There are those moments in life that present us with a choice: do we go with the crowd or do we go on our own? It is easy to do the first. It’s often hard to do the second.
There is a rule that guides us in what we say, think, and do. Psychologists call it the principle of social proof. To learn what is good and right, we look to other people.
Consider how advertising works. Advertisers tell us that their product is the “fastest growing” or the “best-selling” one on the market. They don’t have to persuade us that the product is good; they only need to say that others think so. What is popular must be good.
Relying on the principle of social proof is not always bad. Indeed, without it life as we know it would grind to a halt. It is hard to imagine functioning in the world without it. For example, most of us do not have the time or the mental band width to evaluate the claims advertisers make for their products. We cannot retreat from our daily lives to do exhaustive research or conduct elaborate experiments on them. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: “civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”
But the principle of social proof does not always relieve us of the burden of choice. There will be times when we know the crowd is wrong. And what we know to be right will compel us to make a choice. “Do I stand my ground, firm in my convictions? Or do I surrender it for the sake of conforming to the group?”
The Gospel lesson for today features a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in which Jesus asks them the question about his identity. But note how he frames it. He first asks who others say he is. And then he asks them directly who they think he is.
He seems to be saying that it is one thing to follow the crowd. One can let the principle of social proof guide one’s answer. But it is another thing to open oneself to the mystery of a personal encounter with him and to answer the question truthfully and honestly for oneself.
“Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matt. 16:14).
Down through the centuries, the world has defined Jesus in various ways. Some say he is a great prophet, others say he is a wise teacher, and still others say he is a social revolutionary. More recently, people say that he is an advocate for social justice, a spiritual guide, a moral example.
There are elements of truth in each of these characterizations. Some will make these judgments about Jesus in a dismissive way. They do not wish to pursue the question about who he is any further. Others, however, are engaged in a genuine search for the truth about him.
Christians need to be careful for this reason. They should not put down those who adopt any or all of these characterizations, especially if it is apparent that they are engaged in a genuine search for further truth about Jesus. We don’t know if they are for them stepping stones on the way to a more adequate conception of him, one that is closer to how he is portrayed in the New Testament.
But the very fact that Jesus makes a distinction between who people say he is and who his disciples say he is implies that he is not satisfied with any of these answers. To be sure, those answers do reveal that people see in him someone exceptional, perhaps even pivotal in the shared history of God and his people. But neither one of them corresponds to the truth. They do not name who he is.
“But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). The principle of social proof will not help them here. The answer will have to come from a deeper place. For it is a personal question that is looking for a personal answer. It will have to spring from an opinon that’s been formed in response to a developing familiarity with him. Certainly, by this time, after all that that they have seen and heard and experienced of him, they have formed an opinion of who he is. At the very least, they see him as the One from whom to learn the wisdom and will of God.
“Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus is the Messiah, the one in whom the long-anticipated salvation of God’s people is present. He is the Son of God. He is eternally alive as his Father is eternally alive.
Peter comes to a proper recognition of Jesus. His confession is the one on which Jesus will build his church.
But his insight into his true identity is not his own achievement in the strict sense. It is a gift of God.
This is a paradox. On the one hand, we are to be active in our pursuit of truth. We are to strive to lay hold of the truth. It is a responsibility from which we are never excused. But on the other hand, truth, especially truth about God, is a gift that God gives to us out of his grace.
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Matt. 16:17).
Jesus’ response is a joyful one. His words recall an earlier episode in Matthew’s Gospel when he exclaims: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”
And then he goes on to state a profound theological truth: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:25-27).
And now at least one other, besides the Father, really knows the Son. And in knowing the Son, he knows the Father too. For whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:23).
The opinions of the crowds in the last analysis are earth-bound opinions, the surmisings of flesh and blood. But the faith of Peter is born from above. It comes from heaven.
Jesus puns on Peter’s name. His word in the original is Petros, which sounds like Petra, which means rock. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).
Peter is the first rock, the first stone, which is laid on the great underlying foundation on which all who come after him build, namely, his confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
And when he goes out to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, he is caught up in a movement in which God the Father reveals his Son to more and more people through the power of the Holy Spirit, enabling them, too, to know the same foundational truth of who Jesus Christ was, is, and is to come (Chelsea Harmon).
Today, it is our joy to share Peter’s faith, responding together as he did to the same question that Jesus puts to us too: “Who do you say that I am?” We who belong to him respond: “You are for us too, the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Pope Francis).
Our lot too lies in going against the crowd, in distancing ourselves from the prevailing opinion, that is now, as it was then, unable to see in Jesus more than a prophet or a teacher.
Our lot brings joy, even if it at the same time may bring unpopularity, because this faith recognizes the presence of God in him, the Son who came to reveal the Father and to reconcile us to him through his death on the cross, so that we may know true peace.
The confession that Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, comprehends all this and more. It is a confession that we make once for all. But it accompanies us from the moment we first hear and receive it until the end of our lives. We never cease from probing its depths. The Scripture tell us that we are to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18).
That is why the church is concerned with the life of the mind. Indeed, after we come to him, place our faith in him, we undergo a renewal of our minds.
This in fact is what the Apostle Paul teaches in our epistle lesson. He exhorts the believers in Rome: do not be conformed to this world. Do not let the prevailing opinion guide what you think, say and do. Do not go with the crowd.
Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. This is a process. It doesn’t happen instantaneously. It is not completed in the same moment that we come to faith.
But the Holy Spirit is at work in us to reorient our thinking. No longer do we see Jesus or, anyone else, from a mere human standpoint. In the faith that is born in us we see not only him but all things in a new light. To borrow another image, we begin to see through another set of lenses.
This is an internal process, as we have been saying. But it does not happen in private, but in community. Paul tells us that God intends for us to live in community. I will build my church, as Jesus declares, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).
This is important. Most of us spend our time in the world. Most of us are retired now, but when we were working, we spent forty or fifty hours a week in the world, making a living. And when we returned home, the world was there too in the shows we watch, the books we read, and the music we listen to.
On our own, it is very hard, if not impossible, to avoid going with the crowd, adopting the prevailing opinion. On our own, it is very hard, if not impossible, to heed the Apostle Paul’s words: “do not be conformed to this world.”
But in the world there is the church. “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Rom. 12:5).
This is how Paul conceives of community as God intends for us. It is how he understands the church. The church as Christ’s body is Paul’s preferred image. He develops it more extensively in 1 Corinthians 12.
It is an invitation for us to see the church as more than a loose association of people, a voluntary society that organizes itself around goals that its members hold in common.
It is a community in which each member is vitally connected to the other. It is community as a living organism.
And it is a community in which each member has a gift to share for the benefit of the others. Paul urges them to exercise those gifts. If it is the gift of serving, let them serve. If it is teaching, let them teach. If it is encouraging, let them encourage. If it is contributing to the needs of others, let them give generously. It is leadership, let them lead diligently. If it is showing compassion, let them do it cheerfully.
These gifts are varied, but they all serve the same goal: to help God’s people grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Who do people say that he is? Even now, people say that he is this or that. And even now Jesus asks his disciples, that is, all of us: “who do you say that I am?” How do we answer? Let us pray that he grants us growth in grace and knowledge that we can say in ever increasing understanding “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is our confession of faith. And it is on this confession that Jesus continues to build his church.