Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Sunday 23 August 2020
Identity and the new humanity ©Suzanne Grimmett
Who do you say that I am? I wonder what answer we would get from one another if we were to ask each other that question?
I think we all know we wouldn’t come up with the answer by navel gazing. Our identity, after all, is always a product of our social context. It is the reason why so many in their short bio will include the titles of mother, or husband or grandparent. It should not surprise us therefore, that Peter’s insight about Jesus is similarly relational. His declaration of who Jesus is reveals the identity and mission of the new humanity made possible because of the relationship of Jesus to the source of all being.
Hugh Mackay comments on the ultimate paradox of selfhood in his book, The Inner Self saying, “When we get to the core of who we are, we find that, just like everyone else, our essence is love- and what can love be about except connection and community?”1
Yet connection and community do not seem to be how we understands ourselves and society. Media and popular culture supports a cult of individualism that sees us competing for everything from money to power to status, whilst at the same time applying pressure to behave and think just like everyone else.
This is why diversity should be the keynote of the church. We should stand out. As we grow in love for one another that very love will be what draws out individual gifts and reveals our unique personhood. The true self tends to only emerge when it is safe to do so, so that our inner light is allowed to burn without judgement.
One thing we can know is that Jesus was not one to blend into a crowd. He may not have had anything spectacular in his appearance to recommend him, but he stood out, so much so that there were many varied opinions and judgements about him.
‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’
And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
For someone who has drawn so much attention, notice the very ordinary title Jesus takes for himself: the Son of Man. Son of the human. The human one.
Yet Peter’s insight shows he is anything but ordinary. ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’
The liberating spiritual authority of Jesus has its source in his relationship to the living God. Jesus applauds this insight of Peter, recognising that in that moment he is influenced by the Spirit to have eyes to see and ears to hear. Such epiphanies in our lives are so often beginnings rather than endings, momentary windows of clear understanding rather than final achievements. If we worry ever that we have trouble sustaining a life lived in the presence and knowledge of God we should take heart from Peter who goes from being the rock on which the church is built this week to being called out by Jesus as the Satan next week. (Stay tuned)
It is critical in this passage that we do not become distracted by the keys of the kingdom phrase with all of its cultural overlay of the pearly gates which can apparently be locked against us by St Peter standing as sentry. What we are to see here is Peter’s recognition of who Jesus is and the new possibilities for our human identity and mission that have been revealed in the Messiah. The power of love multiplied in the world by the Church brings transformation through people of compassion and forgiveness, working for justice and bringing peace. And this is the foundation on which the Church is built: that Jesus is the Holy One of God come to us, united with us in our fragile humanity. Jesus did not hand down to us a text and say study this carefully, but gave us himself and said, “Follow me.”
If we are to follow, then this question of identity is at the heart of everything. But even this question must be heard not just in its social context but in its geographical one. Jesus had led his disciples to a city called Caesarea Philippi, a regional centre of the Roman Empire and an ancient place of worship of Greek and Roman gods. The name came from the son of Herod the Great- Philip, who was given control of the whole region and renamed the city for himself and in honour of Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor.
This was the heart of an empire, which may have had a similar effect on those Galilean disciples as taking a Jewish leader to Auschwitz or a Palestinian leader to the wall of separation. There, 2 in this seat of power that ruled with violence, Jesus asks them who they believe he is.
While when we hear, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ we tend to hear a statement of theological identity, but for the disciples in that setting it was much more a political one. ‘Messiah’ means ‘the one anointed as liberating king’. You don’t need to be a historian to know that to bandy around words like “liberating king” in the heart of Roman occupation would not generally have been thought wise. Similarly, “Son of God” was a term used by the Caesars who invoked a shared divinity with the gods worshipped in stone niches in the cliffs at Caesarea Philippi. To declare Jesus 3 “Son of the living God” was to assert that these claims were invalid because there was only one God whose vital living Spirit permeated the universe and whose incarnate presence was revealed in the man Jesus standing under those same cliffs. This was a moment when Jesus allowed his closest followers to see that the power of Empire could not stand against the new kingdom being inaugurated; a realm made up of a new humanity whose identity is defined by relationships of love, mercy and compassion.
Our true identity is not always transparent. It can be bolstered by power, hidden behind masks or culturally acceptable personas, subjugated by abuse or buried under anxiety. A culture of individualism can mean that we have trouble discerning who we actually are because we have forgotten that this is a truth only revealed in relationship. As Iris Murdoch says, we can only learn to love by loving. Sometimes we hide because facing the truth that individualism is a lie and that we all belong to one another means that we would have to change the way we live and work together.
The work of love is difficult, and requires our whole selves to be surrendered to the searching light of the Spirit, both on an individual and communal level. While empires rule in their love of power, Jesus, the son of the living God, came to rule with the power of love, and has been calling disciples ever since to follow this demanding way. It is a way that reveals individualism for the lie that it is, and the self-made man or woman as a dangerous and idolatrous fiction. The only way we can become who we truly are, is to recognise that our lives are inextricably connected and all have their source in the God who is love.
The reading from Romans tells us “so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” I wonder how it would change the way we lived together if we all truly believed this; that we are all one body, one people. Of course it is hard to sustain this vision, just as it was hard for Peter. But we do get glimpses. As we gathered on Friday for Rodney Potger’s funeral that love was tangible, and the unity and beauty for me could be heard and felt as the choir sang for the first time in six months.
It is a strange paradox that perhaps we will only ever know who we are when we find ourselves in loving relationships with others. The good news that we hear this week, is that Jesus calls us to do as he has done, embracing the sacredness of life, loving one another and living into the identity of the Church which holds a power stronger than any empire, because it releases the unlimited potential of forgiveness and grace.
Hugh Mackay, The Inner Self: The joy of discovering who we really are (Pan Macmillan Australia: 1 2020) p 30
2 Brian McLaren We Make the Road by Walking (Hodder and Stoughton, London: 2014) p 142 3 Ibid, p143