Mk. 8: 27-35
Think about this, Jesus chose these 12 uneducated men whom we can believe were faithful Jews. Faithful meaning, they would have followed the Jewish practice of praying three times a day, adhered to the required ritual laws and attended the temple weekly. They were at that moment in time comfortable with their faith and how to practice it. They would also believe the promise of God to send the Messiah who would set them free and like all Jews were eagerly awaiting the coming Messiah.
They would have heard how John the Baptist was exhorting the crowds to repent for the Messiah was near. In fact, Andrew was there listening to John when John points to Jesus and declares him to be the “Lamb of God.” Andrew was there that day and followed Jesus and stays with Jesus that day. After listening to Jesus, Andrew boldly tells Peter “we have found the Messiah” (Jn. 1:41). This encounter by Andrew happened before Jesus calls them to follow him as his disciples whom he would reveal himself to and prepare them to be his witnesses spreading the kingdom of God.
Jesus during his three years on earth constantly challenges their faith. Their faith was learned and what they learned was predictable and known. What Jesus was doing challenged that faith as they witnessed the power of God in ways that defied logic. Today, we see Jesus with his disciples walking to Caesarea Philippi when he poses them a casual question – “Who do people say that I am.” A simple question with a not so simple answer for the normal response was to repeat what people were saying. This does not require them to examine their own belief about him.
Their faith was formed by a thousand years of tradition and laws. A faith that longed for the Messiah. A Messiah who would free them from the bondage of the Romans just as God freed their ancestors from the Egyptians. They knew what the people were saying about Jesus and they knew what they witnessed as he performed miracles that defied natural laws and as he challenged the religious leaders whom they respected and would not have defied themselves.
This question comes a day after his multiplication of the loaves where the disciples failed their own test of faith to feed the crowds themselves. What Jesus wanted them to do that day defied reason. The crowd was too large for their resources and in their minds, they only could see the obstacles. They failed a fundamental tenet of faith and that is to believe and trust all things are possible with God. This question of “who do you say I am” seems like a simple question for them or us to answer. We only need to repeat what people are saying. That requires nothing of us, just as much of what we do in our own faith journey does not require much of us other than follow the dictates of our faith.
But the question of Jesus challenges us to go inside ourselves, it is personal and demands we define who Jesus is for us. Just as the disciples that day were not going to get by with just a recitation of what they knew we cannot get by without a definite answer of faith.
Why would Jesus ask them that question at this point in their discipleship? I find it interesting that this scene in Luke’s gospel comes while Jesus was in prayer (Lk. 9: 18 -20). We can believe that while in prayer Jesus was listening to the Father for we know Jesus says he only does the will of the Father (Jn.6:38). This would make me believe during those times he went off to pray he was seeking the will of the Father. The day before this journey to Caesarea, he challenged them to feed the multitude and now after praying to the Father Jesus challenges his disciples with the one question that reveals more than any other – “who do you say I am.” A question that lies in the heart of belief and our response to what we believe.
Peter boldly responds to the question – “you are the Christ.” Mark’s gospel omits the response of Jesus to Peter’s declaration. Matthew in his gospel tells us Jesus praises Peter’s response saying, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you” (Mt. 16:17).
This is a significant statement for us to reflect on our own faith formation. Jesus is telling us that Peter’s ability to declare Jesus as the Christ did not come from his own faith formation but is pure divine revelation. Does this mean our own faith formation does not prepare us to declare Jesus as Lord? We might be shocked to learn that the answer is yes for God’s word to us says that is precisely what is necessary for us to make that leap in faith from what we know and have acknowledged as fact – “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
Peter in the gospel story shows us why we need something more than an intellectual understand or what we hold as truth. Peter has a view of who the Messiah should be, and he could not accept the Messiah suffering for the guilt of our sins. His faith, like ours, has trouble accepting salvation without us doing anything more than believing God’s plan involves Jesus as the sacrificial lamb. Peter is saying this does not make sense.
That seems to be our reaction to this free gift of grace because my experience tells me we still are motivated to do something to ‘appease God. We fail to embrace the fact God tells us our sins are purged and our guilt he remembers no more. Our memories are long, and we regret the sins we have committed and that motivates us to earn” forgiveness. James today reminds us how a faith that springs from the revelation of the Spirit works in us to not only acknowledge Jesus as Lord but moves us to seek to do “the good works God has prepared in advance for us” (Eph. 2:10).
Today’s gospel points out how our faith formation must go beyond being formed only by human tradition but must move to a faith formed by the Spirit whom God promised would change our hearts. Once our hearts are changed, we will see the challenges of faith as opportunities to call on the power of God just as the disciples did after their Pentecost experience of the Spirit.