I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific, someone once said.
There are many great benefits to how the internet has improved our access to all kinds of information and services. You can order your supermarket shopping online. You can buy things that you’d never find in the shops. You can book travel tickets. You can keep in touch with friends and family around the world. You can advertise your business, services, and events. You can do your bank in the evenings and weekends.
There’s a drawback, however, in that we constantly have to create and recreate new usernames and passwords for almost everything we do. The threat of identity fraud looms large, so online safety encourages us to have different names and words for each separate account, ensuring our identity is kept secure. With everything from shopping to banking, from gas bills to holiday bookings, and much more besides, all this is now possible through websites and emails, many of us have more names and passwords than we can even count, let alone remember.
Setting out from Hamburg one day to give a concert in London, violinist Fritz Kreisler had an hour before his boat sailed. He wandered into a music shop, where the proprietor asked if he could look at the violin Kreisler was carrying. He then vanished and returned with two policemen, one of whom told the violinist he was under arrest.
“What for?” asked Kreisler.
“You have Fritz Kreisler’s violin.”
“I am Fritz Kreisler.”
“You can’t pull that on us. Come along to the station.”
As Kreisler’s boat was sailing soon, there was no time for prolonged explanations. Kreisler asked for his violin and played a piece he was well known for. “Now are you satisfied?” he asked. They were!
Peter Sellers played so many roles he sometimes was not sure of his own identity. Approached once by a fan who asked him, “Are you Peter Sellers?” Sellers answered briskly, “Not today,” and walked on.
When you read the gospels, one thing that you find out about Jesus is that he seemed to have many different identities, long before the internet was even thought of. In a sense, you could say that he’s a different person to the different people he meets, especially those who only encounter him in one-off situations. To some people, Jesus is an insightful teacher, to others he’s a compelling preacher, to others an intriguing storyteller. To some, he’s a gentle healer, to other a compassionate pardoner, to others a magnetic leader.
It’s interesting to consider what image of Jesus, what aspect of his character, best captures, for you, who he is. I wonder what image, what picture or painting, what feature of his personality, what it is about him, that expresses, for you, the person of Jesus?
For the disciples, the ‘getting to know you’ process with Jesus was a gradual one. It grew step by step. Jesus’ identity became clearer as they spent more time with him, even if, sometimes, they felt as if they were taking one step forward and quite a few back. From the first time he met Jesus on the Galilee seashore, Simon Peter knew there was something special about him. Jesus’ invitation to follow was irresistible and Peter’s desire, though hesitant, was wholehearted.
Of course, we know that despite everything Peter experienced and witnessed, he went on to deny Jesus three times. It would take another seaside meeting, with breakfast on the beach, to restore Peter to loving friendship with Jesus. There he accepted the commission to feed Jesus’ lambs, to look after Jesus’ sheep, and to follow wherever the belt of discipleship might lead. When Jesus asked Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ it was really, I’m sure, a means for Peter to answer his own doubts and questions, and find answers. Peter’s faith was shaky. He lunged from absolute conviction to doubting betrayal. But his true identity was that he was loved and forgiven by Jesus.
In today’s gospel reading, Matthew shows Peter full of faith, overflowing with the truth about Jesus’ identity, and a willingness to stand up and shout it from the rooftops. The endless rumours about Jesus, not least because he proclaimed the kingdom and accompanied it with miracles, meant questions were on everyone’s lips. Who is this man who forgives and heals, who does things only possible for God? Probably after discussion and anecdotes, the disciples begin to answer Jesus’ question about who people say he is. Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, others say Jeremiah, or another prophet.
But this isn’t the most important question. It was just a preliminary for the main enquiry. What about you, asks, Jesus; you know me, you’ve lived with me, you’ve heard me speak and seen what l do. Who do you say l am? Perhaps at this point uncertainty surfaced; there was sheepish silence and everyone felt the need to inspect their sandals. It’s good old Peter who saves the day. ‘You are the Christ,’ he says, the one promised long ago who would save us from sin. ‘You,’ says Peter, full of faith, ‘are the Son of the living God.’ Maybe there was a cheer from the other disciples, not because they hadn’t had to answer the question in public, but because Peter’s answer was what they too felt in their hearts, but lacked the courage to say.
The truth about Jesus is revealed by God, but it takes an act of faith, an act of trust, to activate such a gift and allow its blessings to flow. It was Peter’s faith-filled declaration which led Jesus to establish, him as the Church’s bedrock. Peter’s faith, brought to life by encountering the Son of the living God, is surely an encouragement for every disciple. Notwithstanding Peter’s imperfections and inconsistencies, it was his faith which secured his leadership among the first Christians.
And I want to suggest to you that our faith and our identity are bound up with Peter’s. We meet the risen Lord through prayer, worship, and silence; through singing and through listening; through thinking and through discussion with others; and through encounters with strangers. Sometimes our response might be tiny bit lack lustre, if we’ve had a long week, or a tiring day. Sometimes our commitment might be a tiny bit intermittent, or tending towards the fragmentary. But even when we feel at our most ineffectual, perhaps especially when we feel most tired, when we feel furthest from God, deep down our identity is still as a beloved child of God, a sister or brother of Jesus, the Son of the living God. Peter testifies to the power of faith, even in overcoming weaknesses and denial. Our identity, our username, is disciple; and our password is faith.