“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
Jesus asked this question of the disciples (Matt. 16:13–19) after warning his followers about the false teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had been hounding Jesus for a sign from heaven to validate his identity as Messiah. This was done to test or disprove Jesus. Asking for a sign from heaven when the prophecy of Isaiah foretold him to be the sign denoted a level of distrust in both the being and doing of Jesus. If he took the bait, he’d annul his identity as the Messiah. If Jesus was not the fulfillment of prophecy, his miracles and profound teachings would lose their value in the marketplace of beliefs and ideas.
Likewise, embracing our God-given identity is critical to living a life of reconciliation. When we abandon our God-given identity, even at the level of gender, we can easily adopt a divisive and exclusive identity. This is critical for young people, whose entire relational, emotional, and spiritual well-beings are forming, storming, and norming. Today’s youth culture message-makers market a plethora of gender-specific messages to impressionable youth. But what is the message of reconciliation that Jesus’ identity reveals in the Jesus-Peter dialogue of Matthew 16:16–19, and how does it inform the way we relate one to another as male and female? Young people want and need to know.
For several years, I have regularly encountered high school and college young men confused about their masculinity and how to relate to femininity. I suggest men (and women) understand their identity not through the lens of an “Archie Bunker theology,” but through the lens given to us in Jesus. When we cultivate and nurture an identity informed by Jesus’ identity, we raise male and female agents of reconciliation.
As a young and nervous father of three children, my early parenting experiences reflected more of an Archie Bunker kind of masculinity than it did anything else. Archie was the self-centered patriarch of the Bunker family in the 1970’s American sitcom, “All in the Family.” Archie’s humorous diminishment of everyone else was deeply rooted in his masculinity. His gifts, skills, abilities, and passions were not the issue. Neither were his wife’s, daughter’s, son-in-law’s, or neighbor’s, for that matter. Whatever anyone else did, thought, and believed filtered through Archie. His masculinity defined others for them, and thereby prescribed the life they lived. We do this so simply whenever we ignore the gifts and abilities of women and/or kindly diminish what they have to offer the family, church, or community. Furthermore, prescribing a role for women after first describing what is masculine not only diminishes, but dismisses their God-given identity, gifts, and abilities. Jesus and Peter model something different in this text.
Allow me to unpack the dialogue between Jesus and Peter further. The Pharisees and Sadducees’ feeble challenge of Jesus’ messianic identity brings forth a powerful dialogue between Jesus and Peter—two men, vulnerable as their identities are exposed in a moment of profound revelation of human and divine personhood. When Jesus’ and Peter’s earthly purposes are revealed, there is no doubt they’ve heard from heaven—Jesus says to Peter “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). In turn, Jesus reveals Peter’s purpose and calling: to be the rock upon which Jesus will build his church. Jesus is revealed as the Messiah—the one High Priest and mediator between God and humanity, and Jesus’ and Peter’s identities enhance one another.
I find this interaction and dialogue to be a great teaching text as it relates to identity and reconciliation. How so? First, Jesus’ identity is a divine revelation with earthly implications, and which does not exclude or diminish Peter. In fact it is Peter’s revelation of Jesus and Jesus’ revelation of Peter we are reading. They speak revelatory words about each other’s identity and purpose, affirming and exhorting the other. Do we allow such mutuality to inform both masculine and feminine identity?
Christians seem more comfortable defining masculine identity, and then, based on that, prescribing feminine identity. Such one-way defining of another is not what we read in the account of Jesus and Peter. Instead, Jesus and Peter share in a mutual revelation of personhood. Jesus could have easily dismissed Peter as a participant in the discussion, but it appears Jesus was modeling something much more important. Identity formation patterned after Jesus is divinely revealed and mutually enhancing. Many settle for a mutually exclusive masculinity like Archie Bunker’s. This is not so with Jesus. An identity modeled after Jesus is mutually enhancing, not mutually exclusive.
Second, from this mutually enhancing masculinity, we are drawn into a dialogue—an exchange, a sharing so self-giving that it leads to reconciliation. The type of reconciliation we see between Jesus and Peter may contrast sharply with what many might expect. For some, reconciliation denotes an abandonment of one’s gifts, skills, and abilities so as to make the relationship work. Many youth fall headlong into this trap. In order to reconcile or be reconcilers, girls and women hide their gifts and abilities so as to not be out of the will of God by excelling at something men traditionally do. Notice how Jesus magnifies Peter’s purpose and highlights his capacity. “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18, emphasis mine). What a powerful moment.
I’ve had many conversations and heard many stories of young, bright, talented female students afraid to demonstrate the wonderful gifts and abilities they carry. Their fears all stem directly from false notions of healthy masculinity, which at times lead to a misdirected femininity. Instead of being celebrated and applauded for her capabilities, she eagerly covers them in hopes of being a reconciler. Jesus demonstrates in this text that a healthy interaction of identities (regardless of gender) leads to a reconciliation that fully embraces the other’s gifts and abilities.
In my own growth and understanding of masculinity, I was challenged by these truths. Fighting my Archie Bunker theology, I was conflicted whether to include female perspectives, voices, and influences. It was all too easy to exclude, diminish, and dismiss. While some may not interpret the Jesus and Peter dialogue as reflective of male-female identity formation, I ask you to reconsider. Reconsider the dialogue as a lens through which we can more fully understand a masculinity that reconciles and does not divide; mutually enhances instead of being mutually exclusive; and does not diminish or dismiss others’ gifts, skills, and abilities.
This is the identity I hope and pray my children pursue. It is what my father, uncles, and grandfather tried to model against the backdrop of an out-of-control, misogynistic culture. This is what we, as men unduly benefitting from so much privilege and power, should strive for. Let us not engage in masculinity more reminiscent of Archie Bunker than Jesus. Rather, let us be men capable of mutual enhancement, allowing Christian community to flourish. When we teach the young men in our lives to walk in identity formed in Jesus, both our sons and daughters will rejoice in who God has made them to be. That begins with asking the first question. . . who is Jesus?