Jesus and his disciples left for the villages round Caesarea Philippi. On the way he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say I am?’ And they told him. ‘John the Baptist,’ they said ‘others Elijah; others again, one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he asked ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter spoke up and said to him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to be put to death, and after three days to rise again; and he said all this quite openly. Then, taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him. But, turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said to him, ‘Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.’ He called the people and his disciples to him and said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’
Jesus and his disciples left for the villages round Caesarea Philippi. On the way he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say I am?’ And they told him. ‘John the Baptist,’ they said ‘others Elijah; others again, one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he asked ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter spoke up and said to him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to be put to death, and after three days to rise again; and he said all this quite openly. Then, taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him. But, turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said to him, ‘Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.’
He called the people and his disciples to him and said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’
“Who do you say I am?”
by Fr John Horan SDB
In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar Mary Magdalene referring to Jesus sang. “He’s a man, he’s just a man,” It is one answer to the question: Who is Jesus Christ?
But then she added:
“I’ve been changed, yes really changed
In these past few days
When I’ve seen myself
I seem like someone else
He’s a man
He’s just a man”
She has met Jesus and she has been mysteriously changed by him. AND SHE SENSES that there was much more to him than meets the eye, but she can’t put her finger on it. So In her bewilderment, she simple says, He’s a man. He’s just a man. But on HER lips that sounds more sounds more like a question than a statement. After all she has been changed by her encounter with him. Something that has not happened in her encounters with anybody else. For the moment her sense of bafflement remains but her heart longs for a deeper answer.
She is not really happy with the answers that other people are giving. Now that she has been changed through her encounters with Jesus, it is an answer she must give for herself. As her relationship with him grows the answer will, in time, come from her heart.
Mary had moved a step nearer to first-hand religion. It is all too easy to get focused on second-hand religion and just repeat what other people believe; rather than to ponder deeply our own answer to the question – Who do I say Jesus is? What is it that I really believe about Jesus?
Jesus isn’t really interested in the first question in today’s gospel.
“Who do people say that I am?” This question is easily answered, one has only to be a reporter; and report what others have said.
The Second one is the real question was “Who do you say I am?” This is a searching question; and only a disciple can come anywhere close to answering it.
For once in the Gospels, Peter got it right when he blurted out: “You are the Messiah” but rather strangely Jesus, immediately, tells Peter not to tell anyone about him. Yes, Peter had given the right answer, but he did not yet fully understand what he had said.
As we see a few verses later Peter’s understanding of the Messiah had to do with earthly power and privilege whereas for Jesus it meant the paradox of suffering and dying.
Jesus comes to each of us and puts the penetratingly personal question, “BUT WHO DO YOU, FOR YOURSELF, SAY THAT I AM?” Right now, this day.
Maybe the question WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM? can only really be answered by the heart because it is a question of relationship; a question of heart-knowing. When we know that answer to that question in our hearts we too, like Mary will, in our own way become messengers and missionaries for the risen Christ.
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus made use of the time to share intimately with his disciples, letting them see, a little at a time, the reason for the journey, and giving them some idea of the personal fate that awaited him. He wanted to be alone with them and so, before starting on the journey, he led them out of the territory of Galilee (Mk 8, 27). There they were alone with him. They had no choice but to share his table, alone with him. Jesus began the journey with an examination of his disciples. What others thought of him, was of secondary importance (Mk 8, 28). It was an excuse to make it easier for the disciples to speak their mind without fear. It was a deliberate tactical approach. And then with the question, “But who do you say I am?” they began the long journey with Jesus as their companion.
Peter’s confession was prompted by Jesus’ question. It was a profession of faith that was provoked, drawn out of him, by Jesus. If he had not been challenged, it is doubtful if he would have dared to declare his faith in Jesus. However, it is not enough to be a believer. Only someone who knows who Jesus is, will be able to understand what he is to become. A profession of faith, however orthodox it may be, is not enough. As well as acknowledging who Jesus is, the disciple must be willing to allow Jesus to become what he has to become. The sad part is that being a good believer (Mk 8, 30) does not shield one from the danger of becoming a devil. It all depends on whether or not he accepts God’s will (Mk 8, 33).
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
This episode, a conversation between Jesus and his disciples, is presented in three parts. After a brief indication of the location where it takes place (Mk 8, 27a), Jesus opens a dialogue which concludes with Peter’s confession of faith, and the order to keep quiet about what has happened (Mk 8, 27b-30). Jesus’ two questions serve to focus the conversation on his own person. It is significant that, in their first reply, it is the group that acts as spokespersons for the views of the people, whereas in the second, Peter acts as spokesperson for the group of disciples. And even though Peter alone made the profession of faith, the whole group was bound to silence (Mk 8, 30).
Jesus responded to his disciples’ profession of faith by telling them, for the first time, the journey that the Son of Man would have to undertake, a genuine via crucis. Jesus seldom spoke in public with such clarity. This makes Peter’s reaction more understandable (Mk 8, 32b-33). Jesus does not tolerate any opposition to the destiny that awaits him. He rebukes Peter, publicly and severely, with the worst description Jesus has ever used anywhere in the Gospel. Opposition to the destiny of Jesus is opposition to the will of God.
At this first prediction of the forthcoming death of Jesus (Mk 8, 31-32a), Peter reacts by refusing to accept it (Mk 8,32b). And Jesus in turn denies the disciple who has changed from believer to tempter (Mk 8, 33). His disowning of the first one to profess faith in him is severe and public, in front of the other disciples. Opposing the destiny of Jesus, beloved of the Father, is no private matter. Jesus’ teaching on following him also has to be public (Mk 8, 34), and is given without any half measures. The cross is unavoidable, not only for Christ, but also for those who share his life. Whoever follows him from the beginning must follow him to the end. Without the passion, there is no Christ, and likewise no Christians.
Unexpectedly, a crowd appears and joins the disciples. We are not told where they came from (Mk 8, 27). The evangelist wants to make clear that Jesus has a larger group of listeners to hear his teaching about the cross (Mk 8,34a), and he introduces a wider audience to suit the need. Even though what Jesus says is focussed on the consequences of following him, his teaching is not restricted to the disciples. The people need to be aware of what it costs to follow him, although he expects his disciples to be more willing since they have been better prepared. He does not want people to follow him blindly (Mk 8,34b), and so he lets them know in advance where he will lead them (Mk 8, 32).
Nevertheless, when it is a question of the cross, the invitation to follow him is offered to all without distinction. Jesus proclaims publicly the conditions for being his disciple. Anyone can be a disciple, provided he meets the demands. The fact that he had gathered a crowd around him served as a warning to his most trusted followers. Sharing life with him is not enough, nor is it enough to walk with him, nor to preach in his name and with his authority, as had been the case until then. If those who had shared life with him and shared his suffering, were not willing to share with him to the end, they were not worthy to be his followers. A new condition is imposed, and following him is now a matter of choice. Taking up one’s cross and following him is not only for the disciples, but for all who declare themselves willing. Anyone who is not willing to pay the price, will not be his disciple, no matter how much he resolves to follow him.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Peter’s confession constituted a key moment in Jesus’ public life. It marked the beginning of a new stage in his ministry, characterized by his effort to educate his disciples. For some time, he had been proclaiming the kingdom throughout the villages of Galilee and healing the sick. It was natural then that the people who had met him and heard him should have formed a certain idea of him. Jesus wanted to know what the people were saying about him, but instead of asking them directly he put the question to the disciples. In this way he was pointing out their task – they ought to know what the people were thinking about their Master. Jesus led the disciples out of Galilee and away from the people, to test them. He had never been concerned about what people thought of him, yet now he put this question to his disciples. They report some of the opinions people had of him and reveal their own confusion. Only one of them was brave enough to proclaim his faith. The strange thing is, not that only one of them professed faith in who Jesus was, but that the one who did proclaim his faith would soon be rebuked for the way he thought about Jesus.
It was not mere curiosity that prompted Jesus to ask what was being said of him. He wanted his disciples to be aware of the opinions and the hopes that he was arousing among those who knew him, and in this way to gauge the results of his mission. He wanted his disciples to be interested not only in him whom they followed closely and accompanied all the time. He wanted them also to pay attention to what was going on around them, to be aware of the hopes and expectations that Jesus was arousing in the people. He wanted them to realize that they were not the only ones who placed their hopes in him; they were not the only ones who loved him and were interested in him. The more they realized what the people thought of Jesus or expected from him, the better they would understand him and the more enthusiastic they would be about him.
The fact that Jesus was their one Lord and Master should not lead them to forget that many others esteemed him just as much as they did, or maybe even more. Christ is not the sole property of Christians. His disciples are not the only people who are fascinated by him. When a true disciple realizes how many people love the Lord – and how much they love Him – it helps him to love the Lord more and to be ever more faithful. It is significant that before Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, he made them find out the opinion of others. A disciple who is not interested in what others are saying about Jesus, or a Christian who shows no interest in what other people think of Jesus, will not be able to give the reasons for his faith and will soon lose hope. We know who Jesus is, and we ought to be seriously concerned that he is not well known and that many do not know him at all. Our world today is forgetting Jesus because his disciples do not show enough interest in what is being said about him, and they themselves do not speak often enough about him. It seems that Christ has little or nothing to say nowadays because Christians think they know all about him and do not ask others what they think of him. If we think we know all about him, or if we are comfortable with the fact that he is often passed over in silence, we are adding to the general disinterest in the person of Jesus, and making it difficult for people to recognize him as Saviour.
It is our lifestyle more than our words that should invite those around us to enter into discussion. Nowadays it requires a certain amount of courage to present oneself before others as a disciple of Jesus, and to ask others what Christ means to them. Anyone who is on the side of Christ cannot remain neutral in the presence of others. Anyone who acknowledges him as Master will look for new disciples. Anyone who loves him will want him to be better known and loved by all. We would all be better disciples of Jesus if, like those first disciples, we were more concerned about the attitude of our contemporaries towards him, and the reasons for those attitudes. We would be encouraged when we discover that there are still many who share our faith and our hopes. And it would be a cause of sorrow to us to know that there are many who have little or no interest in him. How can we Christians live without being interested in what people say of Christ?
It is not enough for us to know who Jesus really is. Peter knew and, with admirable courage, declared it publicly. But his confession did not spare him a scolding from Jesus! It was not because he was misinformed. He was right in acknowledging him as the Christ, the Son of God. Nevertheless, to his surprise, and as a warning to us, he was severely criticized by Jesus. As a good believer, Peter thought he knew who Jesus was and who he was meant to be. He thought he had a good idea of the Lord, better than the others had, and he thought he knew how Christ should act. Like Peter, Christians who think they know God well are deceiving themselves when they think they know what to expect from him. Good believers are the very people who tend to misunderstand God. They acknowledge him as God and think he should be God in the way they imagine him. Atheists and agnostics do not dare to create an image of God according to their expectations. Those who have no interest in God may be deluding themselves. The temptation that faces believers, who think they know God well, is to think they know what to expect from God.
This is what Peter thought, the first disciple to declare his faith. He could not imagine, and he did not want to accept, that Jesus should die, sentenced on a cross. That sort of end did not match the hopes that Peter had in him. He believed that he should not allow the Lord to follow God’s plan. There is something likeable about this good disciple who sought to dissuade his Master, and drew him aside to be better able to convince him. We consider his opposition to the death of Jesus as something good, and we identify with his effort to dissuade him. Any one of us would certainly have done the same, and we continue to do so every day. True enough, we believe in God. We follow Christ, certainly. However, our faith, like that of Peter, and our willingness to follow him, are subject to the condition that the demands he makes of should not be too strange, that they be reasonable. A God who makes unreasonable demands and a Christ very different from the one we know, could easily make us change our minds. It would be sad, but not impossible if, even after following Jesus for many years and believing in God all our lives, we were to discover that we do not really know Christ and we do not accept God’s plans.
We should be more conscious of the risk we run when we seek to change God’s plan to suit the God we believe in. Peter, the first disciple to recognize the Lord, was condemned by the Lord as his worst enemy, a devil. Jesus never referred to any of his enemies as Satan, not even the worst of them, nor those who condemned him to death. The only one deserving of such condemnation was the disciple who knew him best and loved him most. It is not enough then to believe in God, no matter how genuine our faith may be, nor is it sufficient to declare it publicly every now and then. As believers, we have to learn to respect God, to accept him as he is, and as he wants to be for us. The disciples of Jesus must give up imagining the Lord according to their own wishes and their own way of reasoning. The faith that Jesus expects from his disciples is more than just a public statement of who he is for us. It is not simply a matter of saying what he means for us. The faith that Jesus expects of his disciples is seen when we allow him to be for us whatever he wants to be, and in whatever way he wants.
If, like Peter on the road to Jerusalem, we do not understand that the destiny of Jesus is death on the cross, then we need to realize that God is not uppermost in our desires. We will really know God only when we allow Him to be what He wants to be for us, even if we never come to understand Him. Only when we allow Him to be Lord of our lives, will we be capable of an intimate personal relationship with Him. If we allow God to be our God, totally, and make Jesus Christ our only Lord, we will soon come to meet Him on the cross. We cannot be His disciples unless we follow Him closely. If we refuse to take up our cross, we are denying Jesus.
Peter realized that day, that he was following someone who was walking consciously to His death, and he sought to rebel. Jesus warned him that anyone who opposed God’s plan was not worthy of Him. Avoiding the cross might save someone’s life for the time being, but it makes him unworthy of Christ. God alone is deserving of our lives, and only Jesus is worth suffering for. Every Christian will one day have to answer the same question that the Lord put to the disciples. Instead of congratulating ourselves that we already know the right answer, we should ask ourselves if we are willing to accept the consequences – to deny ourselves and take up our cross. This is what is asked of those who believe that Jesus is the Christ. The example of Peter is a serious warning to us. The first believer became, immediately, a devil … because he was not ready to accept the consequences of his faith. It is not enough to know who Jesus is – we must be ready to accept what it means for him. We also need to remember that the destiny that awaits Jesus will also be the destiny of his disciples.
give us grace to serve you with all our heart
that we may come to know the power of your forgiveness and love.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Music used in the reflection: “Waiting in the Rain” by Lee Rosevere (CC-BY-NC)