Who Do You Say That I Am?
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
It is tempting this week to do an apologetic about St. Peter and papal authority. Our Mass readings give us the perfect set-up. The gospel is perhaps the most significant petrine passage, where Jesus bestows upon Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. He uses almost the same language that we see in Old Testament reading from Isaiah, where the “key of the House of David” is given to Eliakim, giving him the authority of prime minister or steward over Israel; the authority to govern in the name of the King. The keys Jesus gives to Peter convey the authority to govern in the king’s name; the king in this case being Jesus.
But while this is an important passage in establishing the authority of the papacy, I want to focus on something different this week. I want to focus on the question Jesus asks before He changes Simon’s name to Peter, and before Jesus gives him the keys. Before this, Jesus asks the Apostles two important questions: Who do people say that I am? and Who do you say that I am?
I want to focus on these questions, because these are the same questions you and I have to answer.
The first question is the less important of the two. Who do people say Jesus is? In the gospel reading, some are saying He is Elijah, others that He might be John the Baptist. People are talking about Jesus, wondering not just what he’s about, but who He is.
People today are still talking about Jesus, wondering these same things. That’s amazing when we think about other well known figures from the ancient past. People still talk about Julius Caesar, Constantine, and Aristotle in classrooms and lecture halls. But Jesus is talked about in the streets, on television and radio, and in people’s homes. His teachings are debated not only among religious sects, but on talk shows, in books and magazines, and on social media. That Jesus is still so talked about 2000 years after He walked the earth is a minor miracle in itself.
But now, as then, much of what people say about Jesus is not true, or only half true. Back then some said Jesus was the prophet Elijah. Well, Jesus is indeed prophetic, in that He speaks with authority from God. But Jesus is not just a prophet. He is the One whom the prophets foretold. He speaks with authority from God because He is God Incarnate.
Some today recognize Jesus as a prophet, a teacher, a good man, or even a holy man. Jesus is all those things. But He is not only those things. If He were only those things, Jesus would simply be another name from history. How many teachers and holy men from 2000 years ago do we still remember today? More importantly, how many of them are worth devoting your life to? How many of them can offer you eternal happiness and fulfillment?
This is why Jesus’ second question is so much more important. Who do you say that I am? Ultimately the opinions of others don’t matter. What matters is how we — each of us — answer this question. And we have to answer it for ourselves.
Peter’s answer to this question is inspired. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Mt 16:16). Peter doesn’t speculate about Jesus’ identity, but proclaims who He truly is. Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), long awaited by the Jews. But more than that, Jesus is God Himself, come into the world for our redemption. This is who Jesus is; the Son of the Living God.
Peter’s answer was revealed to him by God, so that he might not only know it in his heart, but teach it to the world. It is this knowledge of who Jesus is that leads Peter and the other Apostles to give up everything to follow Him. It was this knowledge of who Jesus is that gives Peter the faith to accept Jesus’ call and His teachings, even when they are difficult or hard to understand. Peter walks on water for Jesus. When everyone walks away after Jesus says they must eat His flesh and drink His blood, Peter remains, saying, “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
Peter knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And that made all the difference to him. Nothing would be the same in Peter’s world, knowing who Jesus is.
So who do you say that Jesus is?
If you believe that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, that changes everything. It means the infinite and eternal God took on human flesh to enter into His creation, suffer and die and rise from the dead to redeem mankind, whom He loves. It means that every word that Jesus spoke is of infinite value, giving us unprecedented insight into the mind of God and the fabric of reality. His sermons and parables are lessons in what it means to be human from the Author of humanity. It means we can’t not pay attention to Jesus. And it means that there is nothing we shouldn’t be willing to give up to follow Him, because there can be nothing greater than Him.
It means Jesus meant what He said and had the power to do it. This includes when He said He would establish His Church upon the rock of Peter, and the gates of hell would never prevail against it. That Church is still here, being led by Peter’s successor, the Bishop of Rome. Jesus meant it when He gave His Church the authority to bind and loose in His name; the Church still has that authority today.
Do you want to know who Jesus is? Look to the Church that He founded. Look to the Church that is His Mystical Body. Look to the Church led by Peter.
At the end of our lives we will have to give our final answer to the question, Who do you say that I am? Then it will not matter what others have to say. It will only matter what we have said, not only in our words, but in our hearts, and in the way we lived our lives.