(Acts 12:1-11; 2 Tim. 4: 6-8,17-18; Mt. 16:13-19)
I was thinking this week that we are all called to become saints. To be a saint is not just to be a good person, a holy person, a loving person, but a friend of God, a companion of Jesus, one who names Jesus as Lord and Savior and trusts him and follows him with faith, hope and love, come what may, for the rest of our lives.
Today we celebrate two great saints, Peter, the fisherman from Galilee, the leader of the early community, who denied Jesus but went on to be preach in his name and was arrested and jailed repeatedly and eventually crucified in Rome; and Paul, one of the leading Pharisees, a ruthless murderer, who persecuted and arrested the early Christians and had them stoned to death, who one day heard Jesus and was knocked off his horse, and became the apostle to the Gentiles and the world, announcing the Gospel everywhere, and was arrested and imprisoned and eventually executed in Rome. When I think about these great Christians, I ask myself: “What can I do for Christ? How can I become a saint, like you, an apostle for Jesus?”
I thought we could look at this pivotal scene in the Gospel, when Jesus asks his friends what people are saying about him, and then asks them point blank, “Who do you say that I am?” All the scripture scholars say this is one of the key moments in the Gospel, the turning point when he wants to know if they understand who he is, when he looks for their faith and affirmation, and when he then starts talking about the cross. At some point in our lives, Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” So I thought we could look at three things: Peter’s response, Paul’s response, and our response.
First, Peter responds by saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Messiah,” and Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom. Now as I understand it, Matthew’s Gospel is trying to support the new institutional church, to support the new structures and authority for the new institutional church, to promote Peter’s leadership and lineage, as opposed to John’s Gospel which never mentions the institutional church and talks instead about creating a community of suffering love. But I think Peter doesn’t know what he was talking about, because in Mark and Luke’s version, you remember, Jesus tells Peter not to tell anyone that he is the messiah, because Peter, like everyone else, expected the Messiah to be a military leader who would take over Jerusalem, overthrow the Roman empire, and restore Israel to sovereign power and Jesus is not like that at all.
Jesus is a nonviolent messiah, the Suffering Servant, who saves humanity, not through military might, but through redemptive suffering love, dying on the cross, and if you remember in the other Gospels, Jesus links this question to the cross. He wants to know if we understand the cross of redemptive suffering love, and Peter doesn’t get it, just like we don’t get it either. So Peter says, “God forbid such a thing happen to Jesus,” and Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking as people do, not as God does.” Peter can’t understand the cross or the way God thinks or Jesus’ nonviolence and neither can we. He has to learn what it means to name Jesus as the Christ.
Second, St. Paul had to learn who Jesus is as well. He was knocked off his horse and spent the rest of his life serving others and proclaiming Christ until the authorities finally killed him. Here he writes from prison just before his execution that he has no regrets, that God will bring him home safely. Like Peter, Paul had to learn that naming Jesus as Lord and Savior, as Suffering Servant and Messiah, meant he had to become a suffering servant too and give his life in love for others.
So what is our response to Jesus’ question? How do we answer Jesus when he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” I don’t want to answer the question for you. Instead, I want to invite you this week to listen to the question, to offer your own answer and to think about what your answer means and how you are going to live it more and more in your daily life so that Jesus becomes more and more the center of your lives, that we share our problems and pains with Jesus, that we walk with Jesus every day and live in the peace of his presence and become great saints.
For me, I want to say, “Jesus, you are my Lord and my God, my brother and my friend, my savior, my life, my hope, my peace.” But I don’t want these to be empty words. I want to mean them and find out what they mean. So when I say Jesus is my life, it means I cannot be overwhelmed by death or support the forces of death; I have to make Jesus the center of my life and live life to the fullest, in Christ. When I say Jesus is my hope, it means I cannot give in to despair or the culture of despair; I have to look toward resurrection and his reign of love and peace, like Paul did. When I say Jesus is my peace, it means I have to resist war and oppose the empire and the culture of war and take seriously his resurrection gift of peace and live in the peace of his presence. If I say Jesus is my Lord and my God, it means I can not have any other gods or idols. I cannot worship America or the president or the flag or place my trust in money or my security in nuclear weapons. From now on, Jesus is everything. As Paul says, “Christ is all and in all.” I hope he is for you, too.