“But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) Much is made of Peter’s answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:17), and of Jesus’ response to his profession of faith: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” (Matthew 16:18) From there the discussion usually turns to the question of authority in the Church and of our duty to obey. But this would seem to hijack this story of Jesus and the important question it poses … to all of us: “But you, who do you say I am?” The Gospels all have a variation of Peter’s answer to this question. (Mark 8:27; Luke 9:18; John 6:67) It is an important question, for the answer has implications for the kind of Church that is built upon it. It is question we all must struggle to answer, for on our answer will depend not just our membership of Christ’s Church, but how we behave as members of it.
In some senses, the answers to the prior question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (none of which Christ rejects) point us to the different ways people might gather round Jesus. Those who answer, “You are John the Baptist” (Matthew 16:14), see themselves as part of a group that is preparing the way for the coming of the Kingdom through repentance. Those who answer, “You are Jeremiah or one of the prophets,” are looking for a group who guard the deposit of the faith by denouncing all ‘wayward’ practices of it. Those who answer, “You are Elijah,” want a more dramatic announcement, that ‘It’s time; the Kingdom is come,’ and so are expecting more radical change, perhaps involving social upheaval, and are willing to commit to bringing it about. … but then Jesus pushes us further: “But you, who do you say I am?” In a sense, this is a question about the kind of Church we want to be.
Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is an answer that is spot on, but is also an answer that doesn’t answer. For what does it mean to be ‘The Christ/The Messiah?’ In Mark’s Gospel, after Peter had given this answer, Jesus went on to explain that “the Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to be put to death ….” (Mark 8:31. C.f.: John 10:11; 15:13) This prompted Peter to draw him aside and tell him not to speak like that, and which then drew a sharp rebuke from Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan!” — this to the same man of whom we’ve just heard Jesus say, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” What Peter meant by saying, “You are the Christ,” was obviously not the same as what Jesus had in mind.
In answering the question, “But you, who do you say I am?” something more is needed than just words, even if they are the right words. This Peter, who got it right in saying, “You are the Christ,” and who even boasted, “Even if all lose faith, I will not” (Matthew 14:29), when push came to shove and all was all was up for grabs and he was feeling rather vulnerable, said not once but three times: “I do not know the man.” (Matthew 14:71) The more that is needed is revealed in Peter’s encounter with Risen Jesus, when Jesus asked him three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?” (John 21:15) The more that is needed is revealed in Peter’s answer: “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” (John 21:15) This question, “But you, who do you say I am?” is a very personal one that asks of our commitment to Jesus, and to which the only right answer is, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (John 21:17) And, more importantly, Peter knows.
What brought Peter to this point of knowing was his threefold denial. He had no sooner got the words out of his mouth when ‘the cock crew, and Peter remembered what Jesus had said: Before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.’ Then we are told, ‘he went outside and wept bitterly.’ (Matthew 26:75) This is in contrast to Judas, who also betrayed his Lord. Of him we are told: ‘When he found out that Jesus had been condemned, Judas his betrayer was filled with remorse … and he went and hanged himself.’ (Matthew 27:3-5) Often, when, for whatever reason, we betray what is most truly precious to us and it can seem that what we had is lost forever, it is then that we know what is/was our great love … and know, too, that there is little we can do to regain it and all seems lost and we would do anything to be able to go back to how things were. Should it be that we are forgiven, never again will we betray what is our true love. It is then that our beloved can safely entrust everything to us, without any doubt or fear. Or as Jesus put it to Peter: “Simon, Simon, Satan, you must know, has got his wish to sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)
At some point, we all do seriously betray the Lord. Then, we can harden our hearts and tough it out, while trying to tell ourselves, “It doesn’t matter,” and let our shame consume us. Or, we can admit that we have done wrong and let our tears flow. It is then, though we have let him down, that the Lord can safely entrust his little flock to us (John 21:16), for there is nothing we will not do for them, for we will have learnt how to be compassionate with those who are wayward, as we ourselves were once wayward (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 64:12ff), and so be able to go and seek out the one that is lost (Rule of St Benedict 27:8-9), and do what we can ‘to bear the weaknesses of those who are not strong … with a view to building them up.’ (Romans 15:1-2) It is on a faith that has been tried that the Lord does build his Church. (C.f.: Isaiah 1:25; 6:5ff) This is the meaning of Jesus’ commandment that we love one another as he has loved us. (John 13:34) Yes, our Church has been entrusted to Peter, but it has also been given into the care of each one of us (Matthew 18:18); we each have our bit to do, through our care of one another, to ensure that the ‘gates of the underworld cannot prevail against it.’ (Matthew 16:18) This Jesus, who says to us, “But you, who do you say I am?” also says to us, “Where two or three meet in my name, I am there with them” (Matthew 18:20), and, “What you do to one of these least brothers/sisters of mine, you do to me.” (Matthew 25:40) In each of them, and especially in the more vulnerable, Jesus says to us: “Do you love me?” (John 21:15) And in our care of them, we do surely reply: “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” (John 21:15. C.f.: Galatians 6:1-2) In our Church today, where so many little ones have been betrayed, there is need for a great many tears to be shed … tears that will surely soften our arrogant hearts — we can look forward to a much more gentle and caring Church in the not too distant future, a Church that will truthfully be able to answer Jesus’ question, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”