Matt. 16:13-20; Is. 51:1-6; Rom.12:1-8
“Who do you say that I am?”
Most Sundays, it’s quite clear which text is the one the sermon should be focusing on, but this week is an exception. All three readings are, in a sense, enmeshed. There is the urgency of the prophet Isaiah, each verse prefaced with words like ‘listen to me’, ‘pay heed’, ‘raise your eyes heavenwards’. There is the exhortation of Romans in which Paul, just as urgently, ‘implores’ his readers to offer their ‘very selves’ to God. And, finally, the stark question put by Jesus to Peter, and to all of us, “Who do you say that I am?”
Who, indeed, do we say Jesus is? And what kind of an answer is expected of us? I don’t think we need to look far to find it, because we are being asked to consider and answer this question with nothing less than our very selves, and with our whole lives.
It is a question that brings together all the questions that have ever been asked about anything that pertains to the human condition, to the future of the human race, to the meaning and purpose of each of our lives. And yet it is a question whose answer eludes us, while also demanding a definitive response. It brooks no conditional half measures. It brings us to the place that Peter finds himself in, having no other words than those given to him by the gift of faith itself.
So really what we are dealing with in these texts is faith, faith as a gift. The problem with faith, though, is that it is a gift that even though it is freely given, depends on our wanting to receive it. Where there is indifference to God, where there is no desire for God, there is nowhere for the gift of faith to go. In fact, I would go so far as to say that downright hostility towards God is better than indifference when it comes to faith. The angry and the hostile are at least feeling something in regard to God and perhaps trying to express that anger with good reason. They may be angry on someone else’s behalf because of whatever they or another person has experienced at the hands of the Church, or of religion in general. Anger and hostility embody passion and the God we read of in the passage from Isaiah is a passionate God.
So there are no half measures in regard to how we feel and then respond to the question put by Jesus to Peter. We are obliged to respond to it with our whole being.
I am willing to bet that in the solitude and isolation that many of us have experienced over the past months, and may still be experiencing, that we have been confronted by this question on numerous occasions. When we are alone, afraid or vulnerable, questions about the meaning and purpose of life and our own particular life trajectory tend to loom large, especially for those who have difficulty sleeping at night. Sometimes we find ourselves in that half waking nightmare (a favourite of Jung’s, by the way) in which we feel that we are falling into a great emptiness, a great darkness. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world is ‘falling’ in that way too. These are frightening moments and we live in frightening times. But it is precisely from such moments that we hear the question being asked by Jesus of Peter, and of all of us. Who do we say Jesus is?
We do not hear it as judgment. It is not a test. It was not a test for Peter either. Jesus’s response was not to say “Well done. You got it right, so now you can relax in the knowledge that you’re saved”, or going to heaven – or some other equivalent. He says “it was faith that made it possible for you to know this”. Peter must have wanted that gift of faith. I wonder if he was surprised by what it felt like when he got it.
I ask this because I think the gift of faith is not only there for us when we want it, but that it does not always turn out to be what we think it is. It is not about making a magical transition from a place of not believing anything to believing everything the bible says, literally as written, or the Church teaches, as given. Faith is not about gearing yourself intellectually and emotionally to ‘believe’ things. It is about knowing. By that I mean the kind of knowing that was given to the prophet Job, and to Isaiah who speaks with such urgency in the reading set for this Sunday.
The ‘knowing’ of faith comes with experience, the kind of experience that demands our total self-giving as a response to God’s invitation to listen, to take heed, to raise our eyes heavenwards. The empty days that we may still be experiencing as a result of Covid ought to make it easier for us to do this self-giving, or self-emptying.
The whole of Jesus’s life, leading to his death on the Cross, was an act of self-emptying, or kenosis as it is also called. He prepared for it for forty days spent fasting in the desert, an empty place. He knew emptiness as hunger, as fear and as loneliness. But he knew it most importantly as the culmination of his willingness to be given over to us in our emptiness and in the spiritual emptiness of our materialist society, a materialism that drives our lives for most of the time.
Interestingly, Christian mystics who have spent time alongside holy men and women in India have found that the language of kenosis is not at all foreign to them and is even at the very core of their own belief systems. Who is to say that Jesus does not meet them with the same question he put to Peter, and puts to each one of us? And who is to say that their answer, if they have one, which they probably would not presume to have, differs in essence from the one given by Peter? At the heart of kenosis is the strange silent ‘not knowing’ that leads into the deep knowing of God that Isaiah speaks of.
These are difficult things to speak of without sounding overly abstract which is why Job, at the end of his tribulations, is reduced to silence. So, in effect, must we be. Remaining silent is not a matter of giving up on the knowing of God, as something far too esoteric and difficult. It is more about allowing the presence of Jesus in our lives to be his presence to a world and society that is badly in need of it. So it would be wrong to ‘accept the gift of grace (which leads to faith) in vain’ as St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth (2 Cor. 6:1). We accept the gift of grace which leads to faith in whatever capacity it is given to us to accept it, and we live our lives accordingly. We do not live in a self-interested way, protecting our precious beliefs against all comers, lest our faith be compromised. We live in a kenotic way, emptied, as Christ was, so that we can be filled with God and with the world’s need for God’s love and God’s passionate desire to heal it and restore it to himself, just as the prophet Isaiah promises.