A Question of Identity

A homily on Matthew 16:13-20 .

Personal Identity
Who do you say that I am? Personally speaking, and this is Ryan talking here, I go by many names. To my children I am Dad.  Lately Bean – that’s the nickname for our 2nd grade daughter Hannah – she’s been calling me “poppa” and that’s kinda fun. To my wife Kathi I am husband, she’ll admit to that, at least on a good day.  To some of you I am Pastor, again, hopefully you’ll also admit to that, at least on a good day.  🙂

In seminary I had a nickname – there were *far* too many Ryan’s at Luther Seminary for any of our good – it seemed like all those Ryan’s running around a small graduate school campus would get confusing pretty fast. So instead, on the first day of class, of each semester, as the professor read our names, to check attendance, when hearing my name I’d respond, “Here.  But please, call me Ishmael.” That little literary reference too was fun, and the nickname has stuck, at least for many of my good friends.

And if you think about yourself, and the multiple roles and identities that you have, you too can easily come up with many, many responses to that simple question, Who do you say that I am? Just by your existence you are all son or daughter, or perhaps also brother or sister, husband or wife, mom or dad, uncle or aunt, niece or nephew. And then there are the names that your education, jobs, and civic organizations will place on you. You could be doctor, priest, president, custodian, director, principal, treasurer, landscaper, perhaps also a super-volunteer as well.

Divine Identity
All these questions, of identity, and the names we go by, all of this is central to today’s text in Matthew chapter 16. Here we have Jesus, surrounded by his disciples, preparing them, and us, for a very important moment. Christ starts out by asking a more general question, consider it an ancient form of an ice-breaker, designed to get people talking. It’s the kind of question you ask before moving on to tougher, more personal questions.

The ice breaker he asks the disciples is fairly broad, he wonders, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s almost like Christ is trying to get a sense of the local chatter. He’s asking his disciples what are you hearing? Or what’s the good word? They respond with a mountain of possibilities, in each case connecting Jesus with someone else. Some thought Jesus was John the Baptist; both men roamed the earth at the same time, both baptized, both were religious figures of their era. So maybe John and Jesus were the same, simply a case of mistaken identity. Still others thought Jesus was a reincarnated version of another Jewish religious figure, either Elijah, or Jeremiah, or maybe another prophet. Coming from his disciples, sharing the local gossip of the day, any of those, at least for us, would be considered a major compliment.

But as nice as all of those possible identities may sound, they still weren’t quite right. To get at his real identity Jesus asks the disciples that more pointed, direct question, the one we started with, Who do *you* say that I am? Here Peter, in a moment of clarity Jesus says came directly from God, here Peter exclaims “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

“Blessed are you,” Jesus, the Christ, tells Peter, “for on this rock I will build this church.” Now I think many of us have some notion of what the church is, it’s a group of people who come together, a people who share a lot in common: shared holy scriptures, shared doctrines, shared creeds. And, ideally at least, this shared identity leads to a shared vision of our purpose here on earth. And even more ideally this shared identity informs how we live into that purpose while we’re here.

But what we may be less certain of pertains to this rock. What exactly is this rock Jesus speaks of? And what exactly is Jesus saying here about how he will build this church? One interpretation is to say Peter, literally, is the rock. And that Christ’s church will be built by, and through, Peter. Our Roman Catholic brethren are certainly of this mindset, Peter was the first Pope. And all Popes since then can trace their identity as leader of the Catholic church directly back to Peter. On one level that certainly makes a lot of sense.

Another way to look at this is to say that it isn’t Peter himself, but instead it is Peter’s faith, that that is where Christ will build his church. Said differently it is Peter’s boldness, Peter’s proclamation, of who Jesus is, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, it is that proclamation that builds the church. And that’s where you and I come in.

For it is our boldness, our proclamation of who Jesus is, and then what we do with that identity, *that* is what builds the church. From that vantage point proclamation becomes our rallying cry, it’s the reason we heal the sick, why we feed the hungry, why we clothe the naked. That identity, of Jesus, as the Christ, becomes our shared identity as the church, and leads us into God’s mission for the world.

Who do you say that I am? We get asked that question, in one form another, all the time. And we respond to that question in all kinds of ways. The next time someone asks you your name, or what you prefer to go by, considering telling them this:

I am a follower of Christ, who is Son of the living God. I too am a child of this living God, and am created in God’s own image. And I take part, as best I’m able, in God’s redemptive mission for the world.

For it is the answer to this question, who do you say that I am, both in our response, and in how we live into that response, it is that, my friends, that can change EVERYTHING. Amen.


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