21st Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A 2011:
At the heart of our gospel today is the question of identity: the identity of Jesus on the one hand and the identity of Peter on the other hand. The question begins in general terms, even Jesus says: who do people say that the Son of Man is? Son of Man was a phrase Jesus uses quite often in the gospel to note the common bond he shares with all of us. Jesus is fully human, this is a category that he shares with all of us. And, the responses of the people are as general as Jesus' own question: some say John the Baptist, others Elijah. In other words, some people say you are a great preacher who is traveling around preaching repentance just like John the Baptist. Others are saying even more, you are a prophet like Elijah who was the man of God. Neither of these answers is wrong, Jesus was a preacher who spoke of repentance; he was a prophet who spoke about and for God. But, while these people who said Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah might not have been wrong, they weren't correct.
After this question of generalities, Jesus makes it alarmingly concrete: who do you say that I am? What an uncomfortable question! Imagine that someone walked up to you and asked: who do you say that I am? Even if it was your spouse or your child, it would be a hard question to answer.
Jesus really puts Peter on the spot here. Who am I? Do you know me better than those others who think of me as just another prophet or preacher? Am I more than that? But, Peter doesn't even hesitate: you are the Christ the son of the living God. This answer is vastly different from the previous answers. The previous answers were generic and they spoke about the things that Jesus did. This new answer gets to the very identity of Jesus: you are not just some preacher, not just another prophet: you are the Christ, the son of God. Recognizing Jesus' true identity causes a change in Peter's identity: blessed are you Simon, you will be called Peter from now on.
How is Peter able to see Jesus and identify who he really is? There is no doubt that Peter heard Jesus preaching, that he thought of him as a prophet, but how did he get past the generalities? Peter knew Jesus. It is just that simple. Peter had a relationship with Christ, he spent time with him, spoke with him, followed him, etc. He got to know Jesus on a personal level. He was able to move beyond generalities because he encountered Jesus in the specifics of his life.
Here is another way that Peter is a great model for us. Wouldn't we all love to hear the words Jesus addresses to Peter: blessed are you, for God has revealed to you my true identity. And, make no mistake: Jesus is addressing every single one of us: who do you say that I am? Again it is an uncomfortable question. What answer do you have? It is easy to speak in general terms about Jesus: he was a prophet, he was a preacher, he is God, he is the Messiah, all of which is true: but who do you say that I am? In other words, do you know me? If we do know Jesus, it changes who we are. If we have a relationship with Jesus, if we follow him, listen to him, speak with him, then we live as Christians. We take on the identity of Christ, and if we do so we are truly blessed.
All too often however we can mistake knowing a lot about Jesus, for actually knowing Jesus. Every time we come forward to receive Jesus here in this Holy Eucharist he asks us that uncomfortable question: who do you say that I am?