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Have you may have heard of the Wicked Bible? In 1631 the royal printers published a Bible in which the word “not” was mistakenly left out of the 7th commandment (the one about adultery). All for want of one little word the printers were fined £300 and lost their license.

Jesus asks his disciples about the word that might be going round about him. Who do people say that I am? He asks them. The reason why he asks them this will become clearer as we go along. Jane Williams imagines all the talk that the disciples may have been hearing as they went about with Jesus. Perhaps people asked them many times: “Who is your master?” After all, we know from the gospel writers that word about Jesus spread very quickly and many flocked to see him. What do we imagine those words about Jesus to have been? There might not have been mass media in those days, but word of mouth has always been part of human society. Who is your master? What is he really up to? Where does he get his extraordinary power? Not only do we have to try and imagine a pre-media age, but also remember that they were living under occupation, suffering at the hands of a repressive regime, with subterfuge, spying and the occasional uprising, going on all around them. Whose side are you on? Who are you really working for? Can we trust you? All of these things might have been flying around as well. Jesus seemed good, but was he? The religious authorities kept coming and questioning him and he kept on repelling them. Who is he?

A Question of Commitment
When Jesus asks his disciples about him, perhaps they kept their answers polite! They don’t say “Some people think you’re mad, and some people think you’re possessed and some people thing you’re a revolutionary. They stick to the complimentary and religious responses. Are they just being kind to Jesus? Maybe – after all they probably respect him a great deal by now. But also, if they are his followers, then whatever answer they give him will reflect back on them! They don’t want to be tarred with the same brush as him. The first question is easy for them to answer – you can imagine that was a really good ice-breaker: there’s plenty of chat and the answers come freely and easily. Oh, some say you’re John the Baptist come back. (That was the haunting thought Herod had.) Others say, no, much further back: he’s like a reincarnation of Elijah – that might prophet from our scriptures. Others don’t think he’s like any one prophetic figure – but he’s definitely a prophet. Next we see the reason why Jesus asked his disciples about his identity. He is not asking them what the public perception of him is. Now he turns the question directly to them: who do you say I am? He’s not even asking them, “what do you tell other people when they ask you who I am?” He is asking them who they think he is because it is a question of commitment. Perhaps the disciples fell suddenly silent at this point. The easy chat stops. It’s not a trick question: one of those which you can’t get right whichever way you answer it. Do you remember the playground quip: “Are you a PLP?” Rather, it’s a question that is meant to evoke commitment. It’s more like: “Albert Snodgrass will you take this woman to be your wife?” “Just give me a moment,” would not be appropriate at that point in time!

Peter is the one that all three synoptic gospel writers tell us was the one to speak up at this point. He took the plunge – even if he were wrong, it would show the depth of his commitment to this person, whoever he was. Maybe that was why Jesus was prepared to give Peter a prominent place in the community of followers who would grow into the Church. It’s rather like Peter choosing this particular option and Jesus checks: “Final answer?” Peter’s response will win or lose him the million pound prize: “Final answer!” He’s committed.

Labels shape opinion
We are exercised by the problem of large numbers of people wanting to settle in some parts of Europe. The label “refugee” is a commitment word, like “you are the Messiah!” To identify someone as a refugee means that we are obliged to accept them. The UK, along with many other nations in the world, has signed up to the 1951 UN convention on refugees. Politicians and journalists seemed to start off using the label “migrant” as if it were a neutral word. That masked the issue. Those who are forced to flee their homelands, rather like anyone in difficulties at sea, should expect a human response – rescue. After all, if it happened to you or I wouldn’t we expect help in some form or other? Many people are showing their humanity now and there are so many stories of ordinary people doing what they can to help.

All of this matters and is significant because we believe in the ultimate power of God’s word. By his word, God creates and sustains the universe. We believe in the saving power of the Word made Flesh – Jesus our Lord. Our words of worship or witness matter. There is a sense in which we are not only what we might eat, but we become what we say. Out of reverence for the living Word we watch our own words and we take care how we allow the words of others to influence us especially if they are commitment words like “Messiah” or “refugee”!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith.