This area of Caesarea Philippi, in the north of Israel, was one of great spiritual significance. Here ancient gods were worshipped, including the god Pan, half-goat, half-man. As the name itself indicates, it was dedicated to the honor of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, who demanded his citizens also worshipped him as god.
It is to this place Jesus has brought his disciples, because now is make-your-mind-up time for them. They have spent the better part of two years with them, showing himself to be more than just an ordinary man, more than just a prophet, or great preacher. Seeing his miracles and hearing his words, the disciples have been forced to ask themselves the key question: ”Just who is this who does these incredible things? Who is this who heals the lepers, the blind, deaf and the lame, who raises the dead, who calms the storms, who walks on water, who teaches in a way none of our religious leaders are able to, and who forgives sins as if he were God?” Surely, the apostles discussed this question many a time amongst themselves. But I am sure they were hoping they would never get the question directly, especially not from Jesus.
Yet now here it is.
They do get the question, and it comes directly from Jesus. No more discussing in secret, no more hedging their bets. It is now or never. I am sure they realized that this was crisis point for them, and for Jesus- crisis point ,meaning the point of no return. No going back once the answer is made. I don’t know how far they realized the importance of this answer to Jesus. Put simply, this is the moment where he finds out if he was right in choosing these twelve people to be his apostles. If he got it right, great, he can carry on, unfolding his mission on earth with them, If he got it wrong, then it is back to the drawing board, with all that weary work of choosing suitable disciples to be done all over again. So, yes, Jesus is nervous at this point, as well .
Put yourself in the position of the apostles, brothers and sisters? How would you answer the question of Jesus to you: “Who do you say that I am?”
Can you give an answer, here, right now?
Notice how Jesus first asks his disciples the question: ”Who do people say that I am?” This is safe, out there, and the apostles can give the responses others are making: ”John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the Prophets.” These are names of important people in the history of Israel. But they are not The One. They are not the Messiah, the Christ. They are not the long-expected champion, sent by God from heaven to be the chosen Savior of the people. Many have claimed to be the chosen one, the Christ. But all have fallen short, and disappeared from history.
But what of Jesus? Is he different enough from these other would-be Messiahs, to possibly be the chosen one of God? The Messiah, the Christ, was expected to do three main miracles – healing a man blind from birth, healing a man who is both deaf and dumb, and healing a leper. How does Jesus match up to this? We know the answer to this question, we have read the stories in the gospels. Jesus does these miracles, not just once, but over and over again. The Messiah was meant to come from the town of Bethlehem, according to the prophet Micah. Check mark for Jesus – we know that he is born in Bethlehem, Matthew’s gospel, chapter 2 , tells us all about it. The Messiah was prophesied to be the one who would cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem. Again, check mark for Jesus. He does this also, in John’s gospel, chapter 2. And the Messiah would also be the one to gather the tribes of Israel together. Note in the gospels how often the people swarm around Jesus, seeking a piece of him, a miracle from him, even by touching the hem of his garment. And finally the Messiah, the Christ, has to die and to rise again. Our first reading from Isaiah is just one of many prophecies in the Old Testament that speak to this. When Jesus tells his disciples that it is his destiny to also suffer and die and rise again, he is saying that in this, also, he will fulfil all the prophecies about the coming Messiah.
Jesus’ disciples know all this. They have been led, step by step, to the inevitable conclusion, that their Lord, their Master, has to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One. But who is going to be the one to declare it publicly? Not James or John, or Thomas, or even Philip, or Bartholomew, or James, or Jude or Andrew, or Matthew, or Simon the Zealot, or Judas. Only one will have the courage, or boldness, or conviction, to proclaim out loud: ”You are the Christ.” You are the Chosen One of God. You are the one we have been waiting for, throughout centuries. We are told in our gospel that Peter simply responded: ”You are the Christ.” But in declaring this publicly, Peter is stepping out of the circle of the spectators, the uninvolved, those who are safe in their anonymity. He is declaring himself for Jesus, to be bound to him, to his fate, to his destiny. Nothing can ever be the same for Peter from now on.
And you and I, brothers and sisters, when we are asked the question: ”Who do you say that I am?” by Jesus, how will we respond? We can simply shrug our shoulders, and disclaim knowledge, we are not sure, we are still on the fence – and we will be safe, no-one will attack us, or contradict us, or ridicule us. We are among the circle of the spectators, the uninvolved, those who are safe in our anonymity. But if we are to declare publicly with Peter, that Jesus is the Christ, we are making a public proclamation of faith and discipleship. We are uniting ourselves with Jesus, we are opening ourselves to all kinds of mockery and accusation and hatred and persecution. Let us make no mistake about it. Jesus knew well what his fate would be, and what would be the fate of those who professed allegiance to him. Listen to his words in our gospel today: ”Whoever wants to become my follower, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
The reason why so many are attracted today by the figure of Jesus in the gospels, but still will not identify themselves as believers in Him, followers and disciples of Him, is because they know the cost. Nothing less than the Cross. And that does not at all fit in with their fond desire for a comfortable life style, safe from all disagreeable forms of suffering and evil. I was talking a couple of days ago with a man who is involved in politics, I won’t say which party, and he told me that the reason why those who want to be elected never want to be known as being pro-life , is because they know they will be attacked immediately and relentlessly by the media. So, even if they are Christian and pro-life in their private beliefs, they will never step out and declare themselves on that platform, because they know full well what the result will be .
It is time to face the fact, brothers and sisters, that in the days and weeks and years to come, those who identify themselves publicly as Christian, as disciples of Jesus, and who hold firmly to Christian teaching, be it with regards to abortion, or euthanasia, or same-sex marriage, or whatever, will be persecuted. We cannot close our eyes to this and hope it won’t happen to us. It will happen to us, It is happening to many of us already. We can thank Jesus for being so honest with us. Unlike any politician or would-be leader you can think of, he never promised us a nice life, with lots of benefits if we sign up with him. No, listen again to these words of his in the gospel “Whoever wants to become my follower, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.“ Can you understand now, why his disciples, when asked the question “Who do you say I am?”, hung back and kept quiet? And how brave Peter was, our first Pope, the one chosen by Jesus to be leader of his Church, to be the first one to speak out loud the momentous words: ”You are the Christ?”
It is the Cross which defines the essence of a true disciple of Jesus. St Thomas Aquinas wrote: ”Jesus finds many people willing to be with him around his table, but few willing to be there at the foot of his cross.” The reason why so many Catholics have rejected their baptismal faith in Jesus is because of this, because they know what discipleship involves, the Cross, and they don’t want that for themselves. They were maybe baptized and confirmed, maybe went to Church every Sunday, perhaps were altar servers or other ministers But somewhere along the way, they discovered the cost of being known as a disciple of Jesus, and decided “No thank you, I don’t want that for myself, or my children. I never signed up for that ”
So today, brothers and sisters, draw near round Jesus in this place, at this other Caesarea Philippi, and hear Jesus ask you in your heart, “Who do people say that I am?” Perhaps you can answer readily enough: ”Quite frankly, Jesus, most people think you are a dead figure of history, nothing more, and some don’t even think you ever existed.”
But then Jesus will ask you “And you, who do you say that I am?” And what will be your answer, what will be mine?