24 September 2009

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Tomorrow's Gospel is always an incredibly challenging one for me. In Luke's version of the story Jesus is engaged in solitary prayer and enquires of his disciples, who have accompanied him, who people say that he is. The answer is various: Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the ancient prophets. Jesus then sharpens the question and ups the ante considerably. He asks who his disciples themselves say that he is, and Peter responds (apparently on the group's behalf), "The Christ of God." Jesus is said to then rebuke them directing them not to tell this to anyone. He then says that the Son of Man must suffer greatly, be rejected by the scribes and pharisees (the religious establishment), be killed, and raised on the third day.

On the face of it the reading is the story of Jesus beginning to redefine in a literally crucial way what being a messiah, God's own Christ, really means. The disciples have come to a sense that Jesus speaks and acts with an unusual authority and a significant relationship with God (the reference to solitary prayer as the context for this story helps establish that part of the picture at this point). They have considered him a prophet and now have come to regard him as God's Christ, God's anointed One. And yet, Jesus knows that they do not understand what being such a one really means. They expect a gloriously victorious and heroic figure who will stand in complete harmony with the religious establishment (Judaism), defeat the Empire, and bring an end to the People of God's exile.

But Jesus makes it clear that his Messiahship is not such a one -- not quite anyway. Instead, despite (and also because of) his continuity with figures like Elijah, John the Baptist and the ancient prophets, he will be rejected and killed by the powers of this world (including the religious establishment) and be vindicated by God in resurrection. Despite so much in Jewish history regarding the rejection and difficulties faced by prophets, the reality of a suffering servant (Israel herself), the disciples are not prepared for a messiah who will suffer scandalous and shameful death, who defines divine power in terms of weakness and kenosis, or victory in equally paradoxical ways as actual participation in our sinfulness and brokenness. They are not prepared for a different end to exile, a defeat of the powers of the world which is far more radical than leading Judiasm from under Rome's boot.

But there are other currents in this reading. One central one is the demand that the disciples move beyond accepting common notions of Jesus' identity (or traditional ones of the nature of messiahship) and state clearly for themselves, for Jesus, and for the world who they know him to be. (The prohibition on telling others is not a prohibition to follow Jesus or to act as those who know personally who he really is; it is not a prohibition of discipleship! It is a post-resurrectional theologumenon (or theological construct) which Mark developed and Luke borrowed which is geared instead to allow Jesus to live out completely his Messiahship in a way which redefines it in terms of suffering, weakness and self-emptying, and which also allows others to come to a point of faith or rejection of that without prejudicing them with preconceptions, etc.) There is no doubt tomorrow's Gospel challenges us each to move beyond the definitions and traditional identifications the Church has given us ABOUT Jesus, and come to a clear sense of who Jesus is for us personally.

Of course we may well agree completely with who others (the church Councils, for instance, or the catechism which outlines this) say that Jesus is, but we must also speak clearly with our lives (and sometimes in words!) what that means in concrete terms for ourselves and our world. So, for instance, Protestants often speak of having a personal saving relationship with the Lord, while Catholics commonly speak of believing certain things about Jesus as Savior. Tomorrow's Gospel regards both as necessary but challenges us to allow the traditional things we know about God's messiah to become realized or embodied in our own personal commitment to the risen Christ. We must know who others say that Jesus is, but we must also attend to and answer with our lives the question he puts to us each day, "Who do YOU say that I am?"

Secondly then, Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" is another way of asking, "Who do I, Jesus, say that you, Laurel (et al), are?" or even, "Who will you say with your life that you are?" It is something I was reminded of recently by a friend who prayed with this text and found herself writing about this second question. It is also rooted in the sense that Jesus defines and reveals not only who God is, but that he does the same with authentic humanity. For that reason, when we affirm the truth of Jesus' identity we affirm and commit ourselves to living the truth of the selfhood he calls us to as disciples of his. Once again Jesus' question takes us far beyond creedal formulations in posing this question. He does not ask us to affirm him verbally as consubstantial with the Father (though we may well want to do so), but he does ask us to allow him to be God's own Word of address, challenge, and healing in our own lives.

One of the things which stands out in Luke's version of today's events is that all of this occurs within the context of prayer, both Jesus' own, and the disciples'. Luke reminds us that we learn and affirm who Christ is and who we ourselves are in prayer. We might also say that wherever we affirm these things with our lives this IS prayer in the broadest sense of the word. Still, it is in praying regularly, deeply, attentively and responsively that we are confronted again and again by the questions, "Who do you say that I am?" "Who will you allow me to be?" and "Who will you say that I am with your very life?" In narrower and broader senses it is in prayer that we engage these questions, and Luke saw this clearly and challeges us to recognize and order our lives around this truth.