A question from Jesus that wrenches the disciple from complacency

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“... Jesus and his disciples set out
for the villages of Caesarea Philippi.
Along the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”
They said in reply,
“John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others one of the prophets.”
And he asked them,
“But who do you say that I am?””

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

From a seemingly innocuous question, to an announcement of death and the command to take up one’s Cross each day: this episode in The Gospel according to Saint Mark opens what many scholars term the core of the Marcan proclamation of Good News. Mark 8:22 through 10:52 is unit within this Gospel. It opens at 8:22 with the healing of a blind man and closes at 10:52 with sight restored to another blind man, suggesting a lesson on the necessity of seeing clearly and properly as a disciple of Jesus, living always in the mode of His Father’s Kingdom. Many key and challenging teachings of Jesus regarding the Kingdom of God are sounded in this part of the Gospel, not the least of which are three specific announcement on Jesus’ impending passion, death and resurrection that elicits various responses from disciples; disciples at this point in their lives who are apparently blind to the understanding and demands Kingdom living.

One might wonder what was in the minds of the disciples as they traveled to Caesarea Phillipi. Situated in the northern part of Israel, it is the place of Hermon Springs, the major source of water that, as it collects southward, empties into and forms the Sea of Galilee. It was and still is a place of rest and refreshment, with many people kneeling down and bringing a handful of cool spring water to their lips. Thus when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I AM?” – perhaps the disciples thought this might be the introduction to some friendly chit-chat around the springs. They (and we) learned quickly that this was neither meaningless question nor a casual discussion. When Jesus posed the question even more seriously, “but who do you say that I am?” Jesus got to the very heart of the Gospel. This was a question the disciples began to wrestle with early in the Public Ministry (cf Mark 4:35-41): just who is this Person in the boat with us?

The question Jesus poses about His identity is essential for the disciple. Jesus certainly is not looking for a mindless, glib catechism answer that is belted out without any significance. The question is meant to shake the disciples (and us) from a self-creation or self-projection of Jesus, a Jesus that is warm, fuzzy, comfortable; in other words — ‘god’ on my terms. The various ‘images’ or ‘conceptions’ we have of Jesus, His Father and the Holy Spirit are images that must be continuously held up to the light of the Gospel and critiqued. Many involved in pastoral ministry and many believers will attest that the ‘faith question’ among many is not so much the existence of God but just exactly who (or [sadly] what,) is God.
  • Is God the ‘divine police officer’ looking to nail you every time you sin?
  • Is God the ‘sugar daddy’ who is able to leap tall buildings in a single bounce to give the pray-er whatever she or he wants whenever she or he calls out?
  • Is God the ‘divine watchmaker’ who has constructed a complex creation, started the pendulum swinging then leaves us to our own devices to figure things out?
  • Is God the ‘the force’ of goodness that pervades the universe as some etherial goo?
  • Is God the ‘guarantor’ who grants me an exemption from suffering, pain and death because I try to be a nice person?
  • Is God the ‘fixer’ who must suspend all the consequences (and responsibility) of mine and other’s wrongs with the wave of a wand?
  • Is God the ‘manager’ of the divine credit rewards program who hands out bonuses because I ‘rack up points’ by doing good things?
  • Do I approach God with a sense of entitlement that God must do x, y, and z for me because I am me?
These and many other images have been formed in our lives over the years in response to a plethora of circumstances and experience beyond counting. J. B. Phililips in Your God is Too Small, put it this way, “Many men and women today are living, often with inner dissatisfaction, without any faith in God at all. This is not because they are particularly wicked or selfish or, as the old-fashioned would say, “godless,” but because they have not found with their adult minds a God big enough to “account for” life, big enough to “fit in with” the new scientific age, big enough to command their highest admiration and respect, and consequently their willing co-operation.”

The grappling with Jesus identity is essential if we are to be true disciples as the original ones eventually came to be. Jesus’ identity must be accepted on His terms, not the individual’s because Jesus is clear as to Who He is: Son of God the Father Who is Love. As Son of the One-Who-Is-Love, Jesus knows acutely the result of selfishness and self-centeredness when it comes to Love: destruction. The only antidote to love in the way of the One-Who-Is-Love is the Cross. Jesus’ Cross is the singular way for authentic Love to blossom and for humanity to be remade in the image of the Son of God. This is why Jesus insists on denying oneself. It is not to make for misery, but to move us from the addiction to self and turn – in service – to the One Who Is Love, God our Father.

In this vein, the 6th century Bishop, Caesarius of Arles, counseled his flock in one of his Sermons: “When the Lord tells us in the Gospel that anyone who wants to be his follower must renounce himself, the injunction seems harsh; we think he is imposing a burden on us. But an order is no burden when it is given by one who helps in carrying it out. To what place are we to follow Christ if not where he has already gone? We know that he has risen and ascended into heaven; there, then, we must follow him. There is no cause for despair—by ourselves we can do nothing, but we have Christ’s promise. One who claims to abide in Christ ought to walk as he walked. Would you follow Christ? Then be humble as he was humble. Do not scorn his lowliness if you want to reach his exaltation. Human sin made the road rough. Christ’s resurrection leveled it. By passing over it himself, he transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway. Two feet are needed to run along this highway; they are humility and charity. Everyone wants to get to the top — well, the first step to take is humility. Why take strides that are too big for you — do you want to fall instead of going up? Begin with the first step, humility, and you will already be climbing.”