Simon Peter said of Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said of Simon Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus and Peter, as described by Matthew 16:13-19, are using theologically dense descriptors to identify one another. This exchange of awareness explodes on the scene and, one could argue, shifts human history forever.
It is a seismic moment and has shaped the Church’s theology and mission ever since, for good and for ill. It has been for good when the Church has lived into its mission as a reconciling body to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP p. 855). It requires a humility that remembers that the Church as described in the Gospel is an interim arrangement if you will, an in-the-meantime and thereby less than whole expression of the reign of God between the earthly life of Jesus and the fullness of the kingdom. Such a perspective can perhaps release us from dogmatic prisons which too often tend to repress, thwart and constrict God-awareness for God’s people. At its worse it has given death to God’s people. At its best it has given the freedom of life to which Jesus was always pointing.
If I were to be a director in a cinematic version of Peter’s confession and Jesus’ response, to catch the quality of the moment I would be coaching the actors to identify glimpses of awareness when a shift occurred in their own hearts and minds that changed their way of seeing the world. For me it might be in 1972, when as a naïve twenty-year-old I walked onto the campus of what was then Morgan State College, a historically African-American school, to meet the campus minister for lunch. I walked into the cafeteria as all eyes turned toward me and I realized I was the only white person amongst hundreds of people. Or it might be the time as an undergrad when I was able to use an electron microscope to peer into the depths of my own DNA and be confronted by the wonder of my own helix. Then maybe it was a bit over a decade ago, when one week after I affirmed the election of the first openly gay bishop in The Episcopal Church, I walked into a parish for my visitation and a father walked up to me, threw his arms around me and sobbed, saying through his tears, “Now I know my son is not in hell.” His gay son had committed suicide three years before.
In all these scenarios and in the account between Jesus and Peter, identity had been given and affirmed from another. A new interpretive lens was given, a shift in worldview occurred as clarity came and purpose was revealed. Unity and freedom were offered. It ought not be lost on us that the conversation between Jesus and Peter was recorded as occurring in Caesarea Philippi, a known center of pagan worship. When we are able to confess Jesus as the one who unifies and marks all of God’s creation as holy, we are living his purpose for justice and peace. Then we are a church God can truly use for the healing of the world.