It starts with a question: Who do people say that I am? He’s not egotistical or worried about public ratings. Asking such a question in such a way gets an important conversation started and allows one to reveal the secrets of their heart. As we see from the text of this episode from St. Mark’s Gospel (8:27-35), Jesus’ questioning regarding opinions was aimed at getting their opinions to align with the truth of Who Jesus really is. These days, truth has been replaced by opinion; we talk not about what is true, but what I think or what you think. Perhaps it’s so basic that it’s obvious, but I’d like to reflect on this question: Who is Jesus Christ? I want to do this for two reasons: 1. a refresher is always good and 2. Aristotle says: A small mistake in the beginning is a big one in the end. To make sure we keep from making big mistakes later on, we make sure we’ve got the basics right.
Who is Jesus Christ? For some people, He’s a swear word, even sometimes by those who claim to be His followers! For some, He’s a punching bag or a straw man. Some have false understandings of who they think He is just like the “people” in today’s Gospel. Because of a skewed understanding, perhaps from the witness of Christians or from a false presentation of the Gospel, they have a certain notion of Jesus of Nazareth and use this notion to reject Christianity. Similarly, He is used as a selective authority for those wishing to justify often un-Christian attitudes. Some may know some of the things that Jesus said, and they like those sayings. They see these teachings as wise and will use these teachings to their liking.
Still others will acknowledge Him to be a holy man or an extra-good human with special powers – a Hercules-type. For these people, Jesus is someone who gives us inspiration or a good example. Perhaps, they think, if we were simply better people, we could, like Him, do more for humanity. Finally, as we hear in the Gospel, others see Him as a moral guide and teacher or a prophet. Like those who selectively use His teachings, these see Jesus Christ as one with some good things to say. Perhaps some teachings are seen as coming from God, but not someone we always have to follow. To all these, I end with C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Concerning the last two notions of Who Jesus is – a holy man or a good moral teacher – He is these and more. Some of you may have seen posters or other graphics with a poster listing all these Scriptural titles for Jesus of Nazareth, listing 53 titles to be exact. You can thank me later; we’re only talking about three of them. If we’re like those who pick and choose only certain teachings of Jesus, then we, not Jesus, are the judge of what is true and good. If we’re making our own way, then we are not following Jesus Christ, and we are not Christians. Further, professing to be Catholic Christians, that is, members of the Church, we’re saying that we hold as true what the Church teaches to be true about Him. Among other things the Church teaches that Jesus is the Christ, or the Messiah, or the Anointed One (these titles are interchangeable). That is, He is set apart, anointed for a specific mission. Many individuals in the Old Testament were referred to as “christ” or “anointed one”: priests like Aaron and his sons; prophets like Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah; and kings like David. Their missions, however, were all simply a preparation for the real work and mission to be accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth, consecrated to accomplish the Father’s work. What is the Father’s work? To reconcile us to the Father and then to one another thus restoring us to friendship with the Trinity, and not just friendship, but family. In other words, as the Christ, He is the Savior of the world. This work of salvation, He accomplished by teachings, miracles, and ultimately, by the Paschal Mystery – His Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. This means acknowledging we’ve got a real mess on our hands. For some, we’ve been living with it so long that we’ve come to see it as normal. The mess is NOT normal! The work of Jesus Christ is to undo the mess. The Catechism (440) teaches: …the true meaning of His (being anointed as) king…is revealed only when He is raised high on the cross.
This leads us to the 2nd title: the Suffering Servant. When Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Christ, Jesus immediately turns the discussion to His suffering and death; to be the anointed one necessarily involves not death, but obedience to God. It is obedience on the part of Jesus Christ that would undo the disobedience of Adam, but it was Christ’s unwavering fidelity to God’s Will that would lead to suffering. Why? Because men refused to follow Him. As St. John writes in his Gospel (3:19-20):
…the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.
It was easier to get rid of Him than to change their own lives. The 1st Reading from Isaiah is one of four texts referred to as the Suffering Servant Songs. They speak of this mysterious individual, who for his fidelity to God would suffer greatly at the hands of men, but he’d ultimately be victorious by means of his unswerving obedience. Pope St. John Paul II, speaking of Peter’s rejection of the cross, said:
Peter already believed in Christ, but he was not yet ready to accept the whole truth about Christ. Like so many of his contemporaries, Peter was thinking of the Messiah in human terms: he saw Jesus as the one who could restore freedom to Israel.
Peter accepted that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, but he failed to recognize what the mission of this Anointed One would entail both for Jesus and His followers.
Lastly, and most importantly, Jesus is the Son of the Eternal Father, the most used title by which Jesus refers to Himself. He is the Suffering Servant because of His obedience to the plan of God; He is obedient to the Plan of God because it is His Mission; He is only perfectly obedient to the Mission, only called to this Mission because He is the Son of the Eternal Father, co-eternal and consubstantial with Him.
As the Son, He first loves being loved by the Father by rejoicing in this gift of love (see Mt21:12-17, Lk10:21, Jn12:28). He then gives Himself to the Father by obediently entrusting Himself to the Father’s Will (Mk14:36, Jn5:16, Jn11:41, Jn17:1, Phil2:5-8). By coming among us, this perfect Son, we said, is reconciling us with the Father, first, by re-introducing us to the Father (Jn14:9 – to Philip, he says: whoever has seen me has seen the Father), then, by teaching us how to live as sons & daughters: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.
It is clear, then, to the Apostles and the early Church, that if we really acknowledge Jesus Christ, not just as a nice guy, a moral guide, or a holy man, but as He truly is – the Christ, the Suffering Servant of God, the Son of the Father – it will make demands on our lives. It means we cannot just speak high-sounding words; our Lord didn’t leave that option. As St. James wrote: faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Thus, to have a living faith, we must think, speak, and act differently. We must think, speak, and act as Christ would have us do. Using the example given us by the Apostle James, it means having a special care for the poor, just as God called Israel to do and as our Lord did. In this light, how helpful are the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, that we might know how to be of service all those in need…in body and in soul. May our faith, expressed in the way we treat those around us, especially those in need, be a light to attract others to Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, that they, like us, may enjoy the undying love of the Father now and forever.