“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” (Matthew 16:13-20)
A couple of summers ago, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Festival to immerse myself in a few theatre productions. I usually aim for a balance between musicals and more dramatic offerings, and as the result of a compromise with my theatre companion, I one day found myself rather unenthusiastically seated in the audience waiting for the curtain to rise on Man of La Mancha….a musical that first appeared on Broadway in 1965, and its most memorable song, The Impossible Dream (or, The Quest), had been thoroughly covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams and many others ad nauseam. In fact, I was so thoroughly sick of that song that I had made up my mind that I had no real interest in the production that contained it. Well, I’ve found that when I go into a situation with low expectations, I’m liable to be surprised…. and this was one of those times. It turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking musicals I’ve ever seen; one that has really stuck to my ribs.
I won’t try to rehash all the details of the plot, because they’re relatively inconsequential ….but the Reader’s Digest version might be helpful: Cervantes, a writer living in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, finds himself thrown into prison. The reason isn’t important. Among his possessions that have come with him into the prison is a treasured manuscript for a book he has written. The prison culture is cruel and demeaning, a ‘dog eat dog’ atmosphere, and the other men and women who are incarcerated there are a rough and unprincipled bunch who threaten to destroy his precious manuscript. In an effort to save it, he offers to put on a play for them, featuring the character of his book, Don Quixote, who is a dreamer and an idealist. The prisoners agree to this exchange, and through the gift of story we witness a profound transformation in the prisoners – they abandon self-loathing for self-respect; they abandon desperation to embrace hope. They catch a vision of their human potential. By the end of the production, the fictional idealist Don Quixote has helped a group of captives reclaim, even in a dark, cheerless prison, the basic human yearning to create a life of meaning and purpose; to strive for something greater beyond themselves…..or as the song has it, to dream the impossible dream, and to right the unrightable wrong. Wow. It touched a nerve, no doubt about it….imparting far less ‘fluff’ than your standard musical.
So of course that plotline got me thinking, because of the parallels found in another rather familiar story to which we can all relate – of a man who appeared in the Jordan one fine day some 2000 years ago to be baptized by John, and then set about effecting social and personal transformation in some of the more desperate and disaffected people of his time by telling stories, providing a vision of a different kind of reality that he called the Kingdom of God….where all creation would live in harmony born of mutual respect and compassion. Really, the parallels in the two stories are a little uncanny. Jesus and Don Quixote had just a bit in common.
But up against that, we have today’s gospel, where Jesus wants to know what people are thinking about him, and Simon – wonderful, impulsive, speak-before-you-think Simon – blurts out his famous confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” which, I suggest, is probably a little different from the musical theatre version, which might have been: “You are Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, an idealist and a dreamer.” Simon in this moment seems to give voice to something intuitive, that Jesus is oh, so much more than that. And significantly, I think what Simon models here is permission to speak, not from the head, but from the heart. And his heart knew that there was a profound likeness between Jesus and Simon’s idea of God; that Jesus helped to make God known for him as no other had yet been able to do. He was more than a dreamer, more than an idealist…. just more. Divinity alive in humanity, perhaps, with cosmic importance and consequences.
Perhaps you’ve had that experience of blurting out something truthful or insightful before you even thought about it – and wondered to yourself afterwards where on earth it came from. I think this was a similar kind of moment for Simon, a defining moment – it was out of his mouth before he even knew what he was saying, or what it meant….but once it was ‘out there’, there was no turning back.
Jesus knew it, and rose to the occasion. He conferred his new identity – called Simon the name he is best known by today, Peter, petros in Greek, the Rock, the one to whom the infant church would look for a solid footing. Peter the impulsive, Peter the risk-taker, Peter who would deny even knowing Jesus before all was said and done – this same Peter was to be a foundation stone….because Jesus perceived in him potential that even Peter himself could not begin to fathom. Peter, for his part, must have been pretty dumbfounded by Jesus’ reply. He couldn’t possibly have suspected or predicted the events that would eventually unfold for Jesus in the days and weeks to come – and still, there it was. You are the Messiah, son of the Living God. Recognition. Inspiration. Commitment. Surrender. Trust. All in one impulsive, intuitive breath.
So, how do we answer the question? Who do we say Jesus is, or was? Preacher? Teacher? Idealist? Prophet? Dreamer? Madman? Messiah? All of the above? None of the above? And does it really matter?
Well, clearly, I think it does. And not so much for what it says about Jesus, but for what it potentially says about us. It’s because of the ‘Jesus Event’ in history and the faith that proceeds from it that we’re able to turn the question around and ask it from God’s perspective…because the way I understand it, it’s as much as question of our own identity as it is about Jesus. So let’s ponder about that for a moment. God looked at Moses, the baby in the bulrushes, and saw the deliverer of Israel from slavery in Egypt. God looked at Jesus, the baby in the manger, and saw the Saviour of the world. God looked at Simon the fisherman and saw Peter the Rock on which to build the Church. And God looks at you, and God looks at me…. and what does God see? Not simply who we think we are, but who we can become.
So that’s the question I think we’re invited to ask ourselves today… “God, what do I look like in your eyes? Who do you say that I am?” Therein lies the difference between idealism and faith to me. Faith implies a partnership with God that simple idealism doesn’t. As faithful people, we’re called and invited to engage not simply with our own dreams, but with God’s. We are God’s co-creators – and I rather suspect that the richer life, the deeper, more satisfying life, is lived when we aren’t confined by who we think we are, but rather when we surrender to God’s creative potential, and allow ourselves to become a product of God’s own imaginings, purposes, hopes, and dreams….which are anything but impossible.
May your perfect and holy will be done in us, O Lord, that we may fulfil your dreams for us, for your Church, and for your world. Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams