“Who do people say that I am?” This is the question Jesus asks his disciples in the gospel of Matthew this month (Matthew 16: 13-20). As the disciples frequently do, they seem a bit flummoxed by that odd question from their leader and kind of mumble around spouting some of the local lore they have overheard in the marketplace when Peter hits an “AHA!” moment all his own. “It’s YOU, isn’t it? YOU are the Messiah!!!”
Peter’s moment of grace in Caesarea Philippi was a wonderful revelation both to Peter and to Jesus. Jesus might have thought: “Ah...my disciples—at least this one—seems to be “getting it.”” But we know from how the story unfolds that Peter did not always “get it”. His moment of grace was balanced out by his humanity. He was impetuous and ambitious. He was proud, even stubborn. He eventually abandoned Jesus out of fear for his own life. How could this possibly be a grace-filled vessel upon whom so much would depend for the future?
Isn’t that the undiscovered truth for any of us? Why would God choose any of us to be responsible for any part of God’s kingdom? We are ambitious and stubborn. We are proud. We are sometimes timid and afraid. We wander away and we wander back. We are mean to each other at times. And yet, at other times, we are extraordinary gifts of compassion and are moved to do things we might not ordinarily do. Perhaps those moments, the ones when grace unexpectedly appears, are the moments when the Holy Spirit is intervening in ways deeper than words.
It’s a mystery.
Perhaps that is how I might answer the question if Jesus stood in front of me asking: “Who do you say I am, Carole?” My answer: Jesus – you’re a mystery to me. And your church is a mystery to me. And most days I don’t feel much like a rock but we are all called to be the living stones upon which you build your faith community. Peter was just the first one to connect the dots of who you are and the life you point toward.
It’s kind of awkward to answer Jesus’ question without using centuries old platitudes and worn out phrases that are so over-used they lose their meaning. It’s hard to put into words what Jesus means to us when we live daily lives that are so filled with distractions and demands. It is challenging to carve out the time to be in this relationship. That’s not a guilt trip—that’s just reality. We can have all the book learning in the world, but if Jesus doesn’t feel like a living presence we fall far short of the opportunity to know God and to realize we are already known and loved by God. It is a spiritual spark that cannot be taught in a lecture or read in a book. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen says: “Spiritual experience is not taught; it is found, uncovered, discovered, recovered.”
One thing we can do, however, is to try on different ways of connecting the dots for ourselves while answering Jesus’ question: “Who do you say I am to you?”
Try this experiment the next time you lead or participate in a retreat or group devotion:
Before the meeting, fill a tray with a collection of different objects you find around your house, kitchen, office, outdoors, wherever: an acorn, a ruler, a dream catcher, a pen, a glass case, a magnifying glass, a trinket. Just find interesting things to put on the tray.
Cover the tray with a towel to keep the contents out of sight and put it in the middle of your meeting. Explain that the group is going to do an exercise to ponder the question Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”
Reveal the contents of the tray and instruct each individual to pick something from the tray that is a symbol representing some aspect of what Jesus means to them. After all have selected their symbol, each person one-by-one shares with the group their unique selection and explains why they made that choice.
Is Jesus for you a straight-edge ruler, something straight and true by which we measure our own lives? Is Jesus a dream catcher, a symbol of something that catches and holds our dreams with us? An acorn, whose roots provide an anchor in rough seas? A prism, through which things take on a different look depending on which way you turn it? A “babushka doll”, that reveals some new surprise at each stage? An onion, with a different, deeper layer every time you peel away the old one?
Jesus frequently used the natural world to describe what the Kingdom of God is like: a pearl, a mustard seed, yeast for bread. What other common things around you touch upon some aspect of Jesus for you? What helps you connect the dots? How you would answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?”
NOTE: Similar stories from Scripture are explored more fully in my newly released book: “The Light Shines Through: Our Stories Are God’s Story” by Church Publishing, Inc. Ordering available now at Hopkins Bookshop (www.hopkinsbookshop.com) or Church Publishing (www.churchpublishing.org/lightshinesthrough )
 Remen, Rachel Naomi MD My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging (Riverhead Books, NY 2000) p 179