the penultimate WORD
Series 1999 - Proper 21 Canon Jim Irvine
"But who do you say that I am?"


 Jesus said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Matthew 16: 15

Very early on, I learned that teachers were more interested in assessing my memory than teaching me anything. Put another way, I discovered that teachers were more rewarding to students who provided them with the answers they wanted to the questions that they asked.

So I learned to size up my teachers early, and to play the accepted game of answering questions effectively.

That is how I managed to survive in an academic atmosphere. It served me well and rewarded me in the process.

Looking around, I see that that is how most of us act, those of us who want to survive. And some of us are better at it than others.

We begin that way, wanting to please, wanting to be accepted, and for a good number of us, we continue that pattern throughout our lives. In the process, I'm not so sure we learn very much, and the little that we do learn, I'm not convinced that we are any better for it.

The process isn't always honest, but if survival is our objective, we are reluctant to abandon it as a means of coping with what comes our way, day after day.

We learn the right answers, the acceptable answers to other people's questions and somehow we manage to suppress many of the questions we have. These questions and doubts and insights are submerged in a sea of timidity holding us back from examining our world further. Content with being right, we skate along the surface without plumbing the depths and integrating personal faith.

Not that this pattern is peculiar to this generation. It isn't. It has always been so, with only remarkable exceptions appearing from time to time.

Jesus was such an exception.

He was interested to learn the insights of others. Today's gospel demonstrates this well.

When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And his disciples told him, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

John is an answer, but more of a guess; and Elijah is open to interpretation, an intellectual application of metaphor. And that Jesus might be one of the many prophets is a vague attempt, but lacking any reflection of insight and integration. Their comments showed that they knew something about Jesus, but for all their experience, for all their talk, they didn't know Jesus in a way that touched their lives.

At the outset, the conversation was about others, and what they thought. It was an easy thing to report on what others were saying. We do it ourselves, and all the time.

But then he said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"

And the focus changed dramatically and we can almost wince at the awkwardness that ensued.

Not that it is noticeable. We read the scripture without hinting at the struggle of faith.

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God," -- and it sounds so right. We race to the conclusion, with answer in hand, and draw the conversation to an end. But we move in haste, and may likely miss the engagement that Jesus sought with them… and seeks with us still.

Finding it easier to report on another's position, we are reluctant to reveal our thoughts as quickly. The report of another, clearly wrong, can make us feel superior … at least I don't have the wrong answer! But when Jesus' question turns to us, as it turned to Peter, our answer invariably reflects the depth of our own reflection. Who do I say Jesus is? Is my response one of rote, or does it show the wear of trial and doubt, of pain and questioning, leading inexorably to a personal epiphany, as it did Peter?

It is not Peter's confidence of having the correct answer to Jesus' penetrating question that has Jesus affirm Peter, rewarding him as the "Rock" on which the church is built. Rather, it is upon his courage of integrated faith that the church established its foundation, and continues to this day. Our response of heart and mind today continues to provide the building blocks.

Copyright © 1999 James T. Irvine

Series 1999