The message of Jesus brought excitement to all those who listened. The reign of God was "at hand." He told them how to recognize this kingdom: by living in God and living in love - clothing the poor, caring for the needy, being ready to forgive, feeding those who hunger, overcoming cultural prejudices. This is how the world was to recognize the name and presence of God's Spirit in their midst.
This message was particularly exciting to Jesus' immediate followers. But just to make sure that His disciples clearly understood what He was saying, Jesus asked them two very pointed questions: "Who do people say that I am?" "Who do you say that I am?" The answers to these questions go beyond mere excitement and enthusiasm, and touch the very makeup of the call to discipleship. As the first disciples came to understand who Christ really was and what He was about, they also came to realize what challenges were in store for them as they preached the "Good News."
The Gospel Matthew makes Peter the spokesperson for the early church's faith, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Matthew wrote about Peter's faith declaration three decades after Peter's martyrdom for the faith he is expressing in this passage. But as the Gospel unfolds the first disciples' journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, we hear about their all-too-human qualities. When Jesus questions his little group in today's reading, they are not yet ready to die for Him; they are still in the early stage of discipleship. But they will be when they experience the resurrection. What Peter professes today is the faith that he and the early Christians had after they met the risen Jesus. Peter is the spokesperson for the community that came to believe in the resurrected Christ.
Today's episode, we are told, takes place in the region of Caesarea Philippi. It is Roman territory and it is there that Jesus asks Peter a question about his identity; not in a safe enclosure, a shrine or a religious site. Rather, the faith question is asked in a non-believing milieu... much like the one in which we modern believers must answer the same question. Our response will not only be in words or in doctrinal formula; we will make the response by how we live and die.
The Gospel story has us still in the midst of the disciples' training period. A number of times in the gospels we are told that the disciples didn't understand; or that they were confused; or that their hearts were hardened. The resurrection, which empowered the disciples, had not yet happened. They were still in the thick of things, still not seeing clearly.
The revelation that opened Peter's eyes to see and his tongue to proclaim Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God," is our gift as well, as we live our Christian lives day by day. We face many of the same challenges as the first disciples: cynicism in dealing with others; despair as we face large issues of violence and war; greed that puts ourselves above others; indifference to the pain of others; cowardice when our faith is challenged; conformity when prophetic witness is called for, and lukewarm religious practice that has stalled through neglect.
"Who do you say that I am?" The Lord asks the same question and offers the same challenge to us. He sends us on our own journey of faith and gives us the necessary tools to travel our different paths: Love of God and Love of Neighbor.
We don't have to travel thousands of miles or make superhuman sacrifices to avail ourselves of his offer. We don't have to look very far to find our neighbor. We need only to accept His promise and His presence with faith; He will provide the rest.
"Do you know who I am?" "Do you really know me at all?" Jesus' question is addressed to us now. And we, His followers answer readily, "You are the Christ. You are the Messiah. You are the Son of the Living God."
The world around us is also asking: "Who are you? What are you about? Why do you do what you do?" Hopefully, everything we say and do will proclaim very loudly and clearly: "We are faithful followers of Jesus Christ, whom we procalim as our Lord and Savior. We are His hands, His eyes, His heart, His body. We bring His light and truth to our world. In His name, and by His power, we are trying to remake the face of the earth, to renew our world, to overcome evil and suffering, to restore all things in Him."
A rock solid faith has been given to us and trusting in the One Peter teaches us to call "the Christ, the Son of the living God," the gates of the netherworld, in all its shapes and disguises shall not prevail against us.