Who do you say I am?
Simple enough question, right? But sometimes not so simple either. The simple answer is: you are what’s-his-name. But if someone asks you this questions, that isn’t really what they are asking. Who do you say I am can easily be: who am I to you? We may all have had this kind of question come up in our lives; in our relationships. Who am I to you? As relationships with parents and children change over time and roles begin to reverse, as those of family, friends, loved ones all evolve and change, we often find ourselves thinking or even saying: who does this person believe me to be? Who and what am I to them?
It is not so simple a question, and Jesus asks this of his disciples in our gospel text for today. However it is preceded by an easier one. Who does everyone else say I am?
Thank goodness for Jesus’ occasional easy questions! There aren’t a lot of them! But before we get to that, there’s something very interesting about where Jesus and his disciples are when this conversation comes up.
They have entered the region of Caesarea Philippi. That’s not just a fun phrase to say, it is actually a region of the ancient world that is now called the Golan Heights. It’s also an area that was called Panion, named for the Roman god, Pan. Roman mythology said that this god, who looked like a goat, was born somewhere nearby. In the area, there was a huge mountain with a great cavern in the side. There were many little alters and niches around the mountain where people would worship all kinds of pagan deities. They are still there today and if you visit the area and go to this mountain, you can see lots of little devotional niches carved into the mountain and the massive cave, opening wide its dark gaping mouth, at the base. Many of the people of the time believed that this particular cave led to the land of the dead. To the land of Hades. It was, in fact, called the Gates of Hades, or the Gates of Hell.
Interesting place for Jesus to take his disciples. And it is here that Jesus asks them the easy question: Who do people say that I am? They seem to be falling all over themselves with answers. Some said John the Baptist. Jesus cousin, John, had been beheaded not very long before this and some, particularly Herod, had believed that Jesus was actually John’s ghost. Some said Elijah. He was the prophet that the Jews believed would come back just before the Messiah to prepare his way. And there were some who said he might be Jeremiah or some other prophet.
But then Jesus asks them the really hard question: Who do you say that I am? In a manner of speaking, Jesus takes his disciples to the Gates of Hell and asks them who he really is to them.
Peter responds, as only Peter can: You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Yes, Jesus tells him, and you are The Rock—Peter means rock—and upon such as this I will build my church and the very gates of Hades will not stand against it. Even the gates of hell cannot stand up to this truth of who Jesus is and who he is for us.
I think it is quite likely that Jesus often takes us places that we don’t want to go, places like Caesarea Philippi, and asks us who we say he is. I think that Jesus calls us to see people who are suffering, like those who do not have life’s necessities including clean water, nutritious food and decent shelter, those who are abused, lost, lonely, afraid and left out. He calls us to see them—to see the places of the world where there is hurt—the places that hurt like hell—and then asks us: Who do you say I am? The world may say that Jesus was just a really good guy or that he was very wise or even a revolutionary. But who do you say Jesus is? Is he someone who can overcome these things? Is he someone who can give us the power to make a difference to those who suffer?
Jesus also calls us to the places where we have built little altars to all that we worship in our lives. It is often said that we humans are prone to worshiping money, but there’s also little niches in our hearts to power, acceptance, popularity, intelligence, our own image. Jesus stands there, too, and asks us: who do you say I am? Is he someone far greater than all that upon which we hang our hearts?
Now, I am not convinced that this question is a quiz. I do not think that Jesus asked his disciples what he meant to them as a test to see what they believed. I do not think this is a pass fail question or a litmus test to see if you “qualify” to get in. Things are intensifying with Jesus. He will soon set his face to Jerusalem and, therefore, to the cross. It would be a reasonable time for him to check with his relationship with those who are following him.
Are you uncertain of me? Do you think me simply a guy with lots of magic tricks? Are you following just to get more fish and bread? Do you really understand these parables I’m telling you? While the rest of the people think all kinds of things about me, who am I to you? Who do you say I am? I think it is an invitation to a real relationship with Jesus and a chance for Jesus to say something about his relationship with Peter, with his disciples and with us.
As with pretty much all of scripture, this text is more about who Jesus is than what Peter or our answer may be. Jesus tells Peter that upon this rock—upon the faith that declares Jesus to be the Messiah, the one sent by God to save the world—Jesus will build something that even the very gates of hell cannot stand against. For Jesus, the gates to the land of death are no barrier to him. He will surely die on the cross, a very human, painful and real death like all of us must face. Those gates will not keep him out. But they will also not keep him in, either. For he will die so that he may destroy death forever.
So, who do you say Jesus is? Who is Jesus to you? Some of us may say that we barely know who he is. Little more than a stranger or an acquaintance. Or maybe, he’s the one we’ve read about all of our lives. Or he’s the one we learned that little song about when we were kids. Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. Maybe we think of him as that confusing guy with all the strange stories about wheat and weeds. Maybe we see him as our best friend. Maybe all of these. Maybe something else altogether.
The gospels tell us who we are to him. We are children of God, we are his brothers and sisters, we are the ones for whom he will tear down the gates of Hades so that, for us, he may swallow up death forever. And he is also the one who invites us into a real relationship with him. Who do you say Jesus is?