The Big Question
Twelfth Sunday of the Year. Fr Robert Verrill argues that the most important question we ever ask is the one asked by Jesus in today’s Gospel: ‘Who do you say that I am?’
As we grow up and journey through our lives, there inevitably comes a point when we have to start asking some really big questions, questions like what is my vocation in life? why is there so much suffering in the world? does life have any meaning? does God exist? But of all the questions we might have to face, the biggest question of all is the one that Jesus asks in today’s Gospel: who do you say that I am? who is Jesus?
One of the features of Luke’s Gospel is that whenever a significant event is about to happen in Jesus’ life, Luke primes us for this by telling us that Jesus prayed. When the heavens were about to open during Jesus’ baptism, when Jesus was about to begin His public ministry, when He chose the twelve apostles, at the moment of His transfiguration, and on the Mount of Olives before His Passion, Luke specifically tells us that Jesus prayed. And so today’s Gospel story is on a par with these great events in Jesus life. The question of who Jesus is is the fundamental question. It is only once Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Christ of God, that Jesus is able to reveal His mission to His disciples: the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
Peter gives us the correct answer, but it is an answer that doesn’t bring our questioning to an end, but rather, it really marks a beginning. Whatever happens, we have to accept that Jesus is the Christ of God. He comes from God, He is the fulfilment of God’s promises and He comes to save His people and deliver them from evil. This means that whatever challenges we face in life, whatever successes or failure we experience, or whatever we might learn from others, we always have to cling to our faith that Jesus is the Christ of God, even if this means we have to admit that we’ve been wrong and have to re-evaluate our understanding of God. And so Jesus had to charge His disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Christ, because His identity as Christ is so open to misinterpretation, so likely to be distorted by limited human expectations. For the truth of Jesus’ identity as Christ can only really be understood in the light of the cross.
If we ignore the cross, there is the great danger that we might think we’ve worked out who Jesus is, that the big question has been answered, but then something will happen, something will challenge us, and rather than looking more deeply at the question of Jesus’ identity as the Christ in the light of the cross, we look for a christ elsewhere, a christ who conforms to our own limited expectations. But the truth is that Jesus is the one and only Christ and there is no true hope, no true salvation outside of Christ crucified. This truth is beyond our natural ability to reason and so we can only accept this truth in faith.
If we were to ask ourselves how do we know that Jesus is the Christ of God, the answer is that we have to deny ourselves, and like Jesus, we too have to take up our cross daily and follow Him. It is only through our daily experience of Christian self-denial that we can come to embrace the reality of who Jesus is. If we could always remember that the biggest question in our lives is who Jesus is, then rather than shrinking away from the hardships of life and closing our eyes to the suffering in the world, we could see these experiences as opportunities to come to know who Jesus is and to love Him more deeply.
Throughout human history, the noble aim of trying to eradicate suffering in the world has so often descended into attempts to eradicate the people who suffer. But as Christians, the care and compassion we show to those who suffer is in reality a participation in Christ’s care and compassion. Our suffering is an opportunity to come to better know who Jesus is. This means that every human life is sacred and every moment of human life is an opportunity to recognise Christ’s presence among us. Jesus’ suffering on the cross is the revelation of God’s self-understanding in our fallen world, and for this reason, answering the question of Jesus’ identity in the light of the cross is the only place where our salvation is to be found, because ultimately, our salvation is to know and love God.