Who Do You Say I Am?

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V.  August 23, 2020

Today’s Gospel is a most challenging text indeed.  The versions in Matthew and Luke’s gospels differ significantly.  In Luke’s Gospel, it is “when Jesus was praying alone” that he turns and asks the disciples these questions about his identity.  I wondered – if Jesus was supposed to be alone, what were his disciples doing there?  But then, I began to ask: how was Jesus’ sense of his identity shaped within the depths of his prayer life?  

When we are just “sailing through life”, moving from one activity to the other, without taking any time to reflect, it is easy to sidestep those fundamental questions about who we are, about the quality of our relationship with others, and with God.  And then something happens – I think, for our community, of the illness and death of our beloved Fr. Bertoli – and you are forced to ponder more eternal realities.  Jesus’ commitment to prayer, to confront the fundamental questions that arise when we invite God into our hearts and lives, shows that we too can allow those questions to surface. 

Jesus asks his question in two parts.  The first is safer, more generic: “who do the crowds say that I am?”   This is a less threatening question, because it is less engaging: it allows the disciples to keep a safe distance away, to answer in the “third person impersonal” form.  Now if Jesus asked us that question today, what might we answer?  

We might answer in the past tense: two thousand years ago, who did people think Jesus was?  Scholars of the “historical Jesus” provide us with a variety of answers: for some, Jesus of Nazareth was a dangerous heretic, upsetting the people with unorthodox ideas about God and the Law of Moses; for others, Jesus was an eschatological prophet, preaching an impending Kingdom of God; for yet others, an itinerant preacher, a miracle-worker, a moral teacher, a political subversive, a religious reformer.

Finally, for those who became the first Christians, Jesus was, in the response given by Peter today, “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  As Bishop Robert Barron likes to point out, we can either take Jesus’ claims of divine origin absolutely seriously, or dismiss him as a fraud.  What we don’t get to do is turn him into something else we are more comfortable with.

But if we only ask this question in the past, then we forget the heart of our faith: our belief in the resurrection.  After enduring his passion and death, Jesus was raised up by his Father: he lives forever.  If we are truly Christians, we must ask this question in the present tense: Jesus, the Son of the Living God, the Source of our life, is asking you, is asking me: “But you – who do you say that I am?”  Jesus is not just some dead hero.  He is our living Lord.

It is vitally important that we not lose contact with this most fundamental aspect of our faith: Jesus is alive.  He does not merely persist in our memories, in his teachings, or in the example he set for us.  That presence is manifest in a diversity of expressions.  Any act of kindness performed (or neglected) is taken as offered (or withheld) from Jesus: that person to whom I offer food, drink, clothing, shelter, friendship, care, and love IS Jesus.  When we hear God’s Word proclaimed in our midst, Jesus who is speaking to us.  When we come forth to receive the Eucharist, Jesus is feeding us.  We are nourished not by memories of a long-dead prophet, teacher, or Messiah – but by the very presence of the Living God.  How often do we stop to think about that?  To experience the wonder of that? 

At World Youth Day 2000, Pope John Paul II invited young Catholics from all parts of the world to open their hearts to that vital question posed by Jesus to his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?"   

"What is the meaning of this dialogue? Why does Jesus want to know what people think about him? Why does he want to know what his disciples think about him? Jesus wants his disciples to become aware of what is hidden in their own minds and hearts and to give voice to their conviction.  He knows that the judgment they will express will not be theirs alone, because it will reveal what God has poured into their hearts by the grace of faith.  This is what faith is all about! It is the response of the rational and free human person to the word of the living God.

It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness. He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be dragged down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and fraternal."

Jesus accepted his Messianic identity: he was the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed, the Son of the Living God. The disciples would have seen this as a glorious, privileged, heroic role. But as we will hear next Sunday, Jesus immediately reminds them that to share in his life is to also be willing to suffer, to take up your cross daily, to lay down your life for those you love.  In view of his deep faith and love, Jesus confers upon Peter a great privilege – that of leading his church – but also a great responsibility: that of caring for it and loving it, of being willing to lay down his life for them.

Peter thought he was up to the task, and told Jesus that he was, at the Last Supper.  “Even if all should fall away, I will never deny you.”  (We all know how that ended up!) Just as much as any of us, Peter depended on the mercy of Jesus, who lifted him up every time he fell, inviting him to renew his commitment to love and serve.

As we know, three times Peter would deny Jesus during his passion.  After the Resurrection, in that beautiful encounter on a beach in Galilee, which was the Gospel we proclaimed at Fr. Bertoli’s funeral Mass yesterday, Jesus asks Peter three times: “Do you love me?” Three times he answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus responds: “Feed my sheep.” 

Throughout his life as a priest, Fr. Bertoli lived, like Peter, this mysterious relationship of divine call and human response, rooted in his loving and faithful relationship with Jesus.  Fr. Bertoli had learned and lived out the lesson that all those in ministry must learn: to be a good leader, you have to let God do the leading.  And that this is not always easy.

Sometimes, when you pray with a text for many years, strange and wonderful things happen.  This is one of the beauties of the Ignatian prayer tradition, of imaginatively placing yourself in a Gospel scene and letting Jesus take over, so to speak.  A friend of mine shared the experience of being on a retreat praying with this text, and at one point in the prayer, the roles shifted: she found herself asking Jesus: “who do people say that I am?”  And then she began to hear all the messages about herself – negative, positive, indifferent, all the external things people commented on – that she had internalized throughout her life. 

But then, she found the courage to ask Jesus, “But you, Lord, who do you say that I am?”  Like many of us, she had a long history of not thinking very highly of herself, of internalizing the superficial judgments and criticisms of the world around her.  But eventually the answer came back: “You are my beloved, my friend, my chosen one: you are a child of the living God!  Embrace the gift of who you are.” 

So that’s your homework this week.  Take a few minutes of quiet, light a candle if that helps you to focus, open the Scriptures.  Allow Jesus to ask you these big questions – and then give yourself permission to ask him the same questions in return.  You may be pleasantly surprised by what you hear.  Amen!!