Faith In Real Life Blog
Sharing Christ’s Love Theme
“It’s a Question of Identity”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
August 23, 2023
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14 And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16 Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17 And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
In this passage, Jesus asks his disciples: ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ Though the term ‘Son of Man’ sounds like a reference to Jesus’ humanity, in the Jewish tradition, the Son of Man referred more to divine authority than to human parentage. The disciples report a variety of understandings of who had such authority— John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Since Jesus had referred to himself as the Son of Man, these answers place Jesus firmly in the Jewish tradition as divinely appointed. Jesus then presses the issue, saying: “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus is trying to determine how or if his teaching has registered with his own disciples. We must always keep in mind that Jesus’ identity was not obvious to the disciples nor to the people he ministered to. We know Jesus as the Christ. His followers knew him as Jesus, the man. So, it must have been with some relief that Jesus heard Peter’s words that Jesus is “the Messiah, Son of the living God.” As a teacher, Jesus must have felt very isolated when even those close to him failed to recognize him. No matter how clear he was, the disciples had trouble ‘getting it’. But now, Peter confesses: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
All that follows in the passage suggests that Jesus has the utmost confidence in Peter. Jesus promises “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” But, as we are to learn in next week’s lectionary passage, Jesus discovers that Peter’s understanding was quite different from what Jesus was trying to teach. When Jesus realizes this, Jesus almost immediately rebukes Peter. Peter used the right words but his view of the Messiah was conditioned by the religious expectations of his day—and it was completely off the mark. Jesus knew that the role of the Messiah was a very big ask. It required obedience and self-sacrifice. In order to follow this new understanding of the Messiah, Jesus could not afford to be tempted into a role that led to secular glory (traditional understanding of the Messiah) if he was to honor God’s will for him.
All too often in real life, we respond as if we know what another person is saying. Only later do we discover we are on completely different wavelengths. This is what seems to have happened between Jesus and Peter (We will be discussing next week the gap between who Jesus understood himself to be and what Peter understood). And, if that is what happened, it is no small irony that the Roman church used this passage to establish Peter as the Holy Father of the church, called him infallible and gave him final authority over the church. (FYI The concept of Papal Infallibility did not become doctrine until 1870)
However, it is also possible that Jesus knew full well the gaps in Peter’s understanding—and they did not matter. Secular criteria for church membership or church leadership are not necessarily applicable. We are a confessing church not a perfect church. We are a confessing people not a perfect people. That is a very big difference. The people God has used to lead his people have often been unlikely. Moses was a convicted (in absentia) murderer and by his own telling, inarticulate. Later, he led the people out of Egypt and became the great law giver. Jacob exploited both his brother’s hunger and his father’s blindness in order to advance his own interests. Yet, it was Jacob who became the father of Israel. David was the runt of the litter. All of his brothers were older and had higher standing, but it was David who was chosen to be king. Though Israel’s greatest King, he was also deeply flawed—he committed adultery and arranged for his lover’s husband to be killed in battle. All of these men could have been (and perhaps should have been) arrested. Yet all of them are instrumental to God’s “working his purpose out.”
In our passage it was Peter who was given “the keys to the kingdom.” But it was also Peter who tried to walk on water and almost immediately got in over his head. It was Peter who misunderstood Jesus as the Messiah and who was forcefully rebuked. It was Peter who missed the point of Jesus’ foot washing (“not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!”) and it was Peter who promised faithfulness only to deny Jesus three times. Would you want such a man working for you? Jesus did.
There are two important implications for our real life. First, perfection is a secular value but it does not reflect real life and certainly not the Christian life. Second, understanding and being “right” comes second to orienting your life toward a life of service and love—even if you do not fully understand what you signed up for.
In the sixteenth century the Japanese created an art form called kintsugi in which broken pottery was repaired using gold. The gold emphasized the “imperfections” and in the process embraced them. This art form treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. I love the concept. No matter how broken we are, we can still be valuable, useful and beautiful.
The Christian version of the same concept is that we are loved as we are. We need not hide our failures, brokenness or our sinfulness. We trust God’s treasuring us enough to use us as we are to add beauty and love to the world. This is vastly more than a Hallmark sentiment—especially in a secular world which values people based upon appearance, position and accomplishment. All of those things can be valuable but none of them are the basis for our worth in God’s kingdom. Our faith begins with the conviction that we are loved—but it is surprisingly difficult to hold onto that faith when so much of the world says otherwise. Peter was given the “keys to the kingdom” even as he frequently misunderstood what that would mean. From this point of view, choosing Peter was genius. The Christian understanding of perfection always includes imperfection. That is what it means to be loved as we are. We are all broken pottery. Broken is part of being human. And God joined us in exactly that place. He was broken, and died, to show us that worldly values did not diminish or destroy him. That faith is saving.
Likewise, our understanding is similarly incomplete and flawed. But is begins with the confession that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. All of us are called to answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” when we become members of the church. But, in real life, our understanding of that basic confession changes and hopefully matures. It was certainly no less true for Peter. And perhaps that is the point. It is not the man (or woman), it is the confession—even if misunderstood—that marks the beginning of our faith journey. In Peter’s life, he seemed always willing to jump in; and equally important, he was willing to be redirected. That is what is asked of each of us. We grow in faith—12For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1Corinthians 13:12). Peter, as are we, was a work in progress. His misunderstanding did not preclude his value and worth, they were foundational to the church. His identity shifted from becoming a finished product in order to be loved to an identity that trusted that his imperfections were false categories. God can use every fragment of our being?
It was that trust that allowed Peter to repeatedly jump in and to continually learn. He is the epitome of the aphorism: “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” We are committed to a process. We are not expected to “know the right answer”, we are expected to continually seek God’s will. Our understanding will grow. But this is not magic. It requires an openness to learn beyond our grade-school certainties. It requires that we embrace the complexity and uncertainty of adulthood. We can stand in God’s love for us, but truth be told, accepting God’s love requires trust and courage. It means putting down our masks. It means vulnerability. It means holding the faith that God knows us and loves us. And finally, it means that learning how to love is a lifelong process.
It turns out that this dogged, impetuous, sometimes misguided disciple was the perfect recipient of the keys to the kingdom. All of us can stand with him in his humanity and join him in his searching for God.
Live in the faith that God loves you. Live in knowledge that your understanding is imperfect and the love you offer will also be imperfect. Trust in the Lord. Be willing to impetuously jump in—trusting God’s saving hand.
Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.