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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Proper 16A/23

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20


A Question of Identity 

In our Epistle reading this morning and his letter to the Romans, St. Paul exhorts the newly forming Christian community to humility; as though they are many members with differing gifts they are yet one body in Christ. They were, as we are now, one body, one church on a singular journey yet taken with countless individual steps. They were, as we are now, on a journey home. Home, as Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr considers, is another word for the Spirit that we are, our True Self in God.  

To arrive home, to True Self in God, Paul appeals to his listeners with some directions: Do not be conformed to this world [or to the pattern of this world] but be transformed by the renewing [or repatterining or retraining] of your minds [and bodies] so that you may discern what is the will [or way] of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect [or whole and awake]. There is great joy for the mind that is a servant of the Spirit, and this transformative renewal is the how to get home, from pridefulness to humility, from division to unity, from the head to the heart where God and True Self abide as one.

So when Jesus asks the question, who do you say I am? from where do we answer? From the head or the heart? From the false or true self? Jesus would have it that place matters, as he asked this question of his disciples in Caesarea Philippi. Some 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi was a long standing site of pagan worship as well as a center of Roman authority and administration. Caesarea Philippi was both a pagan and political stronghold.  How odd that Jesus would lead his disciples there, and then at the intersection of religion and the power of the Empire ask the all important question. Why did he do that? Identity it would seem has something to do with allegiance and where we place our own. 

Jesus’ disciples have heard the crowds talking, and they tell him what they have been hearing: some say you are John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. To identify Jesus as a prophet is high honor indeed. But then Jesus presses them further: but what about you? who do you say I am? As one might expect, Peter takes the lead, and perhaps even surprising himself, boldly declares: You are the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God. Suddenly, this dusty figure standing before the disciples is no longer simply their leader, rabbi, and teacher, but the long awaited Messiah, the One who Saves. Jesus commends Peter: Bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven . . . let you in on this secret . . . And now I’m going to tell you who you really are. You are Peter, a rock; and the rock upon which I will found my church (The Message trans). 

Peter must have been beaming with pride at this profound turning point and moment of truth. But, take note, this new found awareness is short lived indeed as we will see next Sunday—stay tuned (Matthew 16:21-28). 

Peter has revealed the “messianic secret” but without really understanding its full import and implications. Then, as now, the faithful interpret scripture differently, and there were diverse understandings of “messiah” and how the “anointed one” would act an Israel’s behalf. Still, we get to say who Jesus is; as with Peter, God illumines an eager and faithful heart that we might catch a knowing of the Christ, and a knowing of our True Self in God. 

During our journey home to the Holy One we pass through many identities, as did Jesus; from infant and child to son or daughter, brother or sister, friend; spouse, parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, great grandparent. Jesus of Nazareth was a teacher, preacher and healer and was known as Son of David, Son of Man, Beloved Son of God, Lamb of God.  I am, Jesus tells us, the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John14:6). The Good Shepherd (John 10:11). The Door (John 10:9). The True Vine (John 15:1). The Light of the World (John 8:12). The Bread of Life (John 6:35). Before Abraham was, he says, I am (John 8:58). 

Cappadocian father from the 4th century, St. Gregory of Nyssa made the bold claim: It is the whole of nature, extending from the beginning to the end that constitutes the one image of God of Who Is.

Wow—what is your image of God that reflects your identity and who you are?

My guess is we image God differently at different ages, times, and seasons of our lives; differently today than maybe even a year ago. For me, Jesus has been the One who has come to my rescue, and the One who unexpectedly overturned the apple cart of my life; he is the Incarnated One who’s healing grace has coursed through my flesh, and the Absent One whose presence I seek. Jesus is as intimate as my breath—and the Savior whose power and light is far too vast to behold but for a glimpse. Who Jesus is, and who we are in Christ is ever changing. Our very being is being transformed into God’s image and likeness from glory to glory as we gradually become brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him/her/they. 

At the end of our gospel this morning, Jesus sternly orders the disciples to tell no-one who he is, which doesn’t seem to make sense. Isn’t this good news to proclaim? But therein I think lies great wisdom; for in first bearing the mystery of Christ inwardly, we resist the triumphant clamor of the ego, and the discharge of what by its nature must gestate in the womb of our hearts. 

In pondering Christ’s identity, so also is the heart searching our own identity, for who we really are beyond the trappings of our lives and circumstances. I think we would do well to ask Jesus a question of our own: who you say I am? who am I, really? 

Jesus leaves us today with a rather puzzling statement; that whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. I think this points once again to the significance of place, of where we are, and from where and to where we journey. Everything is connected and relational—God is inter-being—which means so are we. What we do here on earth is not separate from there in heaven; as we pray, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven. And as Jesus tells us, what you do for the least—for the stranger, refugee, hungry and homeless—you do unto me (Matthew 25:44-45).

The great good news is that when at last we are fully home, all is included—nothing is wasted or hated—even the dark parts—and all is forgiven (adapted from Richard Rohr). 

As Jesus assures us: Lo, I am with you always, day by day by day, unto the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).