Read Sermon


Who do you say that I am?

Feast of St Peter the Apostle

29 June 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

Today’s Gospel reading is one of the key texts of the New Testament, the turning point in the ministry of Jesus. St Mark’s Gospel seems to divide exactly into two at this point where Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah. Up to this point Jesus has had a public ministry of teaching and healing; but from this point onwards he concentrates on teaching the disciples alone exactly what being Messiah will mean for him.

Even the geography of the incident is significant. Much of Jesus’ ministry was around the shores of the Sea of Galilee, but then he sets off on a journey to the far north of the country to the city of Caesarea Philippi. This was a new and Greek-speaking city built during Jesus’ own lifetime by Herod Philip, one of the sons of Herod the Great. Scholars now believe that while Aramaic would be Jesus’ first language, the language of his family and his own people, he would certainly have spoken some Greek also since the language was so widespread in the region at that time.

Caesarea Philippi was as far north as Jesus ever travelled, in what we now call the Golan Heights, near the springs which are the headwaters of the River Jordan. It’s as if Jesus has taken his twelve disciples away on retreat, away from the press of the people wanting healing and the Pharisees wanting theological debate. And there he asks the question that must have been in all their minds, Who do men say that I, the Son of man, am? And they said, Some say you are John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. And then, more directly, But who do you say that I am?

The disciples had surely debated this question among themselves over and over again. Is Jesus a prophet such as we have known before in history, or is he more than a prophet? Perhaps when the question was asked there was an embarrassed silence until Peter says what is in their hearts, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus replies in effect, Yes I am. Peter, you have made the breakthrough to a profound truth which will be the foundation of a new People of God.

But what could Peter have meant when he said that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God? In the political situation of the day, the Jews interpreted the messianic prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah as meaning that God would send them a new king to deliver them from the power of the Roman Empire. Both Messiah and Son of God were royal titles and the people’s hope was political. It would be Jesus’ task, in the second half of his ministry, to teach the disciples that his goal was not political but spiritual, and that his relationship to the Father was far closer than that of an adopted royal son.

In the verses which follow today’s reading, Jesus explains that his vocation as Messiah means that he will be put to death and that he will rise on the third day. While Peter has made the breakthrough to declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, it is too much for him to accept that Jesus must be put to death and he is rebuked by Jesus. I think we should sympathise with Peter who is only expressing what his people have believed for 700 years. It’s an enormous leap from believing that the Messiah will bring political freedom and greatness to your people to believing that the Messiah will suffer an ignominious death in order to bring men and women into a new relationship with the Father.

But political freedom and greatness for Judaea would have had only a temporary significance, hardly the foundation of a new People of God. The person and work of Jesus, who he is and what he accomplishes through death and resurrection, are far deeper matters and far more significant. Of course, the question is also put to us today, Who do you say that I am? Each Sunday we respond to that question in the words of the Nicene Creed, I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. By that we believe far more than Peter himself declared, not just that Jesus is the Messiah and adopted royal son. He is the Word of God who has taken our mortal humanity in order that we might share his divine and eternal life.
Cookies used on this website
New EU legislation requires that all web sites clearly specify the presence of cookies and their purpose. Cookies are used to enhance the user experience. StGeorges uses Google Analytics to track activity on its site, helping to keep the site relevant and easier to use, via the use of these cookies . For an enhanced site experience, consumers will need to consent to the use of StGeorges cookies. A preference cookie, that will become available to you when you choose the ‘I agree’ button, will be a long-life cookie that will not automatically clear when you close the browser window. If you manually delete this cookie you will need to re-confirm your preferences every time you next visit this website, unless you choose accept the long life option.