The word identity is one that gets tossed around a lot. We hear all kinds of people reference it in terms of needing to find or discover it. While at one time, it may have only answered the question, “Who am I?”, today it seems to have taken on a much wider and more often applied meaning. Today it seems to be applied to a whole host of descriptions that includes, but is not limited to our job, our sexual preference, our gender, our faith preference, labels others give us, heck, even our credit needs to be guarded for the sake of our identity, so that it does not become stolen.
Jesus might have started today’s conversation with the disciples rather innocently, “Who do people say that I am?”, but before long the question becomes much more direct. When he firsts asks the question in reference to others, it is easy to hide behind pretty non-personal revelations. It is what others think. They do not need to lay any cards on the table. But before long, it becomes this personal question: “But who do you say that I am?” There is now no hiding. They must speak boldly about how they have come to experience Jesus.
As is often the case, it is Peter who first speaks boldly. He always seems to want to be noticed. Impulsive, but obviously a big heart. Did the other apostles agree with Peter? Did Peter say what he did because he fully believed it, or because he thought it was what Jesus wanted to hear? And if these answers were indicative of all of them, or some of them, how was it the apostles understood themselves, and what the answer to Jesus question implied for each of them?
Because while it may seem the question is answered, in reality, given what happens next, it is not. Peter does not really understand what it means to be “the Christ”, and his answer demonstrates that the impulsive fisherman might also have a practical side as well. Whoa, whoa, whoa, there Jesus, let’s talk about this. You do not need to suffer.
In some ways, Jesus in today’s gospel is like that master teacher who introduces a lesson in a way that it cannot be forgotten. Peter may appear to have the right answer. In fact one of the gospels indicates that Jesus looks at Peter with love. But when he shows to the others a complete misunderstanding, Jesus creates that memorable moment that drives home his very important point. Everything in faith is about following where God leads.
And this begins clearly in the first reading with listening and hearing. God opens our ears. But he does so when we seek. When we ask. We have to create some type of opening in our ears to hear. Because the temptation to close our ears is great. In a time when we have more information than ever available to us, we tend to limit what information we take in to those sources that we know will agree and share our point of view. Because as the first reading continues, when God opens our ears, Isaiah continues by showing that it did not lead to immediate glory, but rather to plucked beards and beaten backs.
Both the first reading and the gospel tell us that faith cannot and must not be mere words. James tells us that too. We must be careful as Westerners and Americans from thinking that what James is advocating is something where works are primary over and against faith. This is not the case. I think a more accurate read is that what James is advocating is that if our faith does not cause us to act, to see the dignity of each human being, and to commit to share what we have with the poor, to shelter the homeless, to do those good deeds not for show but because our faith compels us to, it is then that we see the proper order.
Faith is still primary for James, but it is not enough to say we believe if we do not engage in a life that witnesses to our belief. Without being judgmental, since I find myself struggling with the proper balance of good works and faith, it can be the case that we are more concerned with protecting our own interests, living our Christian faith only when it suits us. Build a wall to keep the strangers out. Yet, Christ reminds us in Matthew’s gospel we are acting in faith when we welcome the stranger. We become concerned when it appears that “those people” from far distant lands may come here to kill us, take our jobs, and ruin our way of life.
Are we first and foremost followers of Jesus, seeking to serve the common good, or are we more concerned with protecting the stuff we have and not having our lives too upset. It is perhaps the irony of today’s readings that it is not just the identity of Jesus that is asked about here. Our identity, who we are, what we believe and how we act is all on the line today. For if we want to answer the question of Jesus, “But who do you say that I am?” then we must also be starkly honest about what that answer means for our personal identity.