August 10, 2008

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Question of Identity

Matthew 14:22-33

When Jesus was in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, he faced three tests (Matthew 4:1-11). All three were fundamental questions about who he was and how he would use his power – in other words, they were questions of identity. In fact, in the first two temptations, the devil began by saying “If you are the Son of God…” It was as though he was demanding of Jesus, “If you are who you think you are, then prove it to me by doing what I ask.” Isn’t it interesting that Peter made the same demand when Jesus came walking on the water to the disciples in the battered boat? “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). Jesus had already told them that it was him, but Peter seemed to need proof.

But I wonder if Peter was questioning Jesus’ identity, or his own. Peter asked Jesus to give him the same power Jesus had; Peter asked to walk on water. And, while Jesus refused the devil’s test, he complied with Peter’s demand. I think that is because, in the wilderness, the test had to do with Jesus’ identify; on the water, the test was about how Peter was.

As with Jesus in the wilderness, Peter was in a dangerous, life-threatening, life-altering place, the kind of place where one comes face to face with questions of survival, survival both of body and of soul. In the wilderness, Jesus and the devil both seemed to know that he had the power to do whatever he wanted. The question was how he would use that power, whether in service to others as God intended…. or, as the devil demanded, in self-serving ways. On the sea in the storm, Peter wanted the power that he saw in Jesus, and Jesus granted him that power. But it was a self-serving power that Peter craved, a power that could not be sustained when he became distracted by where he was and what he was doing rather than keeping his focus on Jesus.

What happened in the storm on the sea, as in the wilderness, was a question of identity, but this time, it was Peter whose identity was in question. In giving in to temptation born of fear, Peter demanded the power of Jesus. He wanted to do what Jesus did. He wanted to be like Jesus. But Peter was called to be himself. It is as the wise old Rabbi Zusya once said, "When I reach the next world, God will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' Instead, he will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'" Jesus did not want Peter to be Jesus; he only wanted him to be Peter – fully and completely who God intended him to be.

The psalmist writes: “I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me” (Psalm 57:2). On the water, Peter cried out to be saved, and he was. Maybe in that moment, he began to understand God’s purpose for his life. And here is a holy irony: when Peter began to live his own identity, his own ministry, his own life – instead of wanting to do what Jesus was doing -- then he began to become more like Jesus.

And, in truth, maybe we are all more like Peter than we ever know or want to admit. Maybe we all find it easier and more appealing to be like someone else, instead of living into the fullness of who we ourselves are. So for us, the question of identity has already been answered, answered by God. All we have to do is be the persons God intends. And in becoming fully like ourselves, we will become like Christ.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

August 1, 2008

Back from vacation

The Lord is my shepherd -- I shall not want.
He makes me lie down on sandy beaches;
He leads me beside crashing waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in unmarked paths along the shore and all is right.
Even as we tiptoe through the valley of the shadow of death, saddened by loss and worried about what is to come, You comfort us and we are not alone.

You prepare a table for me, and those I love most are gathered around it. We eat and we laugh and we are blessed with overflowing abundance.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord -- which is the whole of the world -- forever.

photo of Charlie's rainbow on Topsail Island
by Jane Highsmith