To understand more fully the Gospel we have just heard we need to read the verses before in which Jesus asks his disciples ‘”Who do people say that I am?”’ He goes on ‘”But who do you say that I am?”’ and Peter replies “You are the Messiah.”
Peter and the other disciples have journeyed with Jesus.
He called them and they followed.
And when they followed they saw healings.
They heard teaching with depth and authenticity.
They witnessed thousands fed with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish.
They saw him walk on water.
They saw a girl restored to life.
Jesus asks ‘“who do you say that I am?”’ And Peter replies ‘“You are the Messiah.”’
That’s the backdrop to the scene described in today’s Gospel when Jesus unpacks what it means to affirm him as Messiah.
He speaks first of the journey, of how before him lies ‘great suffering’, rejection and death.
Peter cannot quite believe it.
And yet Jesus is clearsighted, painfully describing his companion as Satan and then going on to say more about what following him will look like for them.
He talks of taking up of the cross. Of losing life to save it. Challenging stuff that follows the question ‘”but who do you say that I am?”’
Of course, we are all on a journey with the question too and maybe we never quite feel able to answer as Peter does. Yet it is the question.
That’s why Faithbook, our informal gathering to explore the faith begins with asking who Jesus is because really that’s where as a community of faith we begin and end.
And as Peter and the disciples discovered to recognise him as the Messiah is to be changed.
It is in some sense to lose your life, at least the life you thought you were living.
When Jesus talks of losing life, he is I think naming our ability to invest our identity in a kind of false life. He says, ‘For what will it profit them (us) to gain the whole world and forfeit their life.’
Perhaps in his life, Jesus had observed as he grew up those around him who seemed on the surface at least to have a good life. Maybe they had wealth or status. But maybe he saw how this wealth, and this status became what defined them as people.
Perhaps these were the people he had in mind when he said that they had gained the ‘whole world’ but lost their life. Maybe this kind of life was one that needed to be lost.
I wonder what happened next for Peter and the disciples when they started to ponder what all this meant for them. They had recognised Jesus for who he was.
Perhaps they felt rather pleased with themselves, as if naming him as Messiah was enough. Maybe they thought their acclamation was the end of the journey for them.
Whereas it was in fact just the beginning. As they came to realise that the answer to Jesus’ question ‘”who do you say that I am?”’ is not answered just once but every single day.
Answered as they considered how they understood their life, what they had and who they were.
Answered as they considered how they treated the stranger and those on the edges of society.
Answered as they recognised their desire for status and power.
And we join with them as day by day we answer the same question, the question that shapes how we live – ‘”but who do you say that I am?”’
It’s the question that matters because our answer changes us, perhaps not dramatically but over time.
As the life we once thought mattered fades from view and we live into a different vision for life.
And yes, this involves some difficult stuff.
For no matter how many times we have journeyed through this season of Lent before, this reading, this season helps remind us that we can all be drawn towards a shallow vision of life, in which we are often overly anxious and fearful. Where we grasp and possess both what we have and even those with whom we share our lives.
And so yes, as we try to follow Jesus there are sometimes tough choices to make. And we recognise too the rather unfashionable idea of self-denial. But the season began with these words on Ash Wednesday when I said,
‘I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self denial; and by reading and meditating of God’s holy word. ‘
These are words we carry through Lent, cheery stuff you might think, but this season is given if we can enter it with humility to help us re-discover the joy of life.
A life in which Jesus is not a peripheral accessory but at the heart of who we are, and how we see this life we have been given.
To proclaim Jesus as the one we follow, is to be shaped by his life at work amongst us. And to be rooted and grounded in a vision of life in which we are defined not by what we have, what we achieve but by the quality of our relationships,
by how we love,
how we forgive,
how generous we are,
how welcoming we are.
Jesus came I think to show us the way, a way that is not without change or sacrifice, not without letting go of some of the baggage we all carry, a way that is not without cost – but a way that leads to life.
I struggle along that way much of the time. Especially living in a culture that thinks we are bit strange but I also believe and know that real life is found in and through the Jesus we follow and who daily asks me ‘“but who do you say that I am?”’ It’s a question that matters -what is your reply?