There have been many great religious figures in history. Their followers in all the world’s major religions (Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, etc.) would count Jesus among the list of holy and great religious leaders. Even people who belong to no religion would say the same. So, there can be plenty of responses today to Jesus’s question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” What's important for us, though, is that we have a clear idea of what our answer may be to that question.
At the heart of the Gospel message is the challenge to articulate who we believe Jesus to be and to lose ourselves - as He did - in the concern for others. If we truly love every other person as Jesus has loved us, then we don't look at risk, or color, or public opinion, or all of the other excuses for walking away. This, as the saying goes, is easier said than done.
Peter was the first disciple to acknowledge openly that Jesus was the promised Messiah. "Who do you say that I am?" he was asked. "So, what do you think...?" But when Jesus puts his question to Peter, and to us, he isn’t asking about public opinion. He is inviting a conversion of heart from his disciples; a confession of faith that results in a lifetime commitment and a changed life.
"You are the Christ," Peter answered (Mt. 16:15-16). And then came Jesus' strange reply in which He strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that He is the Christ. Why? Why not spread the news as quickly as possible? Perhaps Peter and the others hadn't yet come to understand who the Messiah really was.
The people of Jesus' time already had fixed notions as to who the Messiah would be and what He would be like. And Jesus did not fit the mold. They were convinced that the Messiah would come in the form of a great warrior king in the tradition of King David. He would be the military leader and political leader that would win freedom and independence for Israel. Peter and the rest of the disciples probably had the same notion of what the Messiah would bring to Israel. And as we’ll see in next week’s Gospel, Peter just could not bring Himself to accept Jesus' forecast of His Passion and Crucifixion. "God forbid, Lord, this must not happen to you," he exclaims (Mt. 16:22).
Peter was right about Jesus being a Messiah, “the Christ.” But what he did not get was the kind of Messiah Jesus would be, one who would not rise above our suffering, but would join us in it. Little by little and over time, Peter and the others come to realize that this Jesus, this Messiah, is very different from the one they were looking for:
- Jesus came, not in the form of military, political or religious leader - but as the embodiment of God's own life in His own life.
- Jesus came not to conquer and destroy, but to heal and save.
- Jesus came, not as lofty king, but as humble servant.
- Jesus came to liberate, not through the power of the sword, but through the power of love emanating from a new community.
"On this rock I will build my church." Matthew is the only evangelist to use this technical term, which derives from the Hebrew word qahal, or "assembly," of the people of Israel. Against this foundation stone, weak and frail as Peter is, and the community built upon it, even the forces of death will be powerless. This phrase in today's Gospel is testimony to the continuity of church and the life of Jesus. The community is distintive because it follows Jesus - it shares in His glory and so also must share in the opposition that Jesus himself experienced. Leadership in this community is validated if it is based on the kind of faithfulness shown by Peter - one that recognizes the capacity to be a "stumbling block" as well as the "foundation stone."
We can begin to see how practical and contemporary this is. To one degree or another, we try to shape the Messiah according to our own preconceptions. We tailor His image to fit our own desires and our own concerns. We refuse to let Him come into our lives on His terms. We try to shape Him to fit our own images and prejudices.
Jesus comes to us, always ready to enrich our lives, always ready to move us into the fullness of life. But we miss Him completely when we are not ready to receive Him on His terms. The "How? ... When? ... and Where?" are Jesus' concerns, not ours. If we can't accept Him as He truly is, then there can be no room in our life for Him.
In order to make room, it may be necessary to relinquish certain things we want to cling to -- certain attitudes, or certain habits or certain ideas. It may be painful, even agonizing to do so, but until the change occurs, until that which is blocking out the Christ is relinquished, no amount of going to church and no amount of self-pity over life's frustrations will open the door to Jesus. This is called conversion of heart.
Accepting the Messiah on His terms means believing in His promise that though you die, yet shall you live. Jesus challenges us again with the same very basic question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Thomas Merton once wrote that the only way in which we can at last understand who God is and enter into the possession of the reality of God - which lies at the very roots of our existence - is to stop talking about it - and to grasp the reality... laying our hands on it, by just living it out in our daily lives.
Only then will we truly come to know who Jesus is, and who we really are.