Wearing a clerical collar and, as I recall, a black suit, I stood in line waiting to buy something at a drugstore near the church I was serving. A man directly in front of me turned around and asked, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
Surprised that someone would ask a priest if he was a Christian, I must have stared blankly at the fellow for a few seconds too long. He quickly filled the awkward silence with what seems to have been a well-rehearsed lecture.
He loudly scolded me—and announced to the rest of the store—that I didn’t know anything about being a real Christian. He eagerly began setting me straight.
He continued the sermon as he came to the cashier. He paid, still giving us all an earful. As he left, he handed me a tract that resembled a tiny comic book. In speech balloons above the illustrated hero’s head, readers received instructions about how to avoid going to hell.
Since I hadn’t said anything substantive, my clericals must have been all the evidence he needed to conclude that I was spiritually wayward. I assumed—and I still believe—that wearing a clergy shirt indicates my role in our community of faith. It says that I follow Jesus by serving his people in a specific way.
The collar symbolizes the yoke of Christ. As my friend Dennis says, “It tells people I’m open for business.”
At least, that’s how I understand clergy attire. My fellow shopper took a dimmer view of what my clergy shirt symbolized. My guess is that our way of practicing the faith—our sacramental life and our teachings—set his teeth on edge.
This old exchange came to mind as I read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ famous question: Who do you say that I am? And I suspect my memory was triggered by what Matthew is doing with that story. Matthew is teaching what form our answer to Jesus’ question should take.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record the episode. Jesus begins by asking who the crowds say he is. (In Matthew, he refers to himself as the Son of Man. I’ll have to discuss this some other time.)
Next, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah. And just in case you might be unclear about his notion of Messiah, Peter adds, “The Son of the Living God.”
Mark and Luke tell the story in much the same way up to this point. But you won’t find what follows in Matthew when you read Mark or Luke.
Put a pin in that for now. We’ll come back to that in just a minute. But before we do, consider what Matthew has already told us in the preceding chapters of the Gospel.
Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Son of God is not a theological breakthrough in Matthew’s telling. In a previous episode, Jesus saved the disciples from a storm at sea. They responded by worshipping him right there in the boat as the Son of God. (Matthew 14:33)
Still earlier in Matthew’s account, the imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” Jesus answers by saying, “Look at what I’ve been doing. The actions say who I am.” (Matthew 11:2-6)
So, in Matthew, the disciples have already called Jesus the Son of God before he even asks the question. Peter is just repeating what they’ve already said. And crucially, when John’s disciples in essence ask Jesus to say who he is, he tells them that the answer to this sort of question is found in actions. Not in what somebody says.
Now, go back to that pin I asked you to stick in Matthew’s story. Peter says that Jesus is the Son of God. Swell. But they’ve all already said this. So, that’s not what Matthew is up to here. You have to read the next few lines to see Matthew’s point. In those lines, Jesus says:
“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.” (Matthew 16:19)
In other words, Matthew is showing us how to say who Jesus is. We are to imitate Jesus.
Jesus has been about unlocking the Kingdom of God at the very heart of things. At the very heart of the fractured, beautiful, chaotic, melodious, harsh, and tender thing that is life on this planet.
To follow Jesus is to be about this unlocking business.
There are some famous examples of unlocking the Kingdom:
To silence his opposition to apartheid, the white South African authorities imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years. Enduring brutal forced labor and wrenchingly harsh condition, Mandela emerged from jail a changed man.
When he walked free, he had left bitterness and hatred behind. In their place, he had taken up a tireless commitment to equality rooted in racial reconciliation. As President of South Africa, he led his nation to face the sins of the past, to work toward forgiveness, and to build a new, just future.
Elie Wiesel survived the murderous conditions of Nazi concentration camps. His mother, father, and younger sister perished in the Holocaust. He responded to his own suffering and loss by devoting his life to peace. He actively opposed oppression and genocide around the world and defended the rights of every human being.
Mandela and Wiesel and others like them were not content to secure their own comfort and security. Compassion drew them into solidarity with all who who suffer and all who are oppressed. Tasting freedom for themselves made them hunger for the liberation of all.
Jesus embodies the liberating love of God. We take hold of the keys of the Kingdom by imitating Jesus: by walking in compassion and mercy, justice and peace. These are the keys that set us free from hate and prejudice and liberate everyone from oppression, violence, and deprivation in all of their forms.
This is how we say who Jesus is. By using the keys he’s given us.