You might have heard that, last Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth became the longest serving monarch in British history. The occasion sparked the usual (though this time rather muted) debate on the British monarchy regarding its place in, and its relevance to, modern society. Somehow, probably because I’m a foreigner, I feel quite detached from that debate. I don’t really mind whether there is a crowned monarch or an elected President, except that in the former case we are stuck for years with whoever sits on the throne.
Those discussions bear some resemblance to those revolving around Jesus two thousand years ago. His appearance on the hot political scene of the Roman province of Palestine brought hope for many, worried others, and raised questions among those who met him or heard him. Interpretation both of his lifestyle and of his teachings was really difficult, and together these seemed to present something impossible and unacceptable to many.
When in today’s gospel Jesus asks his disciples what the people were saying about him, he receives very mixed answers in return. The people of Palestine wanted to categorise him, pigeonhole him, or to stick a label on him; but he fell outside the existing definitions. Even now, two millennia after that question was asked for the first time, the answers given can be very different and sometimes mutually contradictory.
Jesus, however, doesn’t seem to be really bothered by what people say about him. He himself tended to avoid any clear-cut self-declaration, knowing that it would have an adverse effect on his audience, narrowing down the spectrum of his potential followers. Jesus is much more interested in the answers to his second question of the day: ‘Who do you say I am?’ I imagine there was a moment of deafening silence. Suddenly it’s not about sharing rumours and gossip overheard in the marketplace; it’s about making a serious personal declaration.
Simon Peter’s response was a weighty one: ‘You are the Christ.’ It’s the Greek word for the Jewish term of a messiah: a person chosen, anointed and sent on a mission by God, like ancient priests, prophets or kings of Israel. Peter’s answer is in fact a declaration of unbounded trust, love and obedience. I’m pretty certain that making that declaration was a turning point for Peter; even his own future failures couldn’t have shaken that fundamental belief.
That question ‘Who do you say I am?’ remains as relevant today as it’s been for every generation of believers. It’s a question addressed to each and every one of us in a very personal way; the expected response is not to be a collective one, but an individual one. The response is not about sticking a label on Jesus; it’s about his place in your own life and role he plays in it. Essentially, there are two possible answers to this question. And here I’d like to recall the Queen, or more broadly the whole set-up of the constitutional monarchy in the United Kingdom. As the Head of State, the sovereign appears to hold the balance of power: she formally accepts the incoming government, she formally appoints the Prime Minister, she opens Parliament, and she presents the political agenda of the government. Her effigy can be seen on postage stamps, coins, and on banknotes south of the border. Yet all the badges of authority are in fact only props in a political theatre. The real power is held by those elected politicians who form the government and set the political agenda. In the kingdom of free speech, the sovereign chooses not to express her opinions openly; that’s really odd.
I haven’t described the UK’s political system in order to mock it or to challenge it – I’m just being a curious observer. I’ve recalled it because it looks alarmingly familiar when we think about the place we give to Jesus in our lives. We may retain all the badges of the religious life and piety, while actually leaving hardly any room in our lives for Jesus to make an impact. In this context, the words of St James from the second reading give an unsettling warning: ‘Faith is like that: if good works don’t go with it, it’s quite dead.’ Perhaps you and I ought to re-think our individual answers to this question of Jesus’ : ‘Who do you say I am?’