“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks the disciples. The question is central to his ministry and to his follower’s discipleship.
Jesus began the dialogue with another question. “Who do the people say that I am?” For the disciples this was perhaps the easier question. Reporting what someone else thinks requires no commitment or obligation. There are no consequences to honestly reporting someone else’s thoughts on a particular matter. The disciples answer Jesus’ question: “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” They simply state “the word on the street.”
Now Jesus asks the disciples the question. The question might be the same but the impact is much different now. Now they have to take a stand; they have to commit; they have to decide. The only one who speaks is Peter, who says: “You are the Christ.” Peter makes his confession of faith to Jesus. He correctly identifies Jesus as the messiah, the Anointed One.
The next part of the dialogue now speaks to Jesus’ messiahship and the consequences it has for those who make that profession of faith. Jesus tells Peter and the others that “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.”
St. Mark tells us that Jesus “spoke this openly.” In other words he is telling them very plainly, clearly and with nothing hidden that his identity as messiah is directly connected with his passion, death and resurrection. His self-sacrifice for the redemption of mankind cannot be separated from who he is.
You may recall that earlier in the Gospel in several cases where Jesus performed a great miracle he would order the people to be silent about it. Scholars refer to this as the “Messianic Secret.” The reason is that at that point in the ministry the people’s conception of the messiah was one of a military or political leader who would free them from Roman rule and re-establish the Davidic kingdom.
In these cases Jesus demands silence until he can help them better understand the messiah’s mission. Now as he “speaks openly” with his disciples, he speaks to them in clear terms about that mission.
Peter now reacts. The same Peter who makes the profession of faith now wants to separate Jesus from his mission. Peter’s reaction was surely motivated by friendship, for who would want a friend to have to undergo a passion? Perhaps Peter’s own conception of the messiah and his mission was still in formation. Regardless, Jesus’ response is clear and forceful: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Jesus’ mission entails the passion. His strong reaction to Peter gives an indication of just how serious this issue is to Jesus’ mission and to discipleship. It also gives some indication that Peter’s rebuke might be a temptation for Jesus. Perhaps this is why Jesus refers to Peter as Satan. His rebuke of Peter finds resonance with his rebuke of Satan when he was tempted in the desert. Jesus is committed to the mission and like the suffering servant of Isaiah (see first reading, Isaiah 50:5-9a), Jesus will place his trust in his Father.
The next part of the dialogue now deals with the “cost of discipleship.” Following Jesus as his disciple entails laying down one’s life. If Jesus who is the messiah is willing to lay down his life in love, then his followers too must be willing to lay down their lives in love. Jesus says: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will loose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
Jesus’ death leads to resurrection, and resurrection leads to life — life eternal. The contrast between death and life parallels the contrast between thinking as man does and as God does. Life in terms of this world alone is akin to thinking of “worldly things” or “as man thinks.” Life eternal is akin to thinking of “heavenly things” or “divine realities.” The contrast also parallels the contrast between an “earthly messiah” concerned with the reestablishment of the “kingdom of Israel” and the “divine messiah” who comes to establish the “Kingdom of God.”
The question of Jesus’ identity and mission are central to our understanding of discipleship, of life and of love. Jesus comes that we might have life. The life he offers is one of love. This love is expressed in denying oneself, emptying oneself in love of others. In our lives as disciples it is good to hear Jesus ask us the question: “Who do you say that I am?” He indeed asks it of us just as he asked his disciples, he asks us just as he asked Peter.
Living the life of a disciple entails us answering this question not just with words but in deed. Following Jesus as a disciple requires us to continually engage in laying down our lives in love. The second reading for Sunday’s liturgy from the Letter of James speaks of this living discipleship in terms of “faith and works.”
Making a profession of faith without the corresponding life of love will make the profession facile. It will almost empty it of meaning. St. James uses the example of the care to be given to the poor. He writes: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Helping those in need is one of the primary ways where we deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Jesus.
Today Jesus asks us again: “Who do you say that I am?” Today we respond with Peter: “You are the Christ.” May we live this profession of faith in our loving care and concern for each other. May we take up his cross and follow him.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.