Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

Homily – 19 June 2016 – Who Do You Say You Are?


Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time C OTC – 19 June 2016 – Who Do You Say You Are?

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Greek goddess Athena, Pergamon Altar

Negin Farzad from Palm Springs, CA, calls herself an “Iranian-American-Muslim-female-comedian” just to make sure there is no doubt about her identity. How do people know who you are? Last week Betsy spoke about the significance of our names as one response to that question. Her words rang true again all last week as we heard the public, reverential announcement of the names of each person killed in Orlando. 

How we are known to others is essential for understanding our purpose and place in our families, jobs and communities. In the gospel Jesus himself wondered “who do people say I am” and the responses were varied. During his lifetime, when gossip and rumors were normal in a tribal culture, a person’s honor was preserved through secrecy and even deception. That is why Jesus warned his followers not to tell anyone. [1]

How about you and me? Who are you? Who am I? Is our identity based on gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, job, marital status, religious affiliation? More than just one of these traits? How does our understanding of our identity affect our relations with others, decisions we make, actions we carry out? 

The glaring labels heard after the Orlando attack, about racial, religious and sexual identities, are dangerously divisive. The scurrilous generalization that somehow all Muslims are responsible for terrorism is just one example. How timely that we heard Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning. Opposing the idea that new Christians must first follow Jewish laws, Paul announces that in the eyes of God there are no labels — neither male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free person. 

Who were those Galatians anyway? Why did Paul write to them the way he did? Recently I gained insights into this biblical text in an unusual way. Years ago I visited the Pergamon Museum in Berlin to see the magnificent Altar, an enormous artistic and architectural testimony to the power and prestige of the ancient Greek city of Pergamon.

At that time I did not comprehend its significance especially with regard to the Galatians. Last week I saw a compressed exhibition, Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our guide was Brigitte Kahl, a New Testament scholar and expert on the Galatians, Paul and the Pergamon Altar.

The exhibit focuses on Alexander the Great who sought to conquer the world. Professor Kahl spoke excitedly about the combat scenes in the sculpted frieze that frames the enormous Pergamon Altar (c. 200-150 BCE). She graphically described how the gods and especially the goddesses defeated the Giants, symbolic victories of order over chaos. Think of the themes in super hero movies today.

Kahl wrote that the scenes of the mythical heavenly battle in the Altar recall the military operations of the Attalid dynasty of Pergamon against the marauding barbaric Celts or Gauls — another name for the Galatians — who were once “perceived as universal enemies and an almost cosmic security risk.” [2] Were the early Galatians an ancient prototype for today’s terrorists? Kahl claims, that what was important ages ago is still the driving force for evil today — victory over people results in power over the people.

In the gospel text Peter answers Jesus’ question with conviction. You, Jesus, are the anointed One of God. This title, in Reginald Fuller’s words, is not a dignity to be claimed by Christ but a mission to be worked out, one that, for Jesus, would end up on a cross. [3] Anyone who believes in Jesus as a model for living, one who promised hope and life in the face of despair and death, will also take up that mission along with its consequences.

The cross we are asked to bear is a symbol of the intolerance, exploitation, prejudice and discrimination in the world today. That is why we placed our cross in our midst and not somewhere removed from us. By our baptism we are summoned to confront the evils of our time and speak out against them. 

Paul wrote to the Galatians long after Pergamon became part of the Roman Empire and long after they were considered a villainous people. He insisted on “the radical character and universal scope of God’s grace as a crucial factor” in the early church’s identity. [4] We, too, proclaim that the freedom to be who we are is a gift from God; that all humans are equal in the eyes of God. We do not use the word “other” to distinguish our identity from people who are different from us.

What’s in a name? Who do people say you are? Who do they say I am? Our Christian identity is part of the answer.


  1.  Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1995, 100-102
  2.  Kahl, Brigitte. Reading Galatians and Empire at the Great Altar of Pergamon. ATLAS Collection of religion and theology journals.
  3.  Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. Third Edition (Collegevile: Liturgical Press) 2006. pp. 478-480
  4.  Hays, R. in Attridge, Harold W. (Ed.) The Harper Collins Study Bible NRSV (San Francisco: Harper) 1989, p. 1974

Author: Richard S. Vosko

Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA, is an internationally known sacred space planner. He is a presbyter in the Diocese of Albany who enjoys the classroom as much as the pulpit. On Sundays he presides at worship at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY. For more information on Vosko’s background, his projects, publications and speaking engagements please go to his website. For his homilies and occasional musings about religion, art and architecture go to his blog. Comments, questions and suggestions are always welcomed there.

4 thoughts on “Homily – 19 June 2016 – Who Do You Say You Are?

  1. Our name also may say something about our parent’s vision about who we are and who we will become as we grow up under their influence. In a way it seems that are name often speaks to the script our parent’s assigned us at our birth. In answering your question it may be we need to ask, “who did my parent’s say that I am”, and then go from there. Thank you for the provocative homily.


  2. I wonder if Hays intended the double entendre in the next-to last paragraph of your homily: “… the radical character and universal scope of God’s grace as a CRUCIAL factor in the early Church’s identity.”

    ‘Crucial’ is a form of ‘crux’, the Latin word for cross. This was well-understood by the pastor of a parish who, when asked why the American flag wasn’t displayed in the church, replied, “The cross is our standard.”


  3. Thank you for both of these comments. Never thought of these perceptions. Identities imbued in us in early years of formation. And, the “crux-crucial” connection along with the “cross as the standard” are pertinent references for future reflections.


  4. I am so sorry I missed your homily, and glad I could read it here. Having grown up without any kind of church or religious experience, I remember times in Junior/Senior High thinking, “Who am I? In this Universe?” This was almost always prompted by my extensive love of reading, science fiction mostly. Remarkably, I can’t recall discussions with my parents or relatives, about all this! I had a lovely, ordinary childhood, & ‘caught’ the love of scifi from my parents. But we must have had at least some discussions, SOMEtime. I just can’t recall any. It was not until college that I began my quest into the real questions of who am I, & why are any of us here. I eventually found some answers, and Christians who led me to Christ! So, on it goes. I appreciate the way your homilies often raise a lot of questions, and make me think, very often reading the homilies here after hearing them. I hope this long personal ramble is not inappropriate for the comments section! There is more to say, re the wonderful and even entertaining homily I heard from Roger Mock at Unity Church on Sunday, but I will leave that for a private email. Anyone else who would like to hear about THAT, can contact me at


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