Last week, I wondered here about transitions. Those wobbly times when everything is changing and new. This morning’s lectionary reading from Matthew 16 offers us another moment of transition but, unlike so many transitions, it isn’t one that either of them likely anticipated. A few words spoken and things changed. It began with a question about the Son of Man.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
And they brainstorm a few answers, reflecting a diversity of theological and historical opinions. Then Jesus asks again:
“But who do you say that I am?”
Two assumptions come to the forefront in this second question. First, that the opinion of the “people” may differ from that of the disciples. And second, that there is an immediate connection between Jesus and the title Son of Man.
Perhaps there was a pause among the disciples at this second question. Perhaps there wasn’t.
It is Peter’s voice we hear next.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
A confession of faith which brings about change. Up until this point, Peter has seen and heard many new things from Jesus. But returning home was possible, wasn’t it? Maybe after a season or two of this travelling life, he might just slip away, leaving the crowds behind and finding his way back to the quiet of boats and fishing along the lake. But in this moment, he is asked a direct question and he finds himself ready to answer. You are the Messiah.
In our churches, confessions of faith are most usually done corporately. We softly speak the words of the creed together, sometimes reading them as we go. There are occasions when we do ask individuals to confess their faith: during the baptism of a child, sometimes at weddings, and at a service of confirmation. There’s a service of confirmation soon at our church – and I must say that it is a rare enough occasion that I’m not quite sure what form the service will take. According the service book, there are set questions to ask those who present themselves for confirmation.
“Do you reject sin, confess your need of God’s forgiving grace, and pledge yourself to glorify God and to love your neighbour?”
Good verbs in there. But it is a bit of a step away from Jesus’ question. I guess that’s often the way when we organise religion.
It’s good to remember, despite our ordered ways, that confession of faith is a moment of transition. Whether for the first time or the five thousandth time. Confession Christ is claiming his newness as our own. What we have come to know privately in our hearts, we now speak publicly with our lips.
In many churches, a service of confirmation of faith is the way into full membership. But when Peter did this, he was given a new name.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
In a prayer he titled Our Right Names,Walter Brueggemann reflects on this moment:
“You are the one who by your odd power
calls us by new names that we can
receive only from you and
relish only in your company.”
Peter the Rock makes no sense apart from Jesus. It is the odd power of God that both sets him free and holds him close in the same moment. Suddenly, a new way of being opens up before him. Transition. The messiness of this passage comes in verse 20, when Jesus “sternly orders” the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Another aspect of the odd power here, perhaps. Or perhaps a wise acknowledgement that there is a time for the personal and a time for the public. Before the resurrection, Peter’s own faith was planted. Jesus tended it with careful personal teaching. After Easter, it was Peter’s turn to spread the living word, making public his personal faith.
I remember a beautiful confirmation service I attended at a church in Ottawa a few years ago. A large number of people joined the church that day – some for the first time and some because they had decided to put down roots in a new place, a new church. They stood together in front of the congregation and the minister introduced them, sharing a little about their lives. What brought them to the church. How they spent their time. Typical biographical notes. But as the minister spoke, he stood facing, not the congregation, but the people who were ready to confess their faith. And he spoke directly to each of them. You were born here in this city. You work in a school where you teach children music. You are a doctor. You are a husband. You grew up in a different country. Your mother was baptised in this church. Each person standing there that day, ready to make their confession of faith, was given their own story. Then they were each invited to speak their faith and step into the newness God was calling for in their specific lives. Most worship services come and go, but that one really stayed with me. It was a powerful model of how a church might meet and mark points of transition in our individual lives.
On a side note – but still connected with transitions – I have some good news to share. I’ve recently received word that three of my poems will be included in an upcoming resource book by Wild Goose Publications, the publishing house of the Iona Community. It will be called “Moments of Our Days and Nights.” I’m thrilled to bits about this and I’ll have more details to share when it hits the press.