The Question

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?”  Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.”

Mark 8:27-30

What does the world have to say about Jesus?

O, my.  We haven’t stopped talking about Jesus in over two thousand years.  There are millions of pages written about him.  There must be billions of sermons about this man—and at least a couple good ones out there.  There are hundreds of thousands of books, documentaries, talk shows, plays, blogs, songs, podcasts, papal bulls, encyclicals, exhortations…you simply name the medium, and Jesus has been passed through.  There is no end to the talk about who Jesus is and what he means in our lives.  It’s constant.  Every day, at every mass and Church service, at every seminary, at every deep discussion over dinner, at spiritual direction sessions and deathbeds and funerals, someone is always adding to this question.  Who do people say that I am?

It’s fair to say Jesus may be the single most limelighted person, the most discussed, the most picked-apart personality out there.  Certainly within the top five.

In fact, Jesus has a hundred thousand different descriptions and titles, if not more.  He’s Savior, King, Lord, servant, lamb.  He’s human, divine.  He’s Son of Man, Son of Mary, Son of God.  He’s Love, he’s Forgiveness, the ransom of many, the scapegoat for the sins of humankind, fisher of men, salvation of souls.  Jesus is Life, Love, Light, he’s the Word Incarnate.  He’s Redeemer, brother, friend, companion, peace the world cannot give.

Of course, Jesus is also more theologically difficult to define.  He’s Mystery with a capital M, and all kinds of other capital-letter descriptions. He’s the New Adam, Pure Light and the Strongest Strength and the Wisest Wise.  He’s the Conqueror of sin and death, the Way and the Truth and the Life, One with the Father, part of a Trinity but also very much his own real, historical person.  Jesus has more descriptions than anyone I know.

And that is precisely the rub.

Because with all that the world says about him, Jesus can often be fit into a box that’s smaller than the pages on which he’s discussed.  He can be defined and flattened, stereotyped, explained away into a hole that eventually fits inside this little Times New Roman a on your screen.

The question then becomes: With all that is said and written about Jesus, how can I actually get to know him?  With all the cliches and all the stock phrases, the definitions and explanations and justifications of who Jesus is, how can I get to know him for who he is?

How do I set aside all the noise, all the images, all that chatter about Jesus, and enter into a personal relationship with him?

Here’s a nice hint: the scene from the Gospel of Mark above is a great help.  In this passage, the disciples also fall into this difficulty, and Jesus shows them clearly what he wants.  He wants them to go deeper than simple stock, automatic phrases the rest of the world spits out.  He invites them to be real, to be honest, and to be authentic.

Let’s look at what happens.  As Jesus walks with his followers, he first asks his disciples about others’ definitions of who he is.  Now, he must know, or at least have some idea, of what is being shared and gossiped around the region about him.  Even back in his own day, Jesus drew a lot of attention.  People talked about him.  So, Jesus begins with the easy answers.  What are others saying about me?  The disciples know this.  They have these answers down.  Look at what they say: immediately they give the stock answers.  They say you’re John the Baptist.  They say you’re a prophet.  They say you’re Elijah.

And then he dismisses it all.  Just like that he asks them: But who do you say that I am?

Jesus is not satisfied with those mass-produced answers—not from his own followers.  Anyone can tell him that he’s a prophet, or a savior, or John the Baptist.  These answers come from a shallow, distant, impersonal relationship.  They’re the talk of the town, gossip.  They’re rumors.

Jesus isn’t having any of that.  He wants the real response.

This is not an interview question where Jesus is taking notes: “Mm-hm.  All right, I see. Oh, yes, well, let me get back to you within a few weeks/never.”  This is not a question that determines whether or not the disciples will get into heaven, or end up burning somewhere in eternal flames.  This is a question from one friend to another.  This is what they’d have to say about him from living with him, from traveling with him throughout the countryside and going through thick and thin together.  Jesus wants them to describe who he is for them, not what he is or what he does or what others think about him.  It’s as if he’s asking: yes, I hear what others say.  But you.  Do you even like me?

Who am I, to you?

It can be extraordinarily difficult to answer this.  It can so hard to set aside those stock phrases, the images, the depictions of Jesus.  Even artwork.  There’s a milieu in each of our heads, undoubtedly, about who Jesus is.  And it’s pretty deeply ingrained: culturally, automatically, you name it.

Yet Jesus doesn’t want that.  He doesn’t want the culture, the vending machine, the processed, easy, thoughtless definition of him.  He wants what you have to say.

He asks his disciples to set aside their images of him as John the Baptist, as a prophet, as Elijah, and to look at him.  And this is what he wants us to do too.  You, and me, his followers.

Jesus asks, Who do you say that I am?

What is your answer?

Invitation to Meditation:

Find a quiet place, and a comfortable, relaxed position.  Take some time to invite Jesus to be with you.  Consent to Jesus quieting your mind, so you can be attentive and focused in conversation with him.

Then, together, the two of you, be open about this question: Who do you say that I am?

If you so desire, you may journal your answers when your session is over.


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