Firstly, what has Peter’s response to say to us? For today’s Gospel story is a powerful one, isn’t it? Indeed, it has been given huge significance in the history of the Church. It has been used, for example, to justify the authority of the Church of Rome over other Christians. It can also certainly prompt us to reflect upon the nature of ecclesiastical vocation, ministry and sacramentality. Such issues are not unimportant. However they can so easily distract us from the central question Jesus poses: ‘but who do you say I am?’. Notice the ‘but’! Jesus is calling us away from distraction, and secondary issues, such as church authority, exercise of ministry and even sacramentality. Jesus is also not that interested in what we have heard others say about them, even if some of that bears some truth. Jesus wants to know about our own response. Jesus is asking us directly about what the experience we have of them means to us. That is a challenging thing, isn’t it? It is easy enough to report what others say of God, but to speak of our own experience and understanding is another thing. That requires us to bare our souls, to be vulnerable about ourselves, and to expose the extent of our understanding to others. Yet this is the only path to deeper spiritual life and growth.
In our Gospel story, Jesus understandably therefore begins by asking the disciples what others say about him. For this is a way of opening up the real question. It is an objective exercise, not without interest, but involving little or no risk for the disciples. However it is their, and our own, authentic, subjective response that Jesus is actually interested in. Peter’s confession of faith is thus the heart of our Gospel story: and not because it is the only, or final, answer Jesus wants from us – we may phrase our response quite differently - but because Peter’s confession is a model for us to make our own heart-felt, mind-ful, whole body expression of faith. George Fox, the great founder of the Society of Friends, the Quakers) was fond of urging a similar, Jesus-like, challenge to his own community. In spiritual matters, he would say, we are right to explore what other great human beings have thought and done. Ultimately however we have to make our own expression of faith. As he put it: ‘Moses said this, Jesus said this, but what can you say?’ (or, 17th century language 'what canst thou say?') So for us today, as we hear the story of Peter’s confession of faith, what matters is ultimately not what Peter himself said – well worth considering theologically though it is. What matters is our own response to the same enduring question of Jesus. Yes, we should hear Jesus saying to us again today, Peter did say that, ‘but who do you say I am?’
For, secondly, as we reflect upon today’s Gospel, our renewed responses to Jesus’ question, may, crucially, be subtly, or profoundly, different today from the answers we may have given in the past. For this question of Jesus – ‘but who do you say I am?’ – must always draw fresh personal and community responses from us. That is the experience of Christian history, isn’t it? Successive generations of followers of Jesus have given subtly, or profoundly, different answers to that question, out of their own differing experiences and contexts. Yet, whilst our creeds and traditions may help us, this question is an eternal one and must always be asked and answered afresh, if Christian Faith is to continue to be alive and grow. That is the most important reason for why we have a theological college on this site where we meet for worship. It is not here primarily to serve the needs of the institutional Church, nor even to help renew the Christian community with deeper awareness of the rich fruits of scholarly responses in the past or present. It is here, above all, drawing on those treasures, to enable us to ask Jesus’ question afresh and to make our own Peter-like, but particular, response. For, like the Christian community down the ages, as we travel through life, we will see Jesus in new ways, and it is important and life-giving to name them as we journey on.
So what do we want to say today in response to the question: ‘but who do you say I am?’ We may join shortly in reciting a shared response in the Apostles Creed. Yet how do we want to make that come alive in our own words, touching and drawing on our own experience? For me, one of the truly most exciting, and life-enhancing, aspects of Christian teaching and ministry is when we do this, and when we enable and hear others doing this. That is the joy of God’s Pentecost, isn’t it? - when we hear one another speaking, in our own particular language, from our own experience, of what God in Jesus means to us. In recent decades, this has been the great blessing of many new voices which have begun to be heard in theology – voices which have not typically been heard and still are not always heard – voices which are, for example, black, Asian, female, queer, bearers of dis/ability. Each of us has our own unique contribution to make. So what do you, and what do we, say? Can we express our own responses to one another and share them with others? This is at the heart of our Gospel challenge today.
Thirdly, and finally, as we reflect upon the story of Jesus and Peter, and as we contemplate our own responses afresh today, this process will enable new consequences. For, like Peter and the first disciples, as we respond our of our own experience of Jesus, we are changed in doing so. We honour the grace of God is us, are made stronger in faith, and brought into a deeper relationship with God. This however is not entirely comfortable and is certainly an unfolding process of understanding and growth. As the next part of Matthew’s Gospel abruptly reminds us, Peter may have grasped something of the glory of God in Jesus. Yet he had more learning to do. He had to learn that there were other aspects of God than he had so far experienced, not least, in his case, the suffering Christ who calls their disciples to take up their own cross and follow. That part of the story is also vital for us, lest we too, in our confessions of faith, make Jesus Christ in our own image. Whilst it is central to the Gospel that we make our own response to Jesus’ question, we must be aware that this is but such a tiny part of the full image of God. Making our own particular confession may enrich others as well as ourselves. However we need to remain humble to fresh understanding, not least to the particular confessions of others, and to the new ways in which God in Jesus will speak to us now and in the future.
I wonder if this question of Jesus - ‘but who do you say that I am?’ – is not a crucial spiritual question for our times, as we see it as addressed afresh to us now in our Covid-19 age. How might we perhaps be being asked to see God anew today and to make a different, renewing, confession? Where is God in the experience of our own times? Where are we meeting Jesus today? Where is God in Jesus at work in the challenging places and diverse people of our world? What do you say?
by Josephine Inkpin, for Pentecost 12 Year A, Sunday 23 August 2020.