24th Sunday in Ordinary Time - September 12, 2021 - “How do I know who Jesus is?"
How does one come to know who Jesus is? Sometimes I hear reporting or read articles about church matters in the popular media by someone who is perhaps the “religion reporter” for the network or the news agency, and it is obvious that even if the person is using the correct terms or is pulling a quote from the Catechism or from a church document, the opinion they form or the conclusion they have drawn is way off-base - they really don’t know what they are talking about. It is obvious that the writer or commentator is either not Catholic or not living an active life of faith. The person could be very intelligent and well-read and have no bad intentions or an ax to grind with the church in their reporting, but because what they are reporting is taken out of context - does not come from the context of a lived experience of faith, they have no clue what the truth or facts that they are reporting actually mean. Peter is very much like this in today’s Gospel. He has the right answer about the identity of Jesus. “You are the Christ.” He didn’t make that up. He probably got it right from the source. He would have heard Jesus say that about himself. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus said in the synagogue at Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Lk 4:18). “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). Peter has been with Jesus long enough that he has no reason to doubt what Jesus says. He believes him because he can trust Jesus. Peter is like a child who believes what his parents tell him. It would be irrational to think your parents are lying to you or deceiving you. Children often believe and repeat what their parents say, “My mommy said this”, but that does not mean they understand what they are saying. Right after Peter gives the right answer, “You are the Christ”, Jesus warns the disciples with him not to tell anyone about him. Why not? If they know who Jesus is, why not tell other people? Because having the right answer makes no sense - is not helpful - apart from a personal relationship with Jesus. In fact, the right answer can even become an obstacle because the meaning of that answer - the kind of Messiah he will be - which is very different than the common perception of what that title means, can only be understood through an ongoing relationship with Jesus - by sharing life with Jesus. It was by following Jesus and sharing life with him that Peter got the right answer - that he heard and believed, but Peter then makes the mistake that we often make when we hear something we don’t like or don’t understand. We stop following. Having the right answer is not enough to know Jesus. We can be sure that Peter did not have bad intentions when he rebuked Jesus upon hearing this first prediction of the Passion - that Jesus must suffer greatly and be rejected and be killed, and rise after three days. Who would want that for someone you love? But what does Peter really know? Perhaps he is a bit puffed-up after getting the right answer - being at the head of the class. But that gives him no right to think he knows better than the teacher. So Jesus puts him in his place - making sure the other disciples hear the correction, “Get behind me, Satan.” “Get behind me” is another way of saying, “follow me”. “Satan” is the one who led the rebellion of the angels against God. He is the one who heard God’s plan to save fallen humanity: that the Son of God would become man, suffer and die, and rise - bringing humanity to a place in heaven higher than the angels, and said, “I will not serve”, i.e., “I will not follow”. He thought the incarnation was not worthy of God’s dignity and that the end result would be an insult to the dignity of the angels - that they would have to worship a God-made-man. Calling Peter “Satan” makes it clear that if we forget the method of knowing Jesus, if we stop following, we become an obstacle to God’s plan for salvation, regardless of how good our intentions are. Jesus is not saying to Peter, “shut up and obey, you stupid human being.” God does not want from us blind obedience. He wants us to learn to think as God thinks, not as human beings do. Conversion is literally a change in thinking - a change of mind, and it comes not from blind obedience but by following Jesus in freedom. “Come and see”. “Follow me and you will see.” Seeing as God sees, knowing Jesus as he desires to be known, is salvation. And that can’t be learned by reading the Bible or by reading the catechism. Jesus can only be known through a personal journey. The disciples learn who Jesus is “along the way” with him. He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”. The truth cannot be understood apart from taking a journey with Jesus and sharing life with him. And that journey means taking up the cross - i.e., accepting those things that remind us that we are not our own, that we are dependent on another - all those things that burst the illusion that we are in control. Denying ourselves - letting go of the prideful position that we know all the answers or know what is best - is what opens us up to what is greater, if we continue to follow. “I want to see how the Lord will bring about my fulfillment in this way that does not make sense to me.” This is the humility of the disciple. We only learn if we think we don’t already have all the answers. This method of Jesus through which we come to know him is a reminder that salvation doesn’t happen without the cross, but also that we can’t give someone faith simply by giving them the right answer. They need to make the journey themselves. But they also need someone who is willing to correct them and stay with them on the journey. A journey and companions on the journey are necessary for maturity in the faith. The longer we are on the journey and the more often we take up the cross and continue on the road, the more we become a witness of the resurrection. Christ is known not by referring to him by the correct title but when one experiences self-sacrificial love - when someone witnesses another taking up the cross and continuing to love. We see this in the extraordinary love of a mother for a sick or disabled child, in the tender care of the elderly spouse who has become incapacitated by old age, and in the person who offers their life in the service of the Church. We cannot avoid the cross and suffering, but what witnesses do we have - who can we follow to show us the path to life through the way of the cross? Peter only grew closer to Jesus by staying after receiving the rebuke. May we not settle with simply the right answers but stay on the journey with Jesus so that we not only think like him, and know him, but learn to love like him as well.