Today’s gospel account [Mark 8:27-35] comes at the midpoint of Saint Mark’s Gospel, more or less at the midpoint of Jesus’ public life. It also seems to be something of a midpoint in the disciples’ own experience – in their gradual growth in understanding Jesus’ true identity and in what that must mean for them.
Mark begins by telling us that Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. In other words, they left their familiar surroundings and went again into pagan, Gentile territory. Today, that area at the foot of Mount Hermon on Israel’s northern border with Syria is known as “Banyas,” a variation on an older Greek word suggesting a place sacred to the god “Pan.” Unlike so many other historic sites in Israel, where a church stands to commemorate some biblical event, nothing of the sort marks this site. The absence of any church or shrine and the persistence of the area’s pagan name evoke its original character as a pagan, worldly place. (In Jesus’ time, it had a pagan temple with a thriving fertility cult. But, when I visited the site in 1993 the only activity there was an Israeli army unit enjoying a picnic!)
Having brought them to that pagan, worldly place, Jesus paused there to ask them what was maybe the most important question they had ever yet been asked - the question that in some form or other anyone who purports to be a Christian must also ask and answer, who do you say that I am?
Jesus first asked what other people were saying about him. They didn’t have modern polling methods back then. But, just as we would expect if that same question were asked today, he got a variety of different answers. Then as now, Jesus meant different things to different people, all of whom naturally tried to fit him into their already existing ways of thinking. Jesus then revised his question to focus directly on his special group of followers: But who do you say that I am?
Peter, already anticipating his role as leader of the Church, answered for them – and for us – You are the Christ (in other words, the Messiah), the One anointed by God.
What a wonderful, inspiring insight – one for which Peter has always been remembered and honored! If only the story had ended there! But the conversation continued. And, as the rest of the story shows, Peter did not yet really understand what it actually meant that Jesus is the Christ, because he didn’t yet really understand what kind of Messiah Jesus actually is. So, Jesus responded to Peter’s initial insight with the seemingly strange command not to tell anyone about him, followed in fairly short order by his even more surprising, shockingly stern reproof to Peter: Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.
None of which should this surprise us. Like Peter, we all want Jesus to be the kind of Messiah that we want, and so we are all tempted to see him through a lens of our own imagining, thinking not as God does, but as human beings do. Every age and every culture, that has concerned itself with Jesus at all, has done the same. So has every artist and every author, who has portrayed Jesus. In Peter’s case, after all, there was certainly nothing in what he had been taught that would have led him to expect – let alone want – a Messiah to be rejected and killed.
After Peter, the first several centuries of the Church’s history featured a series of serious disputes (and several ecumenical councils to debate those disputes) about who in fact Jesus is – who he is in relation to God and in relation to us. The complex formulas we recite every time we say or sing the Creed reflect the way those disputes were eventually resolved and so set some precise parameters to facilitate our fuller understanding of Jesus.
Every time we recite those formulas, as we do here every Sunday, we acknowledge who Jesus is and we commit ourselves to make the same journey in faith that Peter and the disciples had to make. Who do you say that Jesus is? Who do I say that Jesus is? Who do we together say that Jesus is? He constantly asks that question of each of us individually and of all of us together – not because he is looking for a novel answer (Christianity is about fidelity not creativity), but precisely because he has already answered it for us with his cross and resurrection.
In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, this same story is repeated but with an additional detail [Matthew 16:17-19], in which Jesus promises Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, in his new role not only as spokesman for his fellow disciples but as visible leader of Jesus’ Church on earth throughout history - Peter’s place being filled, generation after generation, by Peter’s successors as Bishops of Rome, down to his 265th successor, our present Pope Francis, who next week will make his first-ever visit to the United States.
According to a recent survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service, some 31% of Catholics and 52% of Americans overall said they had heard nothing about the Pope’s upcoming trip. Of course, he has to compete with a lot of other news and noise and those who want to be the news and so are making a lot of that noise. What kind of noise will the Pope make?
Like the first Pope, Peter, his successor will speak on our behalf, articulating who Jesus really is and what difference he makes for each of us individually and all of us together, and for the world he loves so much that he became a part of it and has left us to care for as our common home.
Just as back then, Jesus means different things to different people. Just as back then, we all want Jesus to be the kind of Messiah that we want, and so we are all tempted to see him through a lens of our own cultural, economic, and political imagining, thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.
Amid all the noise that passes for news, Peter’s successor is coming to America to remind us who Jesus is and what that means for each one of us individually and for all of us together as his Church and for world he has entrusted to us as our common home.
Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,
September 13, 2015.