In this week’s gospel Jesus offers us a verbal Rorschach Test. He asks: Who do you say I am? And the answer to his inquiry tells us more about the respondent than it does about the questioner. For the Pharisees and scribes the reflexive answer is that Jesus is a clever fraud. But in their hearts they know that Jesus is a powerful threat to their spiritual monopoly. For the curious, Jesus is where the action is. He’s a wonder worker and a spell-binding speaker. Who do they say he is? Maybe he’s John the Baptist or how about Elijah. What difference does it make? He’s new; he’s exciting; he’s provocative, he’s entertaining.
Trust Peter, with his far from towering intellect, to blurt out from his heart the precisely correct answer. In four words Peter says it all: You are the Christ… a simple shorthand formulation that acknowledges his friend and teacher as the promised one of God, the Messiah. The answer tells us exactly who Jesus is; but it also tells us what Peter himself is becoming. It tells us that Peter has the faith to filter through a deluge of contradictory input to find the essential truth. Like all the faithful of his day, Peter had waited for a son of David to smite their enemies and rebuild the empire of Solomon. Yet here was Jesus, a miracle working carpenter with no crown and no army, reaching out to gentiles, conversing with women, contemptuous of ritual, confounding authority, preaching and practicing a message of love. But Peter has the grace to see the Messiah through it all.
And what reward does Peter get for this affirmation of faith? Jesus tells him to keep it to himself. And that’s not the hardest part. Jesus gives Peter a glimpse of tougher days to come…of his rejection by the priests and elders and then of his death and resurrection. This is more than even faithful Peter can process. He begs his friend not to talk that way, only to be sternly rebuked: Get thee behind me Satan!
Then Jesus launches into a series of challenging paradoxes. He speaks of denying yourself, taking up your cross and giving up your life. Peter’s reaction is not recorded, and can only be imagined. But at the end of the day, no doubt confused and troubled, Peter continues to hang in there with Jesus. And despite his later three denials, he would hang in right through Calvary to rejoice with the risen Christ.
Through this gospel, Jesus asks us today: Who do you say that I am? The question calls for much more than a rote answer from the catechism. It calls for an honest response that clearly tells what Jesus really means to us, what part he plays in our daily lives, in our hopes and aspirations. Is Jesus a casual acquaintance, first met in Sunday school and visited only rarely at our convenience ever since? Or is Jesus a distant, formal figure addressed exclusively in communal, ritual prayer; a Sunday and holiday presence, put aside before we’ve left the church parking lot. Perhaps Jesus is our help-line of last resort, called on only in panic when all else has failed? Once again, the answers tell more about us than it does about Jesus.
Jesus does not need us to define him. He is God and man, our brother, our Redeemer. In acknowledging him as such, we define ourselves as the beloved of God, the focus of all creation. That’s the way Jesus sees us. And that’s the reason he wants to be a constant presence in our lives, guiding us home to his Father and ours. Talk it over with Jesus. Ask him what he wants to be in your life and what he expects from you. Don’t expect instant answers. These are the questions of a lifetime, and only a lifetime of prayerful conversation with Christ provides the answers.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.
Image: “Kruis san damiano” by Unknown -Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons