Jesus asks his disciples two questions in today’s Gospel: “‘Who do people say that I am?’”, and “‘Who do you say that I am?’” Let’s imagine for a moment that Jesus is asking you these same questions. The first question: “Who do people say that I am?” Each one of us here has heard about Jesus Christ. And – unless you received a private revelation from Jesus himself before anyone else mentioned him to you – we’ve all heard about him from someone else. Perhaps it was your mom and or dad, a grandma or grandpa, a teacher, a catechist at your parish, a friend, maybe even a stranger. Or maybe you heard about Jesus through someone on EWTN or Catholic radio. Or perhaps you first heard about Jesus from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, when you picked up a Bible one day. Maybe you first heard about Jesus through another writer. Regardless, we’ve all heard about Jesus from someone else. Who have they told us Jesus is? My guess is that most of us would answer that they have told us that Jesus is the divine Son of God, that he is our Savior, that he suffered and died for us. To this I would of course say, “All true!”
When Jesus asked his disciples this first question, they gave various interesting answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Interesting because all of these were people who had already lived and died. So there was definitely the belief that Jesus was not just an ordinary person, that he might be one of these incredible personages who were so notable in their service to the Lord, what they preached, how they lived, their role in Jewish history, and so on. But of course, none of these answers were correct.
But then we come to the next question: “But who do you say that I am?” We have all heard about Jesus Christ, we have all heard that he is the divine Son of God. Now we are all confronted with that question ourselves. It is a question that everyone ought to ask himself or herself. “Who do you say that I am?”
C.S. Lewis, the great Anglican writer and theologian, once said that there are only three ways that that question can logically be answered: Jesus was either a liar, he was insane, or he was who he said he was. After all, if Jesus was not the divine Son of God, then he would have had to either be an incredible liar or completely delusional. But given that 2000 years have passed since he walked the earth, and the fact that this Church that Jesus has founded has still not collapsed into obscurity – despite the best efforts of Christians and non-Christians alike to make that happen – it seems that just maybe Jesus may have been right about who he was after all.
However, everyone has to answer that question for himself or herself. That is where faith comes in. God does not force belief onto people; otherwise it would not be faith. When Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”, Peter boldly answered, “You are the Christ.” The Christ AKA the Messiah AKA the Anointed One, the one whom God had promised to send to Israel to conquer their enemies. Mark’s account of this scene does not include Jesus’ response to Peter that Matthew’s Gospel records, when Jesus says to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but rather my Father who is in heaven!” Yes, Peter was right: Jesus is God’s Anointed One, who had been sent to Israel to conquer their enemies. But then very quickly we learn just how faulty was Peter’s understanding of who the Messiah was supposed to be and what he had come to do.
Peter’s confession of faith to Jesus that He was the Christ or the Messiah is the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. And in fact it comes right in the middle of the Gospel. For it is right after that that Jesus tells them for the first time just what the Messiah has come to do: to suffer, to be rejected by the Jewish leaders, to be killed, and then to rise after three days. And this is where Peter gets it wrong: when Jesus tells them that he is going to be killed, Peter cannot square that with what he believes about the Messiah. No doubt Peter thinks, as did most Jews at the time, that the Messiah would be sent by God to conquer the political enemies of Israel, to drive out the foreign occupiers who had been oppressing the Jews for centuries, and to make of Israel the greatest nation in the world, “a light to the nations.” How then could the Messiah be rejected by the Jewish leaders and be killed? So Peter takes Jesus aside and is so bold as to rebuke him.
Jesus makes it clear that Peter has gotten this part wrong, very wrong: “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” This is about as strong a rebuke as you can get. And in rebuking him, Jesus makes it clear that it is possible to misunderstand who Jesus is – indeed to be way off – even while at the same time correctly grasping a part of who Jesus is.
So we come back to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” I think we all have our own idea of who Jesus is. And while we probably get part of it right, it’s also very possible that we get part of it – or a lot of it — wrong. We all see reality through the lens of our own experience, and we all have limited lenses. So I think it’s very easy to see Jesus more or less as we would like to see him, to make him fit into who we think he is.
So there’s the 1970’s era image of Jesus as a sort of peace-loving hippy, as in the Broadway show, Jesus Christ Superstar. Or perhaps we imagine Jesus as just a buddy, someone who just wants us to be happy. Perhaps we imagine a Jesus of the so-called prosperity Gospel: if I believe in Jesus, he’s going to make me successful and bless me with material abundance. Or perhaps we fit Jesus into our own political preferences, i.e. Jesus the Democrat, or Jesus the Republican.
We ought instead to let Jesus reveal himself to us. He does this through Scripture, in prayer, and through the teachings of our Church. And how does he reveal himself to us in our readings? He is the Suffering Servant of our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, whose back was beaten, whose face was struck and spat upon. And he is the Messiah who goes to suffer and die on the Cross, and in so doing, conquers our real enemies: sin and death.
And understanding who Jesus Christ truly is also helps us to see the what he is calling us to. He calls us to imitate him, which means this: “Deny yourself; take up your cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” In other words, following Jesus is not always going to be easy. It is going to mean saying no to ourselves, every time we feel an inclination to turn away from God in all the various ways that can take. It means recognizing that our ultimate goal is not to be found in this life, accepting that we’re never going to achieve perfect fulfillment and happiness at any point in this life, but that we should instead strive for our ultimate goal: heaven. It also means that nobody is going to escape the Cross; we are all carrying something. But we have to ask ourselves: am I going to follow after Christ with my cross, so that he can help me carry it, or am I going to carry it away from him, bearing the full weight of it by myself?
Finally, Jesus reveals himself to us in the Eucharist which we are about to receive. The Messiah has come to give himself completely to us, by suffering and dying for us; by giving us his body and blood in the Eucharist. This is who Jesus truly is. Let us open our hearts to receive him.