If I were to ask you to look at the person next to you and to identify them I would be interested to know how you would do it. You might start with a superficial description of their physical description of their noses, hair or none as the case may be. Their height, whether they were large or small, dark or fair, wore specs or not. Then if I asked you “Who they were, you would tell me their name, their job or previous employment and maybe something about their family. If we go further you would tell me about their roots, their education, their interests.
The Jews at the time of the life of Jesus were expecting a particular person who had a definite identity, or so they thought. They were expecting the Jewish Messiah, the Saviour who would lead them, a strong leader who would throw off the yoke of the Romans under whose rule the Palestinians lived. If you want evidence for this then you will find it in the caves of Qumran. (anybody been there?)
The prophesies in the Old Testament are slightly ambiguous about this coming Messiah. He would be a warrior king, he would be a servant of God, humble, a bruised reed he would not break, such was his gentleness.The story of Peters confession at Ceasaria Philippi (now known as Banais, on the borders of Lebanon) is a turning point. The statues of to the Greek God Pan can still be seen there and people sit and eat their sandwiches on them.
Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” It wasn’t normal for rabbis to ask questions of their pupils but this rabbi did. He asked them to test out the water, to find out the gossip.
And they told him, Elijah or Jeremiah, John the Baptist or a prophet returned from the dead. Then he asks them who they thought he was and immediately Peter says “The Messiah, the Son of the living God!”. Its a shocking answer! Its blasphemy but he says it. And because he has said it, Jesus says to him “And you are a rock on which I will build my church!”. He doesn’t deny it and so we presume it is true. And with that recognition, comes a passing on of the inheritance we remember in the liturgy on Ash Wednesday, the inheritance in this case of authority to bind and loose. Finally they are told to keep quiet because this knowledge is dangerous. You only tell those you trust with your life such things.
And Jesus life is in danger because of who he is. He will suffer and die, and on the third day be raised from the dead. It’s fantastic. A fantasy. It’s no wonder Peter intervenes only to be rebuked by Jesus and to be accused of colluding with Satan.
If you look at the person next to you it maybe that you can tell me who that person is, what are their main personality traits or quirks, what are their likes and dislikes. What you say may be linked to their work because in our society we place a great deal of emphasis on work. Work in our society could become your total identity and when you cease working in paid employment you cease to have a role, an identity. In other cultures you have a role simply because of your gender or place in the family or caste. But none of that answers the real question of who are you?
As Christians we have taken on a different identity. To say to someone that you are a Christian means two things take place. Firstly people quickly reflect on what being a Christian means, a do-gooder perhaps, a good Samaritan, a nice person, patient, someone who gives money out and loving care and so on. Then they look at you and ask themselves if you fit the bill and inevitably you probably at some point wont! The point is that if we are going to openly identify ourselves as Christians we have a standard against which we are set and it is a very high one.
When Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you think I am?” they were engaging in a similar exercise. Prophets went about prophesising the future and did strange things. Maybe he’s a prophet. Elijah never died but was translated into heaven. Maybe he’s Elijah. But Peter had been doing even more thinking. He knew the prophesies concerning the Jewish Messiah and he matched Jesus with them. Its funny how the religious leaders did the same and came up with a different answer.
Peter knew and was right that Jesus was the Messiah. A point contested by most Jews to this day. What he did not know was, what that then meant would happen and at this point his perception of Messiah was wrong.
"Who do you think I am? We can all ask this question and those around us will have theories, imaginations, fantasies of who we are but only those closest to us know who we are really. And this may not be our families. We all have a distinct identity given to us by God and a destiny with that identity. Nobody else’s life will be like ours. We are unique. God given.
Jesus destiny was unique and unlike him, we dont expect to end up on a cross, crucified, but we all have an identity and a destiny and the two are inexplicably interlinked. The closer we get to finding out who we really are, the closer we get to God, and to our God given destiny. Who are you and where are you going in this life that God has given you? Let me ask you? Only you have the answer.