My maternal grandmother wore her white hair long, pulled back from her face, and falling straight down her back. She spoke broken English with a heavy German accent. Her name was Marie. And she loved me.
My mother and I lived with her and my grandfather Josef off and on during my early childhood, finally staying with them for good when I was in middle school. I cannot recall hearing my grandmother say, “I love you.” At least, not in so many words.
Instead, when I was a toddler, she would shake my hand with a smile and wink as my mom and I departed for one of her brief, unhappy reconciliations with my father. There was always a dollar tucked into her palm.
When I was a teenager, she kept the cupboard stocked with Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls. My favorite sweet and an extravagance for a retired mill worker drawing on limited savings
I couldn’t have told you very much about who Marie was back then. Later I learned more. For instance, while my mother was imprisoned at the main site of Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp, Grandma endured forced labor and starvation at one of the Gusen sub-camps.
If you had asked my childhood or teenaged self who my grandmother was, I suppose that I would have said a few things about her immigration from Austria, but I would have ended with this: She really loves me.
Today I would add: She taught me about the power of love. When we love someone as a gift, not as a reward, we can help them discover their own true self as the beloved.
I was reminded of my grandmother when I read about Jesus asking his friends, “Who do you say that I am?” And recalling our relationship led me to wonder just what Jesus was really asking of the disciples. (Matthew 16:13-20)
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus was clearly pleased with Peter’s insight. But maybe not for the reason that you might assume.
You see, Jesus was not giving his students a pop quiz designed to grade that their comprehension of his teachings. He was not looking for a recitation of orthodox Christology or the rote repetition of an answer provided by a catechism.
Jesus was asking an existential question. Who am I to you? Where do I fit into your life? Does our relationship define who you are at your very core?
Don’t get me wrong. Doctrines, creeds, and catechisms play an indispensable role in the life of faith for individuals and for the community. They articulate the mystery of life in union with the divine.
However, our received theology—our teachings and our dogmas—never exhaust or fully comprehend the mystery that is their deeper truth. As St. Anselm put it, theology is faith seeking understanding. A living faith for each of us involves allowing mystery—our relationship with God—to stretch us, to transform us, and to guide us personally.
Jesus was asking about relationship. And that’s how Peter answered. He recognized Jesus as his Messiah. His Savior. And you really only recognize a liberator when you yearn to be released from your own captivity.
Peter went on to explain that, in some way, he felt himself being grafted into and transformed by the divine life itself through his relationship with Jesus. “You are the Son of the living God.”
And so Jesus renamed him. From Simon Peter to Peter. To mark the transformation that was already occurring within him.
To put this another way, Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the one who loves me. And you’ve given me the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven: The power to love.”