“WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?”
Jesus saw aspects of his own life and mission foreshadowed in Zechariah’s prophecy given in the First Reading and in Isaiah’s Servant Songs. Zechariah’s pierced One in the first reading, in the light of today’s Gospel, invites us to identify ourselves with our suffering Savior, Jesus, during the moments of our pains and suffering.
In the Second Reading, Paul teaches us that through faith in Jesus we become the children of God. Hence, we have to live in accordance with Jesus’ teachings, tearing down barriers of gender, race and class. Paul advises us to “put on Christ,” which means that we should allow Christ to begin to work in us as our Messiah, our personal Lord and Savior, healing us of our hatred, prejudice, selfishness and whatever else blocks “God’s reign” within and among us.
Today’s Gospel consists of two sections: 1) the Messianic confession of Peter, acknowledging Jesus as “Christ (Messiah), Son of the living God,”and 2) Jesus’ prediction of his Passion, Death and Resurrection, followed by his clear teaching on the three requirements of Christian discipleship: “Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.”
Vince Lombardi, the famous retired head coach of the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers, once watched his team suffer a humiliating defeat to an underdog opponent. The next day before practice, he picked up a football, held it up to his players, including some veterans, and said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” After the humiliating defeat Couch Lombardi figured that it was time to call his team back to the basics.
There are times when each one of us needs to go back to the basics. It happens at our jobs, it happens at school. And it even happens in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus, as we see in our Scripture reading, brings the disciples back to the basics. After teaching his disciples for nearly three years, Jesus paused to ask them a very basic question, “Who do you say that I am?” Then he waited for them to respond. he waited for them to give an answer. Today that basic question comes down to you and me and Jesus is waiting for us to respond. Jesus is waiting for our answer. So today as we are gathered in this place let us take some time and together think for awhile about this very basic, very fundamental question of our Christian faith; Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”
The story we read begins with Jesus asking His disciples “Who do people say the son of man is?” In other words, Jesus is asking his disciples “What are you hearing about me, guys? What are people saying about me? Have they figured out who I am?” In response to this question the disciples give a number of answers. The answers they give are good answers. They begin by saying “Jesus, some think you are John the Baptist. John the Baptist, the one who preached strong morals, who announced the way of salvation, and who called people to prepare themselves for the coming of the kingdom. But others, Jesus, well, they think that you are Elijah. Elijah the one who performed many miracles, who was a man dedicated to prayer, and who was taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot. Still others say that you are the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah the one who stood against corruption and moral injustices of the day and who announced that a day was coming when God would be building a new heart to heart relationship with his people, a new covenant. Yes, Jesus, that is what people are saying. They are saying you are either John the Baptist, Elijah or Jeremiah.”
Now these were good answers. What the people were saying about Jesus would not have been an insult. It wasn’t like they were making derogatory remarks about Jesus because in each one of these answers we are confronted with men of great moral and spiritual character. These were good people. John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah were good men: spiritual men. They were men who pointed the way to salvation and a right relationship with God. However the problem was that was all they were — men, people who pointed to the way of salvation. They were not the way of salvation themselves.
How different these answers are from Jesus’ claim for himself when he said “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” To see Jesus as merely another person in a long line of great spiritual gurus, or religious teachers, and to bypass him or sidestep him in order to continue on with the search for a way to salvation is to miss everything. It is to miss everything about Jesus and who he is. You see, many people in Jesus’ day had missed who he was. They had come to the wrong conclusion about him.
Not much has changed in two thousand years. Because even today many people miss who Jesus is. Many people living in our day haven’t come to the right conclusion about Jesus. But, you see, that wasn’t Jesus’ main concern in this story. Oh, I am sure he wished that those people who claimed he was John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah would grasp or come to an understanding of who he was. I am still sure that Jesus cares about what others think about him today. But that really wasn’t his main concern at this time, was it? Instead after listening to their responses about what others said about Jesus he turns to His disciples again and he asks “But what about you?” He asks “Disciples, what about you — the ones who have been with me for almost three years, the ones who have heard me teach and watched me heal, what about you?” “Disciples, who do you say that I am?” And well Peter, that quick talking disciple, he answers Jesus’ question and he gets it dead right. Peter looks at Jesus and he says “Jesus, you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In other words, Jesus, you are the anointed one. You are the one that has come to save us. You are not only the one who will point us to the way of salvation and a right relationship with God. But you are the one who will bring that about. Jesus, you are the Christ the Son of the living God. Peter gets it right! Peter gets the basic, fundamental question right and his life and his discipleship show that.
But today, we cannot just listen to Peter’s response. It not good enough to simply let Peter answer Jesus’ question for us. Instead we have to do more, we have to answer the question ourselves. As Jesus turns to us and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” We have to answer him. We can’t rely on Peter. Jesus has no desire to hear us talk about what Peter, or even what our parents, or even what our clergy or our church believes. Instead, Jesus wants to know what I, we believe. He wants to know how you would answer his question. He wants to know how I would answer that question. You see what Peter says, or our parents, or our friends say about Jesus is one thing. It even might be a good thing. They may have the right answer — the same answer as Peter. But what is of significance in our life is our answer. What would your answer be to his question “Who do you say that I am?”
The Greek pronoun rendered “You” in this passage is in an emphatic position. The verse literally reads “but you, whom do you say Me to be?” By asking the question the way he did, Jesus was implying “Are you willing to stand alone in your estimation of Me? Do you dare take the risk of breaking away from public opinion and hold a contrary personal conviction about Me?”
“Yes!” Peter answered the question. But can you? Are you willing to say “Jesus, you are the Christ — the Son of the living God!”? Are you willing to say “Jesus, you are the Savior. You are my Savior. You are the one who makes me right with God.”? Are you willing to say “Jesus, you are the one who came to die upon a cross and rise from the grave so that I can have salvation.”? I mean how do we, how do you, how do I answer the question of Jesus?
You see, even though the question Jesus asks is fundamental to our life, our answer to Jesus’ question is even more fundamental to our life and to our salvation: “Who do you say that I am?”
So can you, can I, answer the question of Jesus in the same way Peter did? It is interesting that in Matthew 16:13 we are told that Jesus asked this question while he and the disciples were in the district of Caesarea Philippi. That is interesting and important to know because the people of Caesarea Philippi were notorious for their worship of Baal, the fertility god of the Canaanites, and also of Pan, the Roman god of fertility. In fact, King Herod the Great had built a temple in Caesarea Philippi for the worship of Caesar. It was in the midst of all this idolatry, with all these people worshipping other gods that Jesus asks this fundamental question “Who do you say that I am?” It was in this setting, this pagan city, that Peter answers “Jesus, you are the Christ the Son of the living God.”
Rather than Caesarea Philippi, imagine for a moment that we find ourselves in a place such as Las Vegas which epitomizes worldliness and idolizes the love for money. We can imagine walking down the main streets of the city with the glittering casinos all around us. The lights are just overpowering us, and then, all of a sudden, Jesus is walking with us and he turns to us and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” In that city full of lights he would wait for us to reply, “Jesus, Jesus. You are the light of the world.”
Or imagine sitting in the stands of the final game of the Eurocup, with its overdone razzle-dazzle displays that encourage us to worship sports. Imagine sitting in the best seat of the stadium, in the midst of tens of thousands of delirious fans and a hundred million more around the world watching the game on television. As you are watching live … suddenly someone taps you on the shoulder…. It’s Jesus and he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” And in that atmosphere, with those screaming fans all around, He would expect you to reply “Jesus, Jesus, you are my only object of worship.”
Or imagine being at school, sitting down for lunch and having your friends or co-workers with you. They begin to chat about going out on the weekend and getting drunk. Suddenly, Jesus is there and he says “Who do you say that I am?” and he would expect us to say, “Jesus, you are my Lord and my God.”
Or imagine for moment you are at work. And you’re standing with some of your co-workers who are saying some pretty hurtful remarks about someone you work with. They are all laughing, and suddenly Jesus taps you on the shoulder and says, “Who do you say that I am?” And in that group of people he would expect you to say, “Jesus you are the one who forgives me, who loves me, who loves all people.”
You see it was in a first century setting where pagan temples and idols abounded, where people didn’t know Jesus or care who he was, that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
We have to answer Jesus’ question. We can’t avoid it. We can’t even refer it to our mom, or dad, or our brother, or sister. We can’t ask the priest or the deacon to answer it. You can’t rely on your teacher or your municipal councillor. Instead, today as you are reading this, you have to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” It is a fundamental question. But the answer is even more fundamental because the answer has to do with salvation, with life or death — not just in the here and now but for eternity.
“Who do you say that I am?” It is my hope and prayer that each of you can answer Jesus’ question correctly. I hope and pray that we can answer by saying, “Jesus, you are the Christ. You are the anointed one. You are the Son of the living God.” I hope and pray that we can answer by saying, “Jesus, you are my Savior and my Lord.” I hope and pray we can answer by saying, “Jesus you are my strength when I am weak, you are the treasure that I seek, you are my all in all.” Because only then, only when we answer Jesus in this way, will we, will you and I, know what life and eternity are all about.
And if you can’t answer the question in that way — well then I hope and pray that you will allow Jesus through his Holy Spirit to work in your heart. That you will find someone, such as a family memebr or friend or colleague, and speak to them about Jesus and what he means to you. Because as Jesus himself said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Come to Jesus. Learn more about him. Come to the Christ the Son of the living God and through him find the salvation, find the life that you are looking for. Amen.
Heavenly Father, we pray that each one of us may see and understand who Jesus is. May you through your Holy Spirit open our hearts to understand that Jesus is the Christ, your Son and that he is our Lord and Savior. If there is someone who does not know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, may you by the power of the Spirit allow their hearts to be open to see, know and believe in him. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.