“…He asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
(Mark 8:27–30 NRSV)
Are You My Mother?
In the Story “Are You My Mother?” by PD Eastman a little bird is born while it’s mother is out.
The bird meets a kitten, dog, hen, cow, an old car, a steamboat, airplane and a steam-shovel. And the bird asks, or wonders, about each and every one being his mother.
[Show and explain the story. In each instance there’s a testing of relationship.]
On the surface the bird is on a quest to find it’s mother, but at a deeper level the bird is on a quest for identity.
Our identities are very much hooked to that which we desire and mirror ourselves after. It makes a big difference whether the bird finds his mother to nurture his self identity or he takes a dog to be his mom.
Think about how this is true for us. Where do we hook our identities? It could be a job we have, or it could be that dream career, if I only could get that job then I would finally be happy, confident, etc. It could be my children, or my spouse. This is often why we have such a hard time separating ourselves emotionally from the things our kids or partners do. It could be our country, or a house, or a membership in a club, or a religious group, or an education, and yes, it can be our mothers!
But it is human to allow these various threads to heavily shape our identities and that which we desire. I like that this children’s story shows us just how fundamental the quest for identity is.
And in the same way that it is essential in the development of a little bird to find it’s mother, and not hook its identity into a dog, a cat or a steam-shovel, it is essential for us to have our identity aim in the appropriate direction.
As St. Augustine once said “Our hearts until they rest in thee…”
I think that at the heart of the question, “Who do you say that I am?” is a question of identity. The identity of Jesus as well as our own identity.
Peter’s response “You are the Messiah” says more than we might see on the surface.
Peter is in a sense asking a similar question to the bird who asks “are you my mother?” Peter is saying, you are the messiah. And the messiah, by this he means something very specific, is the one for whom I want to hook my identity. The messiah is the one who is to come who I will place all my hopes and desires in.
This seems all well and good. This is a really good Sunday School answer right?
And this this is why Jesus’ response is so interesting and somewhat startling when he tells him to be quiet about this and then rebukes him.
I think that Jesus is worried about the fact that Peter has hooked his identity into an understanding of messiah that is only right on the surface.
It’s like when you’re technically right about something, but when we look a little deeper into it turns out that you’re wrong about the content, or the details, of the answer.
Peter’s response is right but for the wrong reasons.
This is also know as the Gettier Problem which asks the question, can “a piece of information that happens to be true but that someone believes for invalid reasons…counts as knowledge?” Wiki
One examples of this from pop culture (link):
At the end of the Burn the Witch! scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s revealed that the woman really is a witch, despite all the fabricated evidence and Insane Troll Logic the peasants have used against her.
Bedevere: So, logically…
Peasant: If…she…weighs…the same as a duck…she’s made of wood.
Bedevere: And therefore…?
Another Peasant: …a witch!
Crowd: A witch! A witch! A witch!!
Peter’s knowledge is correct. Jesus is the messiah. But there is a gap between the word “messiah” and the reality of this messiah living and breathing right in front of him that he is missing.
Peter’s word “messiah” cannot contain the reality of God’s work that is being done through Jesus. Just like no word can contain all human experience or explanation of God.
It is idolatry at its finest to try and make any word, any explanation, or anything a fixed representation of God.
This is why so much of Jesus’ ministry is giving new words, new stories, new metaphors and ways of thinking and talking about who God is.
It’s okay that Peter isn’t there yet.
And it’s okay if we’re not there yet either.
[ILL] This gap between word and reality is like me telling someone that I am a pastor and what they picture is a catholic priest. Well, it is true that the word pastor applies to both, but there are radically different roles for each.
The same is true with Jesus “messiahship” which turns out to be very unusual, very different, and very unmessiah-like in a a lot of ways. Jesus says that this role will be for him to:
“undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31 NRSV)
And consequently, once you begin to redefine who God is as Jesus is doing here, you have to move on to redefine life itself.
It matters to the rest of the little bird’s life how he will live if he takes for himself an old car or a bird as his mother.
I think that Jesus is saying that it matters who and what you hook your identity into because our understanding of who God is is intricately linked to how we will live our lives.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Our response to this not only tells us something about who we believe God to be, but about who it is we are becoming.
If Messiah means that which is to come in a Davidic Kingdom sense, the one who will take back Jerusalem from the control of the Roman Empire, slay her enemies, and have his throne restored, then of course our lives as this Messiah’s followers will take on a very black and white zeal to bring down the empire through whatever means necessary.
But if Messiah means the one of love, self-giving and self-denial, he will necessarily suffer, and redefine what it means to live life fully. He will give us a different path to walk down.
In the first “messiah” there is a desire to escape from suffering and pain. In the second, there is an embracing of the complexities of human life, even the messiah himself suffers unnecessarily.
One is rooted in violence and the other is rooted in love.
One is closed and not open for interpretation or participation.
The other one is invitational but requires that you forsake the alternative because they cannot go together.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Here is a little of my own response to this.
I settle into my best guess for the moment. I realize that no one word I use, no sentence I speak, and no book I write will ever contain God.
“My heart is restless until it rests in thee.”
So I confess that as I stand here I want to know in a way that my life will change. And I want to know so that I can help you too.
I want to be the kind of preacher and pastor that when you leave you have no more questions, or concerns, or heartaches…but I stand here in all my own human frailty and weakness and say to you that I am only just still working this out just like you.
In a way, then I am on my way to becoming a Christian more than that I have somehow figured out what it means to be one.
I am doing my best to hang onto truth, to hang on to what I know about God, love, human frailty and offer my Peter-like word ”messiah” while at the same time, hold loosely enough that I can hear and see anew when God speaks and redefines those things for me (103).
I think of it like trying to fit a full-grown elephant’s into a soda can. My language and my experiences always fall short of the bigger picture.
And I believe that this is okay.
Peter’s answer was right but for the wrong reasons. It fell short too. Jesus rebuked him not for getting it wrong, but for trying to superimpose his desire and expectations back onto Jesus. Peter was at fault not for getting something wrong, but for trying to control the work of God with his definitions.
Thank God we have never done that.
The invitation from Jesus to Peter, and for you and I, I think is this: that we hold our words, our definitions and our categories loosely and never use them to superimpose our reality onto the work of God in the world.
Peter is right for the time being. Or to be more accurate, he is on his way to becoming right. And so are we.
“Who do you say that I am?”