Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
First Reading Isaiah 51:1-6
The prophet reassures Israel by recalling their origins in God’s blessing of Abraham, their ancestor. With their faith based on this rock, they can look forward to a future where Jerusalem will be restored and all nations will know the glory of God.
Second Reading Romans 12:1-8
Paul reminds us that in Christ we form one body. We all have different gifts, but we should not be tempted to assume one gift is more important than another. The vital thing is to use our gifts to the best of our ability.
Gospel Matthew 16:13-20
Simon, by God’s grace, recognizes Jesus to be the Christ. Jesus says that henceforth Simon is to be Peter, the rock, the foundation stone of the Church.
HOMILY “And I tell you, you are Peter…” (Matthew 16:18)
Who do you think you are? Identity has become a complex component of modern life. It is possible to have several identities, without even knowing it! Pin numbers and passwords all give us access to all sorts of things and places; to get into a room, to open an email, to post a message on social media, even see the Doctor! You must confirm your identity – the bank says before you can proceed with the call! It can feel like others are trying to define who we are… we are given our National Insurance Number, our medical history is held by someone else, our address is published, our telephone number is on-line and in a book – then there is our marital status, even our fingerprints… even our iris can be used to identify who we are at an airport.
Yet with these additional forms of identity comes the fear of having our identity stolen. When this happens, and sadly it does, a crook can take over our lives and become us! Rightly we have to guard our identity zealously behind passwords and PINs. But did you know that every time we touch something we leave a few cells behind – as these contain our DNA we leave more than a fingerprint, we leave a unique identifier.
In times gone by identity was so much simpler. Our family name was our identifier - being someone’s son or daughter. In our Lord’s day it was just so, hence he is known as “Jesus, son of Mary”. If an identity needed further clarification, a father’s trade would narrow it down – “the carpenter’s son”. And since there wasn’t much mobility, you could for ever be identified with your home town – “of Nazareth”. So I would be ‘Damian, Son of Julie’… the Water Works Manager’s son, from St Leonards. Ok, not so interesting…
Jesus may have lived in simple times, yet he possessed a complex web of identities. With his ultimate destiny revealed and Jerusalem getting ever nearer, our Lord knew that his identity was going to become even more crucial and yet controversial. Even though many people knew he was a carpenter’s boy from Nazareth, they couldn’t stop talking about him. He was the subject of much gossip; people theologised, not least the Pharisees, and political speculation amongst the rulers abounded. “Who is he?” they asked. Perhaps we still ask the same question today… “Who is Jesus?”
It was important to our Lord that his disciples were prepared for his coming arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection. They needed to know that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah, God’s Son. So he opens up discussion around his identity and he asks them what the crowds are saying. The disciples list a few popular theories – John the Baptist, Elijah or some other prophet. The people are in awe of Jesus; he is unique in their experience, a wonderful individual. But that is not enough. So Jesus confronts his disciples face to face. What about YOU? Who do YOU say I am? This is a turning point for the disciples. Until now, it’s been enough for them to be following Jesus in his many practical identities – healer, teacher, fulfilment of the Old Testament Law – but now this man is challenging them to say what is burning within their very hearts. The truth! To follow Jesus from now on will require knowledge of his destiny - his spiritual DNA – his part in the Trinity of Unity. Admiration for his teachings, amazement at his miracles isn’t going to cut it when faced with all that will be revealed before them in Jerusalem.
And what is the disciples’ response? What do they come up with, via their spokesman Simon, one of those called to leave their nets and follow him? Well, the truth that has burned within Simon’s heart is revealed and spoken out loud – and he gets it right – “You are the Christ!” And then we witness the shocking consequence of faith, especially shocking for us today who so cherish and guard our identities. For Jesus promptly gives Simon a new identity: he is to be named Peter, meaning “rock”. This is the truth that has frightened seekers and excited converts for centuries since that day; as soon as we recognise Jesus’ true identity; he gives us a new one. As St Paul tells the Romans, we must, as it were, discard our old identities. This requires an amount of sacrifice, and we must no longer conform to the patterns of this world, which is very hard indeed. You could say our Christian Faith calls us to challenge and change!
I admit to loving the BBC programme, ‘Who do you think you are?’ where celebrities explore their family tree and discover, in the case of some, links to royalty or uncomfortable controversies! Celebrities exploring their origins and sometimes noticing the traits or experience of their forbears being repeated in the now. Jesus was quite a celebrity in his own day – with people flocking to see him, to experience his healing presence, to be fed by him spiritually and physically. They no doubt discussed the ‘theological implications’ of his identity. Even today we do the same and there is probably a new book published every week somewhere in the world exploring who Jesus was and still is. So in the spirit of “who do you think you are” we may well ask similar questions of Jesus today ourselves. But we must be careful that we don’t change the question to suit us, reducing him to a religious puppet or worse some historical figure from way back. Because the truth about our Lord’s identity is that he is God’s challenge to us! Like the disciples, Jesus asks us, ‘who do you say that I am?’ Not ‘who do you want me to be, for you?’ There is quite a difference.
Friends in faith, identity matters and who we really are is very important. The same is true for Jesus. Today’s Gospel presents us with a challenge! Jesus asks each one of us a very simple and yet earth shatteringly important question. And the answer is all about our faith. He asks, “Who do you say I am?” Can you answer with Simon, “You are the Christ!”?
1. Today, identity is a complex and controversial issue.
2. In Jesus’ day, a person’s identity was more simply defined.
3. But Jesus had a many-faceted identity.
4. Simon became Peter when he recognized Jesus’ true identity as the Christ.
5. When we know Jesus as Christ, we take on a new identity.