The priest at Syracuse U's Catholic Center asked me to do a little reflection for the Masses today, so here is the rough version of what I said:
This question, “Who do you say that I am?” has become the center around which much of Christian identity has orbited virtually from the beginning. The proper theological term for this question is “Christology,” and it is, I think I can safely say, the most written-upon topic in Christian thought. And that makes sense to me, because the question really is about what it looks like when humanity and divinity meet – what happens when humanity is radically embraced by divinity; that question is fundamentally the question of salvation – the making whole of our individual and collective human reality. What we Christians claim to encounter in Jesus is salvation, and that is intimately linked with this question of who we say that he is.
So, let’s look at the gospel. Have any of you ever done a math problem in such a way that you get the right answer but you did it wrong? That’s what we see in the gospel today. When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter pipes right up, “Ooh! Ooh! I know - You are the messiah,” and the text lets us know that Peter got the right answer. But thirty seconds later Jesus is kicking his butt, and it’s clear that what Peter means by messiah and what Jesus means by it are two radically different things. He got the right answer, but he has absolutely no idea what it means. Jesus refers to Peter as “Satan” in this reading, and the previous time the text talks about Satan is in the desert after Jesus’ baptism, when Satan tries to convince Jesus to understand being the Son of God this way: if God’s the king, you’re the prince, so live like it: make yourself comfortable, popular, in control. Peter is, in effect, doing the same thing – he imagines the Messiah being violent because his image of God is violent, making Jesus’ message fit into his image of who God is instead of listening to who Jesus presents God to be.
Now, it’s not really Peter’s fault – just about anyone using the word messiah in that time would make the same mistake – most Jews thought the messiah would be a warrior/king who would kick the Romans out of their country. Makes sense, right – for a people living under a repressive and humiliating regime like the Roman Empire, freedom from foreign occupation is a pretty understandable thing to want. Plus, that’s how God has saved them in the past – think the Exodus, return from Babylon, the Maccabean Revolt, they figure they know how God operates, and it’s violently. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say, “Of course Jesus wasn’t coming to start a revolt against Rome,” but not because we are so much more clued in to Jesus’ message – it’s simply that most Christians hardly are even aware that such revolutionary fervor was in the air. That’s why we see this pattern repeated two more times in all three Synoptic gospels, and why Jesus doesn’t want the disciples to tell anyone that he is the Messiah – he is a very different kind of messiah than the one they are expecting. Three times, Jesus predicts his passion and death, and three times the disciples don’t get what he’s talking about, so three times Jesus has to come back and explain what real discipleship is about. Listen for it next week – Jesus will predict his death, and then the disciples will start arguing about who is the greatest, still trying to inflate their egos, so he takes a little kid and says to them, “You’ve got to be like this,” which doesn’t mean being childlike or pure or whatever – it means to give up concern for social ranking – children were nobodies in that culture, and that’s what a bunch of guys who are squabbling about hierarchy need to hear.
What does this say to us and about us? Who am I? I suspect we all want to maintain a certain psychic integrity, to think well of ourselves and to present an image to other people that we want them to think about us. It’s easy enough to pooh-pooh the obviously superficial stuff as a way of cobbling together an identity – how expensive your clothes are, how perfect your body is, so on. Jesus goes further, though, to root out any places where our egos try to hide: even ostensibly good stuff like getting an education, being religious, can be one more way of convincing ourselves that we have got it together. In fact, it’s insidious, because although I believe religion can be the best thing in the world, it can also be the worst thing when it gives divine legitimacy to inflating our egos. Everything you need is already here – it’s just hard to live out of that because it doesn’t feel like much, because our egos can’t hang onto anything for themselves. Who you truly are is who you are in God, and nothing more. That sounds hokey, but at least in my own neurotic self, I constantly feel like I have to prove something, earn something, accomplish something, so I can think well of myself, so others will think well of me, so God will think well of me. That’s hard at a place like this and at the age most of you are, because there are so many talented people that it’s easy to covet all the talents and successes you see in other people. But no matter how many books I read, how many degrees I earn, how many good deeds I do or churchy things I attend, none of that can create an identity for me. That’s the bad news: I can’t cobble together an identity like that. The good news is, I don’t have to. Who I am is who I am in God, and nothing more – there is nothing to prove, no need to deny what a mess I am, no good self-image to project for other people, no need to make it look like I’ve got it all together so that God will love me or so that I can love myself. That is a sure-fire path to denial and hypocrisy, when we have to look like someone on the outside that we know doesn’t correspond to who we really are, when we run away from parts of our humanity. “Who do you say that I am?” Christianity speaks of Jesus as fully human and fully divine, and we have done backflips for two thousand years trying to figure out what that means, because not only do we not know what it’s like to be divine, we can’t even figure out what it means to be human. Usually we tend to oppose divinity and humanity, so we are all full human beings, just like Jesus, but he has the added bonus of being fully divine, so he isn’t subject to the same human stuff that we are. We are used to thinking of Jesus as more divine than us, but let me suggest that I understand Jesus to be more human than I: I am NOT fully human, insofar as I tend to run away from those parts of my humanness that scare me, like looking stupid, failing, vulnerability, and dying. Jesus “does” humanity better than I do – he IS fully human. He accepts being misunderstood, failing, suffering, being thought poorly of, even dying – because he is rooted in his absolute identity, which is beloved child of God. Anyone want to take a guess what our deepest identity is? You got it – “beloved child of God”! How often do any of us try to come up with more identity than that?
Perhaps that’s one way of thinking about what “fully human and fully divine” means – when the divine fully meets the human, then there is no need to run away from the scary parts of humanity, no need to try to assemble an identity by drawing boundaries over against other people – I’m smarter, I’m richer, I’m holier, I’m better. How many problems in our human reality are rooted in just that kind of alienation – setting one group over against another, not living out of our genuine identity, trying to maintain the appearance of being in control? All of that needs healing, reconciliation, SALVATION, all of which, I said at the beginning, is what makes Christology so important to us. That is our task as men and women of Christ – to become more divine by being more fully human – no need for deception, for denial, for self-aggrandizement. The trick is, it isn’t just something we know in our heads – all of us have heard a thousand times that we are the daughters and sons of God. It’s something you have to know in your guts when your ego creeps up and feels the need to defend itself or put on a show, and it’s something we have to keep being brought back to – in our personal prayer, to re-center ourselves throughout the day, but also right here, in our prayer in the community. This place then becomes a center of resistance to the insidiousness of a culture that thrives on masks, but we can’t put all the blame out there – that clutching neediness is in our own hearts as well.