But who do you say that I am?
Christ poses a demanding question to his disciples in today’s Gospel, the answer to which defines the identity of every Christian. But are the disciples even equipped to answer? Are we?
Gospel reading: Mark 8:27-33
This homily was preached to the student brothers are compline. You can listen here or read below:
Ordinarily one might begin a homily by trying to pose an interesting question, to find a seeming contradiction or a conundrum that requires a solution. This evening that initial task is done for me. There is surely no question that is more arresting, more significant, more demanding than the one Jesus poses to his disciples at the centre of this Gospel. “But who do you say that I am?”
The exchange between Christ and his disciples is one we have no doubt heard many times. But the potency of that question ought not to be diminished by its familiarity. It still ought to strike with force. “But who do you say that I am?” Surely for those of us who call ourselves Christian there is no sterner interrogation than this. The identity we profess, upon which our lives are built, is entirely intertwined with the identity of the one who asks this question. Our answer, if we stand by what we say, defines our life.
This was of course true also for St Peter and the disciples. For them too their life was defined by their response. Their idenity too would be intertwined with the one who asked them to identify him. Yet if we momentarily place ourselves in the shoes of St Peter and the disciples, at the moment St Mark records this exchange, we realise their predicament is quite different to our own. Christ asks them to identify him, but what information is their response based upon?
At this stage in chapter 8 of St Mark’s Gospel, the disciples have witnessed a number of miracles: Christ healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, multipying the loaves. Christ has taught with authority and wisdom, in the synagogue on the sabbath, relating parables beside the lake, responding to the criticisms of the pharisees. He has calmed the storm and he has walked on water, he has rebuked unclean spirits and healed a demoniac. This is the man who now asks them to identify him.
But notice what is missing from this account. He is yet to tell them of his passion and death, yet to be transfigured before three on them on Mount Tabor, yet to be crucified, to die, to be buried, and to rise again on the third day. Surely the disciples cannot truly know who Jesus Christ is at this particular moment in Mark’s Gospel. There is too much information they lack, too much still to happen.
Yet Jesus still chooses this particular moment to pose that critical question. Perhaps a lack of information is irrelevant to giving the right answer.
The offer Jesus Christ made to his disciples, and to each of us today, is one of friendship. God became man, He took on human flesh, so as to invite us to share in his Triune life. This is his offer of friendship. “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends.” (Jn 15:15)
St Augustine wrote that “there can be no friendship at all, unless there be believed something which cannot be proved by reason.” To enter into a friendship means to trust what another says about themselves, without being able to prove it. The friendship begins when one is willing to say “I believe you are who you say you are”. It is only once this trust has been established that the relationship can truly form.
And this is what Jesus asks, to respond to his offer of friendship by believing that he is who he claims to be. Notice in the Gospel that it is only after Jesus has asked this question that he begins to teach the disciples about the most important moments of his life and mission, his impending suffering, death and resurrection. St Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah is an act of faith, and it is this faith that prepares him to be taught the mysteries of salvation history.
So too it is for us. Faith opens the door to a deeper understanding. “But who do you say that I am?” You are Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. I believe, so that I may understand.
(image: Giovanni Battista Castello – Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter)