We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
WHO DO YOU SAY I AM?
With this lectio divina we reach a turning point in the Gospel, and with it, perhaps, a turning point for ourselves. There is no doubt that we cannot avoid being drawn into this scene as participant, both hearing Jesus’ questions addressed directly to us, and feeling his expectation as he waits for each of us to answer. He asks a profoundly disturbing question, which divides itself into two parts – the first general, by way of softening us up, as it were; the second particular, personal, and pointed.
We recall, firstly, that the Gospel has been quietly shifting the weight and emphasis of the narrative onto the ability to see and perceive, to take note of all that Jesus has been doing and saying, and see not just words and deeds but person. We have encountered protagonists in the narrative who, despite the great weight of evidence building around Jesus, have failed to interpret correctly – or at all! – the signs which he has given them. And we must include,in the first place in this list, those who have been spending most time in his company and could be said to be closer to him than any other person or group of persons – his own disciples.
So, the context in which Jesus now questions his disciples is one of faith and yet unbelief; of seeing, but not seeing; hearing, but not understanding. Again, we are faced with the stark reality of our own blindness, deafness and ignorance: real discipleship places upon us the responsibility to recognise the one who we are called to follow, and name him.
Yes, the fact that the group is travelling around with Jesus should be significant for me. These questions are posed in everyday situations, as we go about our life, as we travel the pilgrimage and journey which opens up before us. Christ asks me the question about recognition continually, not just in moments of prayer, worship, awe, amazement, revelation. And therefore he expects me to be articulating my confession and profession continually. Even if no one is listening? Yes, of course – the one who asks the question in the first place is listening!
Do we really know the people around us? Do we take time to meet them authentically, leaving aside for that moment of encounter all the other baggage and business which we usually feel it our bounden duty to carry around with us? Of course, knowing someone to any great depth is a gift in itself, and a privilege if we are allowed that degree of intimacy. But we don’t have to know everything about everybody we meet to say that we really know them, do we? That is a near impossibility, in any case, and even in terms of my own self-knowledge it should never be construed as anything other than a never-ending story. We cannot exhaust the depths of another person, but we can glimpse their trueness and integrity, and receive it as a treasure to be held and revered.
How many encounters each day ask us to pause and receive the other in this way? How many encounters are treated with diffidence and indifference, even approached as an unpleasant necessity to get over and done with, before we can move on to more pressing business? In those moments we reject the other and trample on their dignity.
No doubt the disciples didn’t just blurt out the answers which Mark gives us in the Gospel – there must have been some discussion before they came up with names. And perhaps there were other names which the evangelist decided didn’t need referencing here – he wishes to build a very definite picture for us and see how we think the discussion could and should have developed.
Who, then, do people say he is? Of course, society today has a very different approach to and knowledge of Jesus, and each of us, in our way, finds ourselves immersed in complex cultural maelstroms which, perhaps more than ever, swamp and drown organised and institution-based religious practice and expression. What is important is that as much as ever Jesus – and the God of Jesus Christ – is doubted and rejected. Who, then, do people say Jesus is? With the advance of secularism, the century just passed marked by Marxist atheism and capitalist atheism and materialism, it shouldn’t surprise us that for many Jesus is not God, because God cannot be. In that sense we have shifted from cultures which were, essentially, more God aware, to cultures which are God forgetful – God, if he exists, is of little significance for modern men and women now, since they have increasingly become the authors and fashioners of their own lives. Many people, living in this way, have no need of a God who is Creator, Life Giver, Sanctifier, Redeemer, because they either provide these elements for themselves, or can access them somewhere close by, or can live without their presence or their promise.
In a society which has become more insistently God-less the question about Jesus appears to have become, effectively, redundant.
That said, it’s even more necessary, then, that we are able to pose – and answer! – the questions which Mark poses: who do people say Jesus is?; who do you say Jesus is? Both are real questions, and both cause us certain concern.
The first is important because, as we noted above, it creates a context in which we live our lives in all their manifold ways. To live as a Christian today is to live in the reality of indifference at best, hostility at worst. The context in which I find myself is already the milieu which becomes my natural environment for faith witness – I cannot bear witness to Jesus Christ except in the time and place in which I live. And I need to remind myself, from time to time, that that means I should stop complaining about it and get on with discipleship!
The fact that both John the Baptist and Elijah are named is significant: Elijah the Prophet, who did so much to challenge the apostasy of his day, and the idol worshipping of God’s faithless people, was the one expected to come before the hoped-for Messiah (you can read the tremendous story of Elijah beginning at I Kings 17). He was the one who was going to prepare the way for him, so that when Elijah reappeared the people knew it was time to get their acts together – Messiah was coming, and with him, judgment! And the Baptist is already the one who is identified with Elijah. In a sense, the disciples have listened well to the chat going about, and let us know that the people who accompany Jesus and them have misread also – they have ignored the Baptist and his mission, and ascribed the role of Prepare to the Messiah himself.
While it might seem somewhat harsh to say it, John the Baptist is of absolutely no importance now – his time and purpose have come and gone, and been eclipsed by the fulfillment which Jesus has brought about in his own person. In this sense, it is quite wrong to model ourselves on the Baptist – and we get this sense in the beginning of John’s Gospel, properly, as John’s disciples leave him, quite literally, to follow Jesus. And this is acknowledged by John himself, and is even referenced in the Acts of the Apostles, as Paul recounts, in the kerygmatic proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Acts 13:25).
So, perhaps it is good from time to time to remind ourselves of who Jesus is not – in one sense, we have to remove, continually, the false images – idols, even – which we substitute for Christ, as we make him in our own image. Historically this has often been the case, as this or that movement claims a version of Jesus for themselves, effectively promoting their own gospel and not the Good News of Jesus Christ. In these neo- and false gospels Jesus is reduced and relativised to become a cause or a slogan. This found a particular expression in the latter decades of the 20th century in the Church in central and south America as the movement known as Liberation Theology began to find favour and promotion, even amongst clergy and theologians. While undoubtedly motivated by a Gospel sense of justice, peace, equality and dignity, the movement embraced too readily a marxist-leaning agenda and framework, and so tried to wed two things which are fundamentally incompatible: the Gospel and Marxist-socialism. Even when motivated by just causes the Gospel cannot be rewritten to suit the pragmatic agendas of individuals and groups.
Who, then is this Jesus for you? What is immediately obvious is that we can only speak about his identity coming from our own knowledge of him. This is a difficult and trying path. Our experience of Jesus Christ is vastly different to that of the apostles and disciples, who kept physical company with him, and so had the extraordinary privilege of knowing him in his humanity. Our experience is an entirely different one. We ask this question not to put off the reader, nor to down hearten, nor to disappoint. Rather, this is a question which confronts all of us who are serious seekers after a meaningful relationship with God. The question is: how do I come to know Jesus, and through him the Father, and with him the Spirit, so that I can make a profession of faith which is true and personal.
Jesus, after all, addresses his question to us personally: But you, who do you say I am? Because of the grammatical structure of the Greek it can be lost on us that Jesus nominates himself in his very question with the Divine Name: I AM, he calls himself. Do you know that I AM? He has already announced this, when he came across the water to his disciples in the boat, they, exhausted by their vain efforts to get to him (on the other side of the shore) and caught in night time stupor (6:50). The revelation of the name brings calm but is accompanied by fear of the Lord. But the disciples do not receive it.
Something similar happens here. Jesus says to them and us: Do you really see me as the One who is God?
Peter’s confession comes, then, as surprise, since the disciples had been, until now, unable to make any connection between Jesus and Messiahship. Does Peter know what he has said? Does he understand fully what he has said? Does he need to, in fact? In Mark’s Gospel, Peter makes a statement which is bland, and stark, and stand alone. At the end of the day, a faith assertion will have to go beyond the mere matter of proof based on evidence, and take the risk associated with belief. Perhaps this is the question that Jesus is asking of us in the full: do you think you can take the risk of believing in me and professing me as Christ and God? After all, what do I stand to lose by doing this, if it is founded on the conviction of faith? What do I stand to lose if, reading the Gospel and hearing Christ address me, I confess him too as Christ? If I stand to lose nothing by doing so, then there is no risk, but only gain, since risk can only be calculated according to what stands to be lost!
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-