Homily for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
In our Gospel today Jesus asks his disciples two important questions, and it becomes a major turning point is his mission with them. “Who do other people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” Of course, the second question is the really important one, while the first question helps prepare for it. This second question has continued to reverberate throughout the centuries, and countless lives and cultures have been shaped depending upon how this question has been answered. In a very real sense, it’s the only question that really matters—both in our lives, and in the history of the world—and it’s probably the most important question we’ll ever answer. “Who do you say that Jesus is?”
So let’s look into these two questions a bit deeper, looking at their context and what our answers to them mean for our lives.
Firstly, the context. Jesus is with his disciples. He’s been with them for a while now, during which time he’s been patiently building a relationship with them, courting them as it were. However, time is starting to run short. It is not long before Jesus will head south to Jerusalem to suffer his Passion. But before he does, he has to make sure that his disciples are ready. So he takes them off to Caesarea Philippi, which is a city a little to the north of Galilee, a bit out of their own territory. By so doing, you could say that Jesus is taking them somewhat outside their comfort zone – which is very appropriate considering what he has in mind.
So there they are, and Jesus begins by asking them a warm-up question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples must have been so delighted by this – it’s finally a question they know how to answer! They’ve been completely baffled by him this whole time; he’s always having to explain the meaning of things he’s said – so now they finally get something they know. It’s a confidence-builder! So they answer, “Well, they say that you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Not bad. They must be feeling pretty good – they finally got one right!
But let’s step back for a minute. Why would Jesus ask this question? I mean, was he trying to turn his disciples into a little focus group to see how his ministry was doing? Was he taking a poll? Did he even care what people were saying? Wouldn’t he have already known? It’s really worth thinking about – why would Jesus ask them this question?
I think a likely answer is that, before he can ask them the BIG question, he has to disabuse them of all the stuff that’s floating about in the Spirit of the Age. And a good way of disabusing someone of a particular way of thinking is to ask them to name it. After all, many of the disciples probably had some of these very ideas about who Jesus is in their own head. So he gets them to name it.
It would be like if you went to a university campus, and asked the students to list the five most powerful fashionable ideologies at work in our culture. The act of writing them down would help disabuse the students of those very ideologies – because chances are they would have been inside at least two or three of them themselves. But the very act of naming them—“This is what the world would say”—gives you a certain distance from them. It’s basically the psychological equivalent of going to Caesarea Philippi. By naming them, you separate yourself from them – you’re now outside the Spirit of the Age. And then, you’re ready for the big question.
The big question is: “Who do YOU say that I am?”
Simon Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
BINGO. Put a fork in him, he’s done. He’s ready.
Now, even Peter didn’t fully get it, because he still had an idea of the Messiah partly based upon the Spirit of the Age, and Jesus had to rebuke him right after this passage we heard today. But Peter did get the most important thing, and that is that Christ is in a category of one. That’s absolutely essential. Christ is in a category of one.
You see, even today, many people try to turn Jesus into just another wise man – someone who came to bring a new morality, or a plan to improve the world. They think of Jesus as simply a teacher of religion, and they think that all religions are essentially the same. Well, Peter’s revelation cuts through all that. Jesus isn’t on some pantheon with all the other religious gurus over the years. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God – he’s in a category of one.
So what does all this mean for our lives? Peter’s confession was a real confession. He wasn’t just offering his opinion. There’s a difference between having an opinion and confessing one’s faith. To make a confession of faith is to have your life change, whereas to offer an opinion is of no lasting consequence. So for instance, if I happen to say “Jesus is Lord” at some dinner party, I might simply be offering an opinion. But if someone says “Jesus is Lord” on the streets of northern Iraq tomorrow, they’re making a confession. The former costs me nothing, whereas the latter is weighty and consequential. And it’s not just consequential externally, but also in terms of who I am. To confess our faith makes us a disciple – it means we are now different than before.
When Simon Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, something essential about him changed. Perhaps that’s why he needed a new name! The old one didn’t work anymore. “Simon the fisherman” was following along, checking this Jesus guy out. “Peter” was fully committed—a disciple of the Son of God—and he would never be the same again. There’s a fundamental reorientation in his life.
This is perhaps the same reason why we take on a new name at our Confirmation. We’re now a new person – committed for the long haul. But we can’t just say it – we have to believe it in our bones. If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, it fundamentally changes our life. It rearranges all of our priorities, placing God front and centre. It affects our family, our job, our politics, how we relate to people, how we use our money. It makes demands of our whole life – and we do it gladly, because we know that, apart from God, nothing else really matters.
So let Jesus’ question echo in your heart this coming week. “Who do you say that I am?” It’s the most important question you’ll ever be asked. And pray that you’ll be given the grace to answer along with Peter, and believe it all the way through, with all that it means for your life: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Amen.