Scripture for Sunday: Exodus 1.8-2.10; Psalm 124; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20 (“Who do you say that I am?”)
Not everyone is happy with the names bestowed upon them by their parents. This is probably related to the way in which our names and identities become intertwined. My paternal grandfather, given three forenames, elected to use the third, rather than either of the first two: Percy Christian. I can understand why. He was never a Percy, and whatever his spirituality may have been (no doubt influenced by having survived being torpedoed in a submarine in WW2), he never displayed it openly.
Meanwhile, our three-year lectionary cycle brings us back to the readings used for a baptism three years ago of an 8 year old boy with English and Spanish parents. His names reflect his shared heritage. At the time, we were reminded of the importance of naming and identity in Judaeo-Christian tradition, including the Christian baptismal naming that marks us “as Christ’s own for ever.”
Thirty years ago, whiling away time on one of many airline journeys, I came across a lengthy article in the Atlantic magazine reflecting upon the question posed by Jesus about his identity: “Who do you say that I am?” It was illuminating and enlightening, and probably influential upon my own journey of spiritual discovery. As the article noted, many generations have wrestled with this question.
In the nineteenth century it became fashionable to write biographical reflections upon the nature and identity of Jesus, although it was Albert Schweitzer who ultimately deflated many of these by pointing out that each largely reflected the preconceptions of the author: Jesus as ethical teacher, Jesus as social reformer, Jesus as symbol of humanity; Jesus, in other words, as someone who would have fit comfortably into one or another of the familiar categories of the late-nineteenth-century bourgeois world, as someone who might even be asked to tea.
The question that Jesus asked is still pertinent today. And if we are not careful, then like those nineteenth century biographers, we end up creating Jesus in our own image, rather than allowing God to create Jesus in an image that we aspire to follow.
Hans Küng wrote On Being A Christian, because, as he said, “I found myself always speaking about this man Jesus Christ. I realised that I did not really know who this man Jesus really was.” That may well be true of many practising Christians today: who is Jesus, for us? Who do we say that he is? Why should we care?
One reason is that as Albert Schweitzer pointed out, like Peter, we have to answer that question for ourselves, and it will reveal at least as much about us as about Jesus. Nevertheless, we must persist.
A few weeks ago I mentioned David Suchet’s quest to be “Agatha Christie’s Poirot,” rather than his own. In the same way, as we wrestle with who and what Jesus is for us, we might use him as a standard against which to measure whether we are trying to be our own versions of ourselves, or whether we might strive to be the best version of God’s vision for us.
This means that, like the boy who three years ago chose to be baptised and begin a life-long journey of spiritual discovery, we too journey to discover our version of being “Christ’s own for ever.” Then, unlike my grandfather, we might willingly embrace the name “Christian.”