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This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 16:13–20:
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
I spent much of my high school years involved in drama — performing plays and studying theater. The two instructors we had took the study of theater very seriously; the second one taught us The Method, albeit a likely watered-down version for teenage dilettantes. This involved much more than learning lines. We had to write our characters’ back-stories, do improv in character, and so on. On occasion, we had to do character interviews in order to tell others who we were, not just from the pages of the script but from the three-dimensional identities we had created.
In fact, high school at times felt like the same process on a larger scale. We tried to find our own identities, much of which we formed by the people with whom we hung out. Theater geeks, band kids, jocks, braniacs, surfers, stoners, whatever categories existed became our identities, at least for a while. Eventually, we all realize that these are archetypes more than identities, clichés that don’t reveal the truth and the complexities of who we are. We spend our lives finding our own unique identity, and then communicating it to the world.
However, identity is more than just an internal expression. It also includes who we are and what we do in the world. Today’s Gospel reading speaks to this thirst for authentic identity, and its consuming breadth.
In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus had just fed the four thousand on the mountain in Galilee (Matthew 15:32-39). The Pharisees and the Sadducees had come immediately after demanding a sign from heaven to establish His identity as a prophet. Jesus rebuked them for not being able to see “the signs of the times,” and then later asks the disciples about His identity. Peter had been blessed with the clear understanding of Jesus’ authentic identity as the Son of God, and Jesus promised to give Peter the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” as a result.
Jesus certainly knew who He was. Peter’s declaration had no impact on His authentic identity. But by asking Peter to declare that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus revealed Peter’s authentic identity as a follower of Christ and the leader of the Christian church on earth. He also made clear that His followers would also have to make that same choice in order to assume an authentic and primary identity as a Christian.
Peter did not completely assume this all at once, either. Almost at the same time, Jesus rebuked Peter for opposing the will of God by telling him, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Later, at the beginning of Jesus’ passion, Peter denied him three times. It took Peter more time and the love of the Holy Spirit to truly accept his authentic identity that had been revealed by Christ. And yet, Jesus never changed His mind about Peter and his authentic identity.
The same process takes place with the apostles too, albeit less dramatically. They come to Jesus as fishermen and tax collectors, and in Paul’s case as a persecutor of the apostles. After their encounters with Jesus and the risen Christ, they finally grasp their true and authentic identities as the missionaries of the Gospel and the church Christ founded.
All of the men and women who undergo this conversion process take on their new identities as Christians, even though the term may not have occurred to them at that time. But they do more than that; they take an active role in building the church which Christ built on the rock of Peter. They understood their authentic identity required more than just a sense of self, but also a sense of mission and purpose. They put their own wills subordinate to the Lord’s, and took on His mission to spread salvation across the world to all peoples.
This was the original mission of Israel in reverse. The Lord wished Israel to be a nation of priests serving Him alone, to which the nations of the world would come to learn the Law and salvation. Israel lost its way, choosing to serve itself as a worldly nation rather than serving the Lord, and adopting idolatry over fidelity. Those within the kingdoms of Israel and Judah chose selfishness and sin, and today’s first reading gives us an example in Shebna, a powerful man in Hezekiah’s palace. The prophet Isaiah prophesies that Shebna’s self-serving days are coming to a close:
“I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family.”
The question for us in today’s Gospel is the same as it was in high school, college, and most of our lives: who do we think we are? Acknowledging Jesus as Christ forces us to make that choice for ourselves — to either assume an authentic identity as a Christian or to reject it. To embrace Jesus as Lord or to remain stuck in our own desires and addictions. To join the mission of spreading the Good News of salvation, or to abandon it for our own ambitions. To recognize God, or to keep assuming we’re our own gods.
Sin is that rejection, but even in that, do not despair. Peter didn’t get it fully correct at first either, and neither did the rest of the apostles. Finding our authentic identity will take most of us our entire lifetimes. We can only begin that journey, though, when we declare who we really are — and commit to it.
The front-page image is the Church of the Primacy of Peter on the Sea of Galilee in Tabgha, Israel. From my own collection.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.