Gospel: Mt. 16. 13-20
Who do you say that I am?
Today we find ourselves in the city of Caesarea Philippi.
Just a short aside about Caesarea Philippi because it is a fascinating place—it is north of the Sea of Galilee, near what is now the border between Israel and Lebanon. Prior to being named “Caesarea Philippi” by the Tetrarch of Galilee, Herod Philip (to honor Caesar Augustus and…oh, himself…) the city was known as Banias in Hebrew and “Paneas” in Greek. It was the site of a shrine to Pan, the god of mirth and drink and debauchery (God bless him!). But it didn’t stop there: there were shrines to Persian gods and Roman gods and to Caesar, who was worshipped as a god, and even shrines to the Pre-Greek gods of that region. Caesarea Philippi was a veritable panoply of worship and sacrifice. And besides all that, the water that flows through Banius from Mount Hermon is the headwaters of the River Jordan. So it was a terribly holy place for Jews as well.
So, in this remarkably holy, sacred place, Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”
I want to go on record as saying that is one of the most audacious, outrageous, daring and vulnerable questions anyone can ask. Who in their right mind would ask it? What rational person would want to know the answer when it came?
Think about it for a moment—WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?
Is that something you really, truly, honestly want to know? From an acquaintance? From a close friend? Even from someone who loves you? Do you really, truly, honestly want to know “who they say you are?”
Let me talk about me for a moment….I’m not sure I want to risk the pain and disappointment and confusion that hearing “who someone else says I am” would cause me.
Two examples, if I might.
First of all, I’ve had any number of people who have come to know me and love me tell me that when they first met me they thought I was “arrogant”. That’s the word they’ve all used—arrogant.
WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM? I could have asked them when they didn’t know me well.
YOU ARE VERY ARROGANT, they would have answered.
Of all the things I think about myself—about WHO I AM—about the last thing would be “arrogant”. I’m always using so much energy trying to please people and make them like me and show them how honorable I am, that I would never imagine they’d think I was arrogant. I’ve spent hours and hours trying to understand why people would think that’s “who I am….”
And I would have been bereft, deeply pained, stung to the core.
It is a very risky question to ask: WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?
Who would want to know? Who would be confident enough to hear the response?
Secondly, I know myself better than anyone knows me. I know all my dark and secret places, all my aching places, all my shame and fear and brokenness. Why would I ask someone WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM? For fear of hearing the “truth” about what I know about me…..
My greatest fear is that someone will “figure me out” and know what a phony, what a fake, what a hypocrite, what a sham I am.
So why would I ever ask someone: WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian murdered by the Nazi’s at the end of WW II. One of his books was Letters and Papers from Prison and contained this poem. Listen. Listen carefully….
WHO AM I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country home.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my wardens
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though they were mine to command.
Who am I? they also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were
Compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others
And before myself a contemptable, woebegone weaking?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in distain from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine.
I had a friend who was a priest in West Virginia with me for five years. He was a great guy, very funny. But he always ran himself down—about his problems and short-comings. We went our different ways—I went to CT and he went west. Then, a dozen or so years later, he was elected Bishop. I went to his consecration. Hearing what people said about him in the reception, when I talked with him I said, “don’t ever run yourself down again—I heard what those people said about Who You Are.
So, maybe who people say we are can challenge us to live into their words.
There were many opinions about ‘who Jesus was’, but Peter nailed it--“you are the Messiah!” Jesus told him, “You are the Rock (petros in Greek) on which I’ll build my church”. Then he told them to tell no one who he was.
There are many voices, both inside our heads and from those around us that have an opinion about who you and I are.
But Bonhoeffer nailed it—whoever we are, we belong to God.
We are God’s beloved children. And what we need to do with that is to live in the world as the hands and hearts and voices and actions of Jesus. We are to be Christ’s Body to this darkling world.
We have to. We just have to.
We must…. We must….We must.