do not need to deny that the office of the papacy has value as a concrete expression of unity and a center of communication for churches worldwide, it is time for us to admit that this one line of scripture has perhaps been used to proof-text a historical and cultural position of power in the Catholic Church that may not be as divinely instituted as we claim.  A more helpful thing would be to look at this scripture in the light of Jesus’ full response to Peter’s declaration. 

Peter says, “You are the Christ.”  Jesus affirms Peter’s answer.  And who is Peter?  Peter is the one who has voiced the core truth about Jesus: his Christ identity.  After his death and resurrection, Jesus-the-man will be for the world Jesus- the-Christ, the cornerstone of the Church.  Peter (petra, a shelf of rocks) will represent the foundation of apostles and early believers upon which the Church will rise.  The apostle Paul understood this vision of how the Christ identity would expand to include all believers. This vision was passed on in the teaching offered to the community of Christians at Ephesus:

“You are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Eph. 2:19-22.”

Today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew challenges us to open our eyes a bit wider, to see that Jesus invites us to make an all-important connection between his identity as The Christ and the fact that all of us participate in this Christ identity as members of the universal church.  The Church is built on the faith it holds in Christ’s identity as God who is ever-present with us, alive in us, revealed in us.   We are 21st century living stones in this community of Christ’s eternal being.  Therefore, the question for each of us today becomes not just who do I say Jesus is/was, but who is the Christ living in me today? Who do you say that I am (in you)?

Recently I have been engaging with some work of a man named Bill Plotkin as he teams up with Fr. Richard Rohr on the subject of Nature and Soul.  Bill’s proposition is that each of us has an inherent, God-given soul identity.  It is the task of a mature adult to discover that identity and offer it to the world. He describes how, through a profound encounter with nature, he discovered his identity as “cocoonweaver.”  Over the years and through an accumulation of experiences, I have found my name:bridgebuilder.”

We could also say this using the metaphorical words we’ve mentioned today.  What’s the shape and function you hold as a rock being built into the Church?   How is the Christ being named in you so that the world gets the message about who Christ is? Although we all want to grow into full expression of the fruit of the Spirit, perhaps your very particular name is Compassion, or Love or Service, or Wisdom, or Beauty, or Stability, or Light or Truth or Peace.  Perhaps it is Advocate, or Hope, or Prophet, or Teacher. 

Who do you say that I am?  It’s a question for each of us personally, as well as a question for us as the Lumen Christi gathered community.  What’s the name of your soul?  What’s the soul of Lumen Christi? Who is the Christ we are showing to the world? 

Homily by Sandi DeMaster 8/21/11