Thinking Anew – ‘Who do you say that I am?’

Jesus and his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. Illustration by William Hole (1846-1917).  Getty Images

Jesus and his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. Illustration by William Hole (1846-1917). Getty Images

 

Whenever the Golan Heights are mentioned, many think of that disputed territory on the Israeli/Syrian Border where Irish soldiers have served with distinction on UN missions for many years. In doing so they have given this nation a sense of pride in their work for peace. Tomorrow’s gospel reading takes us there, to an archaeological site known as Banias where, in the time of Jesus, the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi stood. Scholars believe it might have been the town of Baal-Gad mentioned in the Old Testament. Just before the time of Jesus, Herod the Great, King of the Jews, built a temple there, dedicated to the godhead of Caesar, a gesture to his political masters in return for favours. The city also hosted a diversity of other cults and divinities. That is significant for our understanding of the exchanges that took place there between Jesus and his disciples when he asked them where their loyalties lay: “And you – who do you say that I am?” One wonders what the reaction was: a stunned silence perhaps, a looking away, anywhere but at the one who asked the question? Was it an uncomfortable moment for them as it might well be for any of us? Peter breaks the silence: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” – a response that has had huge implications for the way the church is organised and led to this day. Peter speaks up but what did the other disciples think?

Two points worth noting. The words attributed to Peter are hugely important theologically, but Peter was limited in his understanding of them because of who he was: a man living in a patriarchal society, steeped in Jewish tradition and shaped by his cultural environment. To him the gospel was a Jewish “thing” intended for that community. We see that in his halfhearted acceptance of St Paul’s mission to the Gentile world. The two men had an argument about it, as Paul records in his letter to the Galatians: “When Peter came to Antioch, I told him face to face that he was wrong.” Paul would insist that the Jesus first seen as the Jewish Messiah was the cosmic Christ with universal significance. The pages of the New Testament and church history show that our understanding of who Jesus Christ is must always retain the capacity to expand as we seek to apply his teaching in an ever-changing world. This leads to the second point.

It has been suggested that Peter’s declaration seemingly made on behalf of all the disciples in effect silences them. What might they have said given the opportunity? They would likely have had a range of opinions about who Jesus was/is just like people today both within and without the church. We must not be afraid to live with questions about the One we know as Jesus Christ who is so rich in mystery and meaning that he is beyond words. Deep-freeze theology leaves little room for the activity of the Holy Spirit, given to lead us into all truth because we haven’t got it yet.

When we focus instead on Jesus’ question rather than Peter’s answer, the dialogue becomes much more open and challenging. Instead of affirming Peter’s authority, which churches understandably do, the question invites each one of us – regardless of religious denomination, ethnicity, gender, or class – to reflect on the relationship between Jesus and ourselves because personal circumstances and experiences matter.

So, who is this Jesus? Archbishop Desmond Tutu suggests that he is certainly not someone to be afraid of, whoever we are: “He said he had come to find those who were lost. He even said, quite unbelievably that these prostitutes, these sinners, would precede the religious teachers and leaders into heaven. Jesus revolutionised religion by showing that God was really a disreputable God, a God on the side of the social pariahs. He shows us God as one who accepted us sinners unconditionally.”

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