Who do you say that I am?
These haunting words of Jesus are not for the faint of heart or those easily swayed by the opinions of others. They are moving words directed to each and every one of us, asking us to individually declare who we believe Jesus to be.
Today in our Gospel reading, Jesus first asks the disciples, “Who are the people saying I am?” Jesus is given multiple responses by the disciples demonstrating a variety of opinions and understandings. However, Jesus isn’t satisfied with these answers and I believe it has less to do with what they were and more with the fact these responses were not personal to the disciple’s understandings. They were catch phrases or "feel good answers" that seemed to be good enough. The disciples were essentially repeating what others had said. They were not thinking for themselves. Our Gospel says that Jesus then “pressed them.” He stared them straight in the eye and said, “How about you?”
Imagine the silence that probably came over the disciples for a moment or two. They had walked and talked with this man for many months now. They knew his eating and sleeping habits. They knew his bathroom habits! They knew his demeanor and perhaps, just perhaps, even his flaws. They had witnessed unexplained phenomenon and heard his teaching to love in extravagant and almost impossible ways. But today Jesus looks at them and demands an answer to the question, “Who am I?”
Peter finally speaks up and declares Jesus to be the anointed one, the Messiah or the Christ. He claims Jesus to be the child of the living God. Much of Judaism had held the belief that one-day an individual would appear that would become both the governmental and spiritual leader of all God’s people. Peter found this individual, this incarnate hope, to be fulfilled in the one he called Rabbi or teacher, the one named Jesus.
Jesus blesses Peter and explains that Peter could only come to this conclusion with the help of the Creator. It is only through Peter’s relationship with God, that Peter can understand who Jesus is for himself. Peter’s understanding of Jesus was not received from books or dogmas or claims of others but rather through his own personal faith and encounter with God. Faith is personal! This is something we tend to forget in the church and in our society. We are inundated with claims of what and who Jesus and God are. We are told how we must live and what is a sin and what is not a sin. We are told how to be Christians and what fails to make us Christians. But rarely do we stop and hear the question of Jesus being asked of ourselves: “Who do you say I am?”
If we do allow ourselves to hear this whispered question, that has been echoing in the pages of scripture for the last 2,000 years, we rarely answer it truthfully. We feel we already know the answer. We know what Peter is about to claim. We know what our parents believed. We know what our priest told us in church growing up. We know what our Sunday school teachers demonstrated with craft projects that our parents humored by displaying around the house. We “know” the answer.
Jesus, however, doesn’t want our prefabricated answers. Jesus does not want to hear the answers that have been given by our teachers or catechism classes or even holy books. Jesus presses on us and stares us deep in our eyes and says, “Who am I?” Jesus grants us the opportunity to live out a personal and authentic faith that is not the product of the dogma of others. Rather Jesus is asking for our heartfelt understanding as revealed to us through our tenacious relationship with the Divine, with God.
Peter’s response to Jesus was blessed not because he said the “right words” but because his words, his thoughts and his understandings were inspired by time spent with God, maybe even wrestling with God. Don’t get me wrong; it is worthwhile to investigate what others believe of Jesus. In community we find great strength and irreplaceable bonds of friendship. Our attendance in a faith community helps to inspire us and to increase our own contemplations but ultimately faith is personal. When we allow ourselves to affirm the uniqueness we alone find in Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one, we are then able to explore the world as Jesus did. We are then able to walk in a spirit of freedom. A true freedom that is not restricted by creeds and laws and expectations of others, but rather allows love to become sole guide and ruler.
The result of Peter’s personal proclamation of who Jesus is leads him to become one of the great servant leaders of the early church. If we allow ourselves to begin to answer the question of who Jesus is, not according to the hopes of others, but according to our own experience of God, we too have the promise of becoming leaders. Our personal encounter with Jesus allows us to share in Christ’s ministry of love, healing and hospitality in our time and in our own communities.
When we choose to participate in our own genuine relationship with God, God’s ways will be revealed to us and God will invite us to participate in establishing peace on earth. Peter is told that he now holds the keys to kingdom of God. In traditional scriptural language these keys are promised the ability to bind or loose whatever Peter wills. Peter is given the ability to offer to others access to the ways of God. God desires to give to each one of us these keys that lead to true and eternal freedom for all of creation. The more who hold and compassionately control these keys, the more God’s reign of kindness will be understood in our cities, nations, continents and around the globe.
However, these keys can only be given to those who authentically approach the question: “Who do you say that I am?” Only after we wrestle with our own understanding of God can we truly offer God to those around us. These keys also grant us freedom to constantly re-understand God and God’s ways in the light of modern day science and thought. All who approach God and Christ authentically are given the ability bind and loose, to say yes or no, to think for their own self and to offer the freedom for their neighbor to do the same. True freedom is not found in a denial of God but rather in our acceptance that God calls each one of us to understand for ourselves who God is. We do this by entering into a personal and meaningful relationship with the Divine.
Personal relationships are not easy. They get dirty. There is fighting, disagreement, bad days and good days. Real relationships have doubts and hopes, confusion and understanding. Relationships are not for the faint of heart. A sincere relationship with God is no different. Jesus doesn’t ask you to give an expected answer today or any day; Jesus asks you to declare for yourself who he really is. Who is God? If you dare to explore your answer you may just find yourself being given the gift of leading others to a place of wholeness and peace.