Ordinary Time (Proper 16)
From the 2011 ForeWords archive:
Every couple years my doctor schedules a bone-density exam, mostly to keep an eye on the long-term effects of several of the medicines I take for chronic conditions. It’s by far one of the simplest procedures to undergo (just don’t get me started on colonoscopy prep work!); the biggest hassle is waiting around for it to be my turn to lie down on the X-ray table for the 10-minute exam.
This past Monday morning, therefore, required a trip to a hospital outpatient clinic. It didn’t take me long to notice that every other patient there that morning was older than I am. Now, I don’t think of myself as “older,” much less as “elderly,” but at age 60 I realize some things are relative. I suppose this could easily slip into a discussion of health-care costs in a nation growing older, but that’s not my point in all this so I’ll let it slide. There were, of course, a few folks closer to my own age in the waiting area, but they all appeared to be assisting rather fragile parents, grandparents, or friends.
The admitting clerk who randomly got to do my paperwork was a somewhat bored young man, probably somewhere around 20 years old. He quickly and efficiently went through his established routine, never once diverging from his assigned tasks. After checking my insurance card, driver’s license, and credit card, he eventually slipped an identifying wristband on me, gave me one of those lighted pagers familiar to anyone who’s waited for seating in a restaurant, and asked me to return to the waiting area.
It dawned on me eventually that this kid most likely saw all of us in that waiting room as one big elderly blur. While from my perspective I definitely saw myself as different from the general “older clientele,” that young clerk had a very different viewpoint. Naturally, that annoyed me for much of the rest of the morning. By lunchtime, though, I no longer cared what that admitting clerk thought: I know who I am–and I’m not old! (Granted, that statement does sound a bit like an old fogey, but still….)
This brings me to the interesting interaction between Jesus and his disciples, soon after he reminds them of the remarkable event of miraculously feeding the masses. He wants them to tell him what other people are saying about him, and then he goes a step further by asking who they think he is:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “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.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. –Matthew 16:13-20 NRSV
Peter not only gets the right answer, Jesus gives him a new nickname to mark the occasion. One of the drawbacks of the written word (as opposed to the spoken, audible word) is that it’s next to impossible to discern humor or sarcasm. Subsequent Christian history identifies this moment as Apostle Peter’s designation as the rock on which the Church is to be founded (and the Roman Catholic tradition uses it to trace papal authority back to Peter as the “first pope”); other traditions offer a quite different view that the “rock of revelation” should serve as the basis for the Church. But what if Jesus actually gave Peter a little poke in the ribs along with the comment, “Good answer, Rocky!”
Given Peter’s history to that point (remember how he had initially tried walking on water but once realizing what he was doing quickly sank like, well, a rock?) and subsequent actions (both the “Get behind me, Satan!” and three-fold denial on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion), who really knows? Any of those explanations is at least plausible.
Clearly, Jesus is a lot less concerned with what the crowds are thinking and more concerned with what’s going on in the minds and hearts of his closest disciples. Think for a moment of political candidates, some of whom are driven by daily (if not more frequent) polling, who tailor their campaigns according to what they think other people want to hear. Then there are others, sure of themselves, confident in what they believe and want to accomplish, and counsel their closest staff to do likewise.
Or perhaps it’s that familiar scene from fairy tales: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Only to find out, surprisingly, it’s somebody else!
What does conviction matter? Who, when all is said and done, is Jesus? to us and to the world? Just a philosopher, a teacher, a great man, sombody who did good things–even miraculous things? Or a savior–or even the savior of all humankind whom God sent in the middle of history to dramatically and ultimately change everything?
It is a question not just for Peter but for us all. And it matters. Furthermore, we may be just as “rock-like” from one moment to the next as he was. But that doesn’t change who Jesus was and is and will be. Nor does it mean we get only one shot at answering the question right.