“Who Do You Say I Am?” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, August 27, 2023

Our gospel today represents a huge moment in the life and ministry of Jesus on the earth. 

It is huge for Peter and the other apostles also – and also for you and me, brothers and sisters. It is a game-changing moment for everyone, a line drawn in the sand, a now-or –never event.

To understand why this is so, we have to understand what is going on here. Jesus has brought his disciples here to ask him the 64,000-dollar question: “Who do you say I am?” It is crucial for Jesus’ understanding of his mission on earth that they get the answer right. To begin with, this place where they are, on the northern most part of Israel, Caesarea Philippi, was a place where, in ages past, pagan gods were worshipped, especially the god Pan, half-goat, half-man. Besides that, it is named after the Roman emperor, Caesar, who regarded himself as a god and insisted on being so worshipped. So here in this place with its association with pagan idols, false gods, Jesus is asking his disciples: “Where do I fit in here? Do you see me as just another false god, or a wanna-be deity?”

 This puts the apostles on the spot. They have travelled around with Jesus for the better part of two years by now and have witnessed him doing many incredible things that only God could do: calming storms with just a word, walking on water, feeding multitudes with a few loaves of bread and some fish, healing the sick, raising the dead. But to declare that Jesus is God goes clean against what the Jews have been taught for centuries, and what their own Ten Commandments declare: There is only one true God, Yahweh, and you shall not put any other gods before him.  So, can they break out of that faith tradition and say that this Jesus is also God, without being accused of blasphemy? No wonder the disciples are silent for a moment. I see them as shuffling their feet, feeling really awkward, unsure of what to say, afraid of getting it wrong, just wishing someone else would speak up and answer the question. 

And there is good old Peter, taking on the responsibility of speaking up for all of them. We must never forget that Peter is the first to declare that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the true and living God. The other apostles believed that also, but it is Peter who speaks up first. That makes Peter special, as Jesus himself declares, as he appoints him the leader, the first among equals, of the new community he is establishing. Jesus has, just before this episode in our gospel, blasted the religious leaders of the time, the scribes and Pharisees, for their hypocrisy, for being false and bad shepherds of the people. He is about to create around himself a new people, who will recognize him as the Messiah, the anointed one of God, but also as one who is God also. This new community of faith requires leaders to take his place when he is no longer physically with them. Leaders who believe and accept him as both human and divine, Messiah but also God incarnate. The scribes and Pharisees, along with the Sadducees, the priests of the day, have already shown they do not believe in Jesus, do not accept him as their Lord.

That is why the question Jesus asks his disciples is so crucial. Can he form his Church around them as leaders? Or does he have to, if they fail to show true faith in him, scrap that idea, and go back to square one, and find new apostles who will have that faith? And is there one among them who is courageous enough, and reckless enough, and faith-filled enough  to speak for all the others and declare the faith that will forever after be the foundation of  this new community, the Christian Church? 

We know that Catholics see Peter as the first pope, though that is a title that will only fully take hold a few centuries later. But already we should know that the first and primary duty of a pope is that of declaring and holding the Church onto this crucial truth; that Jesus is the Christ, and the Son of the living and true God. It is great to have a pope able to speak several languages, or who goes on missionary trips to far-flung countries, or who is a brilliant theologian. But none of that is necessary to his primary role. He is that peg fastened securely into the ground, that the prophet Isaiah speaks of in our first reading. If everyone else disbelieves, gives up on the Christian faith, swaps the true faith for fake religion, the Church has to be able to look to the pope to stay true and never abandon that central teaching, that Jesus is both Christ and Lord God. 

And to be a true disciple of Jesus, to be a fully believing  member of the Body of Christ, one has to be able to put hand to heart and declare that he or she believes that also, that Jesus is my Lord and my God, as St Thomas will proclaim after Jesus’ resurrection, when he gets to touch Jesus’ wounds, as you remember. Recall that Jesus said to Thomas “You believe because you see. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.” 

You and I, brothers and sisters, are blessed, if we can stand in the footsteps of Thomas, of Peter, of all the apostles, of billions of Christian believers throughout the last 2000 plus years and declare. Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.