In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus proposes a question to us that we are all very familiar with. A question that each one of us has spent many hours praying with and pondering: Who do you say that I am? We cannot exaggerate the importance of this question and our answer to it, because this question is by far the most important question we will ever be asked in life. How we answer this question will reveal who we believe Jesus really is and our answer to this question not only has implications for us in this life, but its affects will follow us into eternity.
The Church’s answer to Jesus’ question, its theological foundation, is based upon Peter’s answer in today’s Gospel: The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit and drawn by the Father, we believe in Jesus and confess: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ On the rock of this faith confessed by St. Peter, Christ built his Church” (CCC 424). Therefore, the Church’s answer to Jesus’ question is not a secret. She confesses, believes, and proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary in Bethlehem, who suffered, died, and rose from the dead is the long-awaited Messiah, the Savior of humanity, who is God.
The theological nature of this question then has been settled, and hopefully, everyone reading this accepts this truth and believes it. However, the distance from one’s head to one’s heart is often the longest journey to undertake in this life. The mere belief in something or in the case of Christianity, someone, does not automatically imply that one’s behavior, attitude, and mindset have been or will be transformed. In other words, consenting to a particular belief will not guarantee a tangible and practical change in my day-to-day life. For this transformation to occur, there is often much struggle, temptation, and suffering that we must face, not to mention discouragement, doubt, and desolation as we experience our own inner poverty and weakness. Most of us can relate to St. Paul who once confessed, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Regardless of the difficulties that the journey from one’s head to one’s heart entails, this is ultimately the pilgrimage that each one of us must make if we desire to follow Christ more deeply.
With all this in mind, I would like to use Jesus’ question, Who do you say that I am? as a means for us to examine our own life of discipleship. How are we living as disciples of Jesus? Is our faith in Jesus merely an intellectual idea or is it something that affects my whole being and my entire life? What areas in my life is the presence of Jesus lacking? The reason for this examination is simple: the Incarnation is not merely an idea, nor is it simply an event in history. Rather, through the Incarnation, the ultimate purpose of human life is revealed to us in a most stunning way. We are called to become “divinized,” or as St. Peter expresses it, to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Hence, through the Incarnation we are invited to share in the very life of God, i.e., to become God-like. For this to occur in us every part of us, our hearts, minds, and souls must be transformed so that our thoughts, words, and actions reveal the glory and love of Jesus, the one who we believe is God.
To help facilitate this examination I would like to focus on three specific areas of our life as disciples: prayer, community, and suffering. These three areas, I believe, are the most prominent areas of our life as disciples because they are the ones we experience most readily.
Regarding then our life of prayer: “Who do you say that I am?” If we really believe that Jesus is Lord, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) do I, specifically in prayer, reveal myself to Jesus? Do I share with him my pain, my joys, my hopes, my fears, and my weaknesses? Is prayer something I look forward to and make time for each day? Is my prayer personal, honest, and sincere? Am I really trying to look at Jesus, to listen to Him, and to open my heart to Him? Am I trying to love Him in prayer and to grow in love? Am I open in prayer to receive Jesus and his revelation? Do I persevere in prayer when it may be dry, dark, or even boring? Do I read books and seek the counsel of others so that I can grow in my prayer life? Do I beg the Holy Spirit to teach me how to pray?
Or is prayer for me simply a mechanical repetition of words, actions, and sentiments that have no flesh, or heart, to them? Is prayer something I do to merely check off my “to-do” list so I can move forward to what’s really important in life and to what is more practical? Do I use prayer as a time to simply think about myself and consider how I can improve myself, and appear stronger, smarter, or even holier than others? Do I consider extra work and times of service as a substitute for solitary prayer, therefore excusing myself from time alone with God because I am doing things for God? Do I fill prayer time with reading, devotions, or other things that prevent me from listening and simply being with God in prayer?
Regarding our life in community, this could be life in a religious community, in a family, or in the Church community to which one belongs: “Who do you say that I am?” If we really believe that Jesus is Lord, do I strive to see his presence and hear Him in others, especially in those whom I find difficult, those whom I might not have a natural affinity or attraction towards? Am I trying to forgive those who have hurt me in life, whether intentionally or not intentionally? Do I make myself available to serve those around me? Am I attentive to the needs of those around me? Do I really listen to others when they speak to me? Am I open to strangers, the poor, or those who are in need, whether they are in my community, family, or neighborhood? Am I trying to be patient and compassionate toward those who might not be as quick, intelligent, or competent as I am? Do I take seriously Jesus’ own words when he says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35)?
Or am I simply closed in on myself, always thinking about myself, and what I need, what I want, and what I desire? Do I allow fear or laziness to prevent me from giving myself to others in generous service? Am I distracted by the things of the world and the flesh that prevent me from even seeing opportunities for love and service to others? Am I most concerned with protecting and building up what I consider to be “my life” that I have no time for others? Am I afraid to reach out and serve others because of past hurts, disappointments, or even traumas?
Regarding our experience of suffering, which is something we all have experienced and will continue to experience in the future: “Who do you say that I am?” If we really believe that Jesus is Lord, how do we respond, or how are we living right now with suffering, whether that suffering is physical, emotional, psychological, or even spiritual? Do we suffer with Jesus, meaning do we offer Him our suffering and see it as a means to unite ourselves more deeply with him? Does our suffering increase our faith, hope, and our love in Jesus? Do I allow the purification that suffering brings to humble me and increase my desire for Jesus the Divine Physician? Do I remind others, and even myself, that suffering is not a punishment from God, but can be a means to a greater union with him? Am I patient in times of suffering, trusting in God’s love and mercy? Am I quick to reject feelings of desolation, doubt, and even despair when I am experiencing suffering?
Or do I spend most of the time in suffering complaining, feeling sorry for myself, and blaming others? Do I seek unhealthy ways to numb the pain that suffering can cause? Does suffering make me doubt God or even question his goodness? Or am I bitter and angry at God for the suffering that either I or someone I love has experienced? Do I run from suffering and try to hide from it to the detriment of my own health, whether it be physical or psychological?
As we can see, Jesus’ question: Who do you say that I am? affects our entire life as disciples. This question is not merely a theological one reserved for scholars and theologians to debate. Of course, Jesus’ question has theological implications, but the beauty and grandeur of this question far exceeds the confines of a particular discipline, even one as important as theology. Jesus’ question encompasses the entire gamut of human existence; therefore, every person, if they wish to take their life seriously, must prayerfully consider this question and come to a conclusion.
However, let us not be fooled. We cannot merely ponder and answer Jesus’ question only once in our life or only in times of prayer and retreat. If we really want to take the Gospel seriously and live it in its entirety, then we must ask ourselves this question every day of our lives and allow it form us, so that our thoughts, words and actions and even the desires of our hearts can match not what we believe in, but WHOM we believe in.