Peter and Paul, 2010


Acts 12:1-11;    II Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18;    Matthew 16:13-19

There are certain fundamental human questions with which we are never through. We come back to them again and again. We look at them in different lights and differing circumstances.

The question of identity is one of them. Who am I? Where do I fit in the scheme of things? Why am I here? What is my purpose, my mission?

Jesus was no different. The Gospel tells us that he “grew in wisdom and age.” There were certain key moments in this growth. The Baptism was one, where the Father’s voice was heard and the Spirit descended upon him. He went out from there into the desert for forty days and forty nights to try to understand what this new experience meant for his identity and his mission. The Transfiguration was also one, where the Gospel tells us he was seen talking to Moses and Elias about his exodus, his passover, and what that meant for his life. Jesus often went out and spent the night in prayer, wrestling with the call of God in his life. All the way up to the agony in the garden, where he struggled mightily with who he was and what the Father was asking of him.

In the midst of all this, Jesus wants to lead the disciples to reflect not only on who they are, but on who he is as well.

And so we come to today’s Gospel, where he and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi and he asks them: “Who do people say I am?” And then, more pointedly, “Who do you say I am?”

When Peter answers for all of them that Jesus is the Son of the Living God (his identity) and the Messiah (his mission), Jesus gives Peter a new identity. You are Rock. No longer is he Simon, son of Jonah, the Fisherman. He is now the Rock, the Fisher of men and women. As Peter gradually understood this new identity and the mission that came with it, he was strengthened himself and was sent to strengthen his brothers and sisters.

Paul, too, went through such a conversion. And just like Peter (and unlike any of the other apostles) he was given a new name for his new identity. Saul, the Pharisee, became Paul, the Apostle. Saul, the intellectual grounded in both profane and sacred learning, became Paul, the humble servant of the Word.

Jesus is not just concerned with our name and our identity. In both these instances their new names were given to them after they had first answered the question Jesus poses to them about his own identity. Who do you say I am? Note, Jesus does not ask: “Who do you believe I am? Or, “Do you believe in me?” But his question is: “Who do you say I am?” We must speak. We must proclaim. Thousands of Christians have died not because of what they believe (that is an interior conviction), but because of what they say.

Preachers love to take this Gospel passage (and I have done this many times) and challenge their hearers: “Who do you say Jesus is?” And this is right and good. But the Greek can actually be seen as offering two questions. First, “Who do you say I am?” But there is also a second: “For you, who am I?”

There are only two English translations that catch this two question possibility: the NIV and The Message (I checked about ten translations). The Spanish I looked at does not, but a French one does.

Jesus doesn’t just ask “Who am I?” Or, “Who do you think I am?” But, “For you, who am I?” are you willing to change your own identity so that your life is focused not only on who you are, but on who I am for you.  Is your life, my life, lived from a depth of understanding that at bottom our identity is molded by Jesus‘ own?

As Jesus asks you and me these questions today, let us hear, let us listen to how his word changes our word about ourselves and gives us, like Peter and Paul, a new name, a new being, a new mission.