In this week's gospel, Jesus offers us a verbal Rorschach Test. With his miracles and brilliant mastery of the prophets and the law, Jesus has generated a buzz wherever he goes. People are fascinated. Who is this guy? But they hold back from asking the question directly. Perhaps, because they are afraid of the answer.
To settle the issue Jesus poses the question himself: Who do you say I am? And the answers to his inquiry tells us as much about the respondent as 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 idly 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. But what difference does it make? He's new. He's provocative. He's entertaining. He’s here for their amusement. That’s all that counts.
Trust Peter, with his less than towering intellect, to blurt out the correct answer… right from the heart. In four words Peter says it all: You are the Christ... a simple shorthand formulation that acknowledges his friend and teacher is the promised one of God, the Messiah. That 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 right through the buzz… to understand the essential Jesus… the Messiah, the Promised One of God… and maybe even something much, much more.
And what reward does Peter get for his 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 times 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, of 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? Is he 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 when all else has failed? Once again, the answers tell as much about us as 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 acknowledge 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. Sometimes the answers come in immediate revelation. More often they are a growing understanding that comes only from a lifetime conversation with Christ. And that relationship itself is the answer… because the questions of a lifetime… take a lifetime to answer.
God love you!