Today’s gospel begins with Jesus and his disciples making their way to “the villages around Caesarea Philippi.” As they are walking, Jesus poses a question that would make any of us pause: “Who do you say that I am?” It is perhaps the most unnervingly straightforward question that Jesus asks in the gospels and certainly the most important. And it is a question that anyone who claims to be a Christian must answer. Indeed, how we respond to that question determines the shape, direction, and ultimate significance of our lives.
Who is Jesus for you? Many of us will joyfully confess that he is the one who knows everything about us and yet unfailingly loves us; the one who comforts and consoles us, who accompanies and guides us, who calls and commissions us, and who never abandons or gives up on us no matter how many times we fail. Who is Jesus for you? He is the one who is compassionate and merciful to us, will never deceive or mislead us, and whose fierce love sees beyond our sinfulness to the goodness God’s grace always makes possible for us.
All that is blessedly true, but it is not enough. “Who do you say that I am?” To be a Christian is to give the very same answer that Peter did as he walked with Jesus and the other disciples that day: “You are the Messiah!” For Christians, Jesus is not just another prophet, religious teacher, or miracle worker. Jesus is the Son of God, the redeemer of the whole of creation, the savior of the world, and the answer to our deepest hopes and longings. Jesus is the way to life.
Most of all, as the last line of today’s gospel makes startlingly clear, to follow Jesus as Messiah is to live not by human ways of thinking and acting, but by God’s. Everything Jesus said and did throughout his life reveals exactly what that means. Like Peter and the other disciples, every follower of Christ is called to that seemingly impossible, but endlessly hopeful, way of life every day.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology & Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the Passionist Family.