Simon Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question is often described as the hinge of the New Testament, the turning point in the story. You might call it a ‘Eureka moment’ or the moment when the penny drops. For once, Peter gets it right.
This is much more than the answer to a question: it is the beginning of a new relationship and a new life. Once Peter realises that Jesus is the Messiah his people have been waiting for, this changes his whole way of looking at Jesus and at himself. He is no longer a follower of a travelling teacher and healer: he is a disciple of the Messiah God has sent to save everyone.
Peter’s new understanding of who Jesus is opens the way to a new awareness of his own identity and mission. Once Peter has declared his faith in Jesus, Jesus can reveal the trust he is going to place in Peter as the rock on which his church will be built. Peter’s new faith is just a beginning and he will have to change and grow into the mission Jesus has given him. Next Sunday’s gospel will see him getting it wrong again, misunderstanding the kind of Messiah Jesus is and trying to persuade Jesus to avoid the suffering that is his way to resurrection, prompting Jesus to call him ‘Satan’. When Jesus is arrested, Peter will deny he ever knew Jesus to save his own skin. But for all these twists and turns on his path, all these failings along the way, Peter will never be the same as he was before this moment of insight.
The psychologist Martin Buber describes any deep personal encounter with another human being as an ‘I-Thou’ moment. When we drop our defences and discard the masks we hide behind to look into the eyes of another person, each seeing, accepting and loving the other as they really are, we are changed by that experience. When the person we encounter is the Son of the living God, our deepest identity and our mission in life is revealed to us. It won’t prevent us stumbling along the way but it will inspire us to grow into the person we are created to be. Jesus asks each of us, ‘Who do you say I am?’ and waits for our response.