A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs, on Matthew 16:13-20
I first read this question in William Sloane Coffin, Jr’s book, Letters to a Young Doubter, about ten years ago, early in my discernment process. It was one of those instances when you encounter something that hits you at just the right time, with just the right balance of challenge and comfort to be formative. It wasn’t until much later (this past week, actually,) that I discovered that Coffin didn’t just toss that question out one time for his book: It was his signature question.
Coffin, who died in 2006, was a passionate social and political activist, senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, and Yale University Chaplain. He asked this question in various contexts on a regular basis. Whether he was talking about politics, religion or education, this was invariably the basis of whatever he had to say.
“Who tells you who you are?”
In many ways it’s a rhetorical question, isn’t it? When a person of deep faith and authority looks you in the eye and asks you that question, you know what the answer should be—but the process of answering can be a journey in itself, and it may not be a comfortable one.
How you ponder in the silence after the question mark; the answer you ultimately give can have a profound effect on your life going forward; on your very identity.
“Who tells you who you are?” is another way of asking a bleaker question:
“Who are you—really?”
It’s not a coincidence that Coffin’s words echo Jesus’ questions in today’s gospel. This passage is foundational in many ways.
Both Matthew and Mark record this episode, wherein Jesus asks the disciples about his identity, but Matthew expands on Mark’s original—and earlier–depiction of Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’ pointed question, “Who do YOU say that I am?” In Mark’s Gospel, Simon’s response is simply, “You are the Christ.” But in Matthew’s version, Simon blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” This is serious Christology and Matthew needs to spell it out: Jesus is the Anointed One spoken of by the prophets, directly connected to God as God’s son. In other words, Matthew’s project as encapsulated in the words of Simon Peter is to establish Jesus’ identity.
And what happens next?
In Jesus’ response to Simon, Matthew again expands on Mark. Whereas Mark writes only that Jesus says to speak of his identity to no one, Matthew augments this with a statement that is pure ecclesiology—a foundational declaration of both Simon’s and the church’s identity: “You are Peter and upon this rock, I will build my church…” Much of the argument for Apostolic Succession was built on these words; Peter was the first authority of the Church for “binding and loosing”—that is, for the establishing and teaching of doctrine. This passage is of specific interest to the Roman Catholic Church; Peter’s keys to the kingdom are a papal symbol. Of course, there are other households of the Christian faith who have argued since the Protestant Reformation that papal authority is not the only Christian authority. Nevertheless, the point made here about the establishment of the authority and identity of the Body of Christ, even as it ends up being interpreted in different ways, can be traced to this statement in Matthew.
But doctrinal Christology and ecclesiology aside, this passage is rich with still more to ponder about identity. Let’s think a little more about Peter. For all that he is given the keys of the Kingdom, we (as so often happens) find ourselves wondering about God’s choice of a standard bearer for the Church. Peter is extraordinarily prone to stick his size 10 fisherman’s foot in his mouth and will do so again in just two verses when he tries to rebuke Jesus for foretelling his crucifixion. And in response to this rebuke Jesus will call Peter Satan and a hindrance; an inauspicious beginning for the Rock of the Church…
So what are we to think of this? What does Jesus see in this impetuous disciple? Pastor and preacher Jin S. Kim says that what distinguishes Peter in his confession of Jesus as Messiah isn’t so much his righteousness or his rightness but his testimony; his willingness to articulate how he experiences Jesus and God in that moment. “Who do you say that I am?” In other words, Jesus says, “How do you understand and experience me, my teaching and my witness in the world?”
Peter’s response in that moment of clarity, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” serves, then, not just to identify Jesus, but it also becomes a statement of Peter’s identity as well.
This is the kind of thing that makes many Episcopalians feel a little squirmy. Testimony, for us, is best left in the courtroom. But we are invited here to seriously consider how we experience Jesus and God in our lives. That testimony, even if we don’t stand on the street corner and shout it to the world, and only whisper it to ourselves, reveals a lot about who we are and who we are called to be. Our identity.
“For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
Peter’s testimony regarding Jesus’ identity is rooted in his understanding of the God who calls him into relationship and discipleship. In that moment of clarity, he knows who tells him who he is: It is Jesus, Messiah, the son of the Living God who calls him Peter, the rock of the Body of Christ.
That has got to be a humbling realization. To be confronted with the fact of his identity in God—to know that all the other things that he thought defined who he is are peanuts by comparison—nothing. He is not defined by his occupation, his status, his looks, his possessions. Not by his successes, and thank God not by his failures or regrets either.
Who tells you who you are, Peter? Grace. Grace tells me.
That’s the kind of thing that can knock you to your knees.
Peter’s testimony was a moment of connection and realization, and it would define him until his martyrdom years later. But it was only the beginning of a long and bumpy road, much like that of the Church, which has encountered its share of both glory and shame. But God keeps finding ways to bring us back to the signature question of who—and whose—we truly are.
I recently saw a picture on social media. It was a photo of a young man in Charlottesville during the chaos of that Saturday three weeks ago. In the picture, this young white man stood alone and shirtless on a street corner. A documentary filmmaker had observed him crying out for help as he tore off his white polo shirt, which is part of the uniform of one of the White Supremacist groups. He didn’t want anyone to hurt him, he said. He said he hadn’t really meant it—that he was just doing it for fun.
The filmmaker, C.J. Hunt, made an outstanding point about this young man as he walked away and faded into the crowd. He wrote of the privilege of being able to disappear—to be able to shed one’s identity in order to be safe. Hunt noted that people of color don’t share that privilege. I found this argument to be both compelling and convicting.
But I also saw something else as I looked at that picture of that young man, and I have to say it was a challenging realization. Because in that simple image I experienced a different moment of clarity from what Mr. Hunt had so eloquently observed.
I saw in that young man in that instant—if only an instant—the naked vulnerability of each and every human being in the eyes of a God who loves and calls them. I saw the face of a scared young man as though he has just heard someone ask, “Who tells you who you are?” and who has just been confronted with the answer. And it scares the heck out of him.
Because when you realize the identity of who it is who calls you, it can transform you, and that can be scary.
I don’t know if that’s what happened to the young man in the picture. Sadly and realistically I doubt it, because life is complicated and painful, and it doesn’t always provide us with neat little stories packaged with happy endings. But for a second there was a vision—maybe a little like the corona of Monday’s eclipse—a vision of the arc of history bending through these troubled days. Bending us toward discipleship. Bending the Church closer to the Beloved Community. Bending the universe, by grace, toward justice, reconciliation, and hope.