Most of us are reluctant to be put on the spot, and will generally seek to avoid any confrontation that demands we share our deepest and most personal thoughts. This is in part natural modesty, and in part a fear of becoming vulnerable to the reaction that might await the honest expression of deeply held convictions.
As the ministry of Jesus unfolded Jesus brought his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. Here, there was to be a turning point, a crucial marker in the disciples’ understanding of who Jesus was and what it meant to be the Messiah.
The scene unfolded innocently enough with a general inquiry from Jesus: “Who do people say that I am?” Without revealing too much of themselves, the disciples were able to escape into general responses that committed nothing of themselves to the Lord. “And they told him: ‘John the Baptist’, they said, ‘others Elijah; others again one of the prophets.’”
As we reflect on their responses we are perhaps reminded of the many occasions when, in discussing our faith,
we have spoken impersonally of Gospel truths without any truly personal commitment to the Lord who is the incarnation of those truths.
With a direct challenge, Jesus put his disciples on the spot. Now there could be no escape from the self-revelation and commitment that Jesus was seeking. “But you,” he asked, “who do you say that I am?”
Peter immediately answered in words that were more than opinion; they committed him, heart and soul, to Jesus: “You are the Christ.”
In his acknowledgment of Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one, Peter identified Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises, confessing that in him God would embrace the longings of sinful humanity, that in him was healing and salvation.
The vulnerability of sinful humanity makes us reluctant to commit ourselves to each other, and, at times, to God. It is, however, in the very nature of relationships that such personal commitment is necessary if they are to flourish.
Jesus had brought Peter to a personal commitment, but such commitment, without further refinement, would be fragile. Jesus therefore insisted that his disciples commit themselves not to a Messiah of their own imagining, but to the suffering Messiah who would be revealed in his death and Resurrection.
We are told that Peter reacted strongly, that he began to remonstrate with Jesus. At first sight the rebuke addressed to Peter seems disproportionate. “Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.”
Only with humility, and indeed prayer, do we begin to discern that we also commit ourselves to God, and yet are reluctant to accept the way in which he reveals himself in us. We don’t want to sacrifice anything of ourselves; we want God to sacrifice himself to our more comfortable assumptions. This is indeed man’s way, but not God’s.
In describing himself as the Suffering Servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah, Jesus revealed the mystery at the heart of our redemption. It is only with, and in, the death of Jesus that we are able to die to a selfishness closed in on itself and rise to a life rejoicing in a love beyond our imagining.