Each of the Synoptic Gospels contains the conversation between Jesus and Peter near Caesarea Philippi. A seemingly innocent question is posed: “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). The bright ones in the class of disciples began to tick off the buzz around Jesus’ identity: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Yet recounting the perceptions of others is far from satisfactory. The next question is more focused: “But who do you say that I am?” At this juncture (at least), Peter listens intently and then answers aright: “You are the Messiah.” Matthew’s version of this encounter insists that Peter did not come by this knowledge from “flesh and blood,” but only because God had revealed it to him.
Peter has moved beyond borrowing the insights of others to a deeply held profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ. Usually belief is formed through borrowing the faith of others. We learn the language, the practices, and the content of Christian faith from our parents, our teachers, and our friends. Yet, a problem ensues if we never move from an embedded faith to a deliberative expression of a growing, examined theology.
In our time, persons may be coming to faith through a different process. Phyllis Tickle writes in her perceptive book, The Great Emergence, that the older pattern went like this: one believed, then one behaved, only then did one belong. The pathway is different now, she suggests. In a time of post-Christendom, it is more likely that one belongs, then behaves, and ultimately believes. People are longing for community, and it is the practice of welcoming others that takes priority over cognitive assent to the doctrinal fabric of a congregation. Hence, authentic expressions of hospitality make possible a deliberative approach to embedding a theological identity. By creating space (and time) for this to occur, one is given the great dignity of answering personally the question posed by Jesus—which must always be before the world.
Molly T. Marshall