St. Mary Church, Trenton IL
August 20 & 21, 2011
Since my arrival in Trenton, so often I find myself asking the question, “Who are you?” “What is your name” is a frequent question coming from my mouth these first few weeks in Trenton. It’s a normal question a new person in town would ask, “Who are you.” It shows interest in getting to know a person. The question asking for a person’s identity indicates that one person wants to know who another person is. A name gives identity, puts a person into a set of relationships like what family they’re from, what nationality the person has for a background. People, like a new pastor, can learn a lot from learning a name and in the process of knowing a name of another person enters into some sort of relationship with them instead of just seeing an anonymous familiar face.
Jesus, in today’s gospel story is curious. He’s not just asking if people know his name, though. Jesus wants to know if people have begun to understand who he is, are they interested in getting to know him on a deeper level, perhaps even enter into some sort of relationship with him instead of just knowing him as some interesting character wandering around ancient Palestine. The question Jesus is asking his apostles isn’t the question of a public relations expert trying to get a client name recognition. Jesus is not trying to figure out if he’s famous or if his “brand” is well-known. When Jesus asks “who do people say that I am?” he’s inviting the apostles and all who will hear about him through the ages to enter into a specific kind of relationship with him, he who already knows us in the depths of our being. Who is Jesus TO us? Who is Jesus FOR us? Not just do people know his name.
The question of who is Jesus has been answered in a variety of ways through the history of humanity since Jesus walked the earth in the Middle East. The apostles answer with a few opinions that they’ve heard people voice. Maybe Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life or the prophet that comes as the advance man for the Messiah. The question of who is Jesus has gotten a variety of answers in our own day, too. Jesus is a nice man, a kind of teacher on how to have a happy life. Or Jesus was just a prophet helping us listen to God like Mohamed or Joseph Smith. Jesus is a wise man like the Buddha who had amazing insights. Or Jesus is a myth. There’s a variety of opinion out there, in the world today about who Jesus was. The question of who is Jesus has been answered in a variety of ways, because for some it’s just too difficult to actually believe what we hold as the truth. The truth about Jesus seems just too impossible to assent to for some folks.
But the truth is not impossible for those of us who are part of the church! For those of us who have experienced Jesus alive, for those of us who “know” him because we have met him risen from the grave through participation in the life of the church, we’ve got the correct answer to the question, “But who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus is the Savior, or as Peter says to this man he’s been in a close relationship with Jesus is “The Christ.” Christ is a name that translates into English as “Savior.”
There’s something we should understand in hearing this Gospel of the giving of the name of The Christ to Jesus by Peter. For the Gospel writer, “Peter” is not just the individual apostle in this story or just a historical figure of one man. The Gospel writer is using Peter as a stand in, a symbol of the entire Church. When Peter says, “You are the Christ” it’s the entire church down through the ages professing the faith. This is the church’s earliest written Creed or profession of faith. JESUS is SAVIOR. Jesus is the one who saves humans from their fate of death. Period. Peter speaks the faith of the church, our faith!
Let’s me also be clear that when I refer in this homily to “the church” I am speaking about all those who are baptized. Every person who has ever been dunked, poured or sprinkled in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are members of the Church. The scriptures we are exploring today are not specifically talking about the Catholic tradition, but all who are baptized are members of The Body of Christ, the presence of Christ is this world while we await the return of Christ to complete the work of salvation.
The name, Christ; The name Savior; The name Messiah all mean the same thing. This Jesus is a person that if we know him, not just his name, but “KNOW” him; if we are in some sort of intimate relationship with him we will be able to be saved from death. It’s not enough to know about him, or to be able to recite facts about a historical person named Jesus or to be able to recite the answers to questions from a catechism; To share in the reality of being saved we must be in relationship with the Christ, the Savior who will rescue us, save us from our fate if left to our own power.
And how do humans enter into a relationship with “the Christ?” How are humans to know the Savior? The answer the gospel gives us is this…If you want to be in relationship to the Savior, to know the Christ, well then, you’ve got to be part of the Church. Upon this ultimate truth, this ROCK, this solid foundation Jesus says he will build his Church. In other words, the Church is the sacrament, the ultimate encounter with Jesus the Savior, because the Church is his body on earth. That’s why Jesus says in the Gospel to Peter (remember, Peter is a code name for the church) I give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. The church has what is needed to share in the life of the risen Christ, therefore to know the reality of salvation. What the Church has are the sacraments, the teaching and the scripture that make possible a relationship with Christ and therefore those who are joined to the church have the hope of being saved from death. Perhaps we can think of the meaning of the passage about handing over the keys to Peter the symbol of the church this way. If you want to get to a destination far away, say a city like Jerusalem in Israel, you’re going to have to get in a plane and let the plane take you there. That’s what the church is. The church, the community of disciples gathered as the Body of Christ is the only vehicle, the ONLY means of transportation that can get you to the New Jerusalem, the promised land of God where death has no power over human beings. Jesus said he is the Way, the Truth, the Life (the way to true life). To be united to the savior it is essential to be in relationship with those who make up the church.
Some folks claim this passage is about Jesus making Peter the first Pope, or about the institution of the papacy. That’s too narrow of a reading of the scripture. The pope is important, no doubt. The Pope speaks in the name of the church, he has authority to speak and define the limits of orthodoxy because Christ has given THE CHURCH the promise of never being separated from the intimate relationship of Jesus and his Body embodied in the church. So the Holy Father is important because we, the church, have empowered him to be our mouth, our voice.
Ultimately, though, it is up to each of us, individually, to answer the question with the desire to really “know “ Jesus. Not to just know his name, but to be in a relationship with him through participation in the church. There’s no other way to be rescued from the fate that awaits all humanity.