Who Do You Say That I Am?

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
September 14, 2018
Who Do You Say That I Am

“Who do people say that I am?”  So Jesus asks his disciples in today’s Gospel.  And he gets several answers.  “Some say John the Baptist.”  “Some say Elijah.”  “Others say one of the prophets.”  Today, he still gets answers.  “Some say a great man.”  “A religious founder.”  “A moral figure.”  “A revolutionary.”  “A life coach.”  Whether or not these answers touch on something, not one of them is the heart of the matter.  In the Gospel, Christ clearly isn’t interested in the disciples’ answers.  Except for Peter’s: “You are the Christ.”  In fact, it’s as if Peter’s answer was too much of a direct hit.  Too close for comfort.  “He warned them not to tell anyone about him.”  As if to say, “You’re spot on.  But let’s save that Truth for later.”  As for the other answers, Jesus dismisses them like a first grade teacher hearing out summer vacation stories.

But Jesus acknowledges Peter’s audacious proclamation.  Then he tells all the disciples to hush up, for now.  However, Peter’s proclamation is, in fact, a claim Jesus had been making – and demonstrating with miracles – since his baptism in the Jordan.  But with his disciples, he gets personal.  After asking “Who do people say that I am?” – that is, after fishing out public opinion – he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  He sort of puts the finger in the face.

Many people still say many things about Jesus.  But there’s ultimately only one right answer.  As the late Bishop Fulton Sheen said (quoting G.K. Chesterton), “Right is right when nobody’s right, and wrong is wrong when everybody’s wrong.”  And the right answer to this question was given by Peter.  “You are the Christ.”  Or, as St. Matthew records it: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  But lay low for now, Jesus says, at least until I suffer, die and rise from the dead.  Looking back on this, in light of Christ’s resurrection, our faith asks of us an unwavering fidelity to that doctrine.  And unlike before his death and resurrection, Jesus is not telling us to keep quiet about it.  He now wants us to put it all out there.  Before his ascension, he commissioned the faithful to bear visible witness to “the Christ” until the  End of time.  “Go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19).

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told Peter that “flesh and blood” had not revealed “this” to him, but “my Father in heaven.”  The Father’s role in revealing “the Christ” comes out elsewhere in the Gospel.  “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:44).  The Father, who sends the Holy Spirit, reveals his Son to us as his Christ, his Anointed One.  This makes a complete and total demand on our lives: that we love this “Son of the living God” with our whole mind and heart, with our whole being.  By doing so, we become the Father’s children.  The Father beckons us to come to him through his Son, whom he reveals to us in the Holy Spirit.  “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Jesus’ claim speaks for itself: it demands that we beg the Holy Spirit to help us remain in his love, that is, in what we traditionally call “a state of grace.”  We must constantly seek holiness, that perfection of love and wisdom, and that purity of heart, by which we know God.  “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).  Knowing Jesus is not just an “intellectual project,” like knowing science, math or history.  Rather, it requires a constant and personal conversion of life and “renewal of the mind.”  “Do not be conformed to the spirit of this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).  In order to know Christ – to truly know Him – we must embark on the adventure of the spiritual life, a journey of grace.  How do we do this?

Step 1: We must completely turn away from sin.  But this is not just a simple and one time decision.  It’s an ongoing adventure until death.  Sin may not necessarily be where we think it is.  Moreover, we often tend to see other people’s sins more than our own.  We take stock of others while ignoring that terrible pride or hardness of heart within ourselves that deals death daily.  Meditating on the Seven Deadly Sins, from which all sins proceed, makes a good examination of conscience: Pride, Envy, Greed, Wrath, Gluttony, Lust and Sloth.  What’s your little devil?  If we are indulging in lying, cheating, slander, backbiting, cruelty, bitter words, revenge, grudges, infidelities, unchastity, sexual license, self-centeredness, arrogance and so on, we will not know Christ – no matter how pious we think we are.  Also, we must not pick and choose our morals.  We must be honest before God.  Every moral teaching of our faith is necessary for Eternal Life.

Perfecting Christian virtue is not something we achieve right away.  Ultimately, it’s not something we achieve at all.  It’s the work of God’s grace.  For our part, we must willingly cooperate with grace.  It’s not magic.  It engages our free will.  Grace is the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit that we first received at baptism, and it transforms us over time if we willfully work with it.  It’s supernatural, though it may not always seem so.  We have to undergo painful (and sometimes long) purifications in order to overcome our sins and weaknesses, in order to let the Holy Spirit get the upper hand in our lives.  This requires patience with ourselves, others and even God.

Of course, the Christian life is not all about morality and virtue – as some people might think.  It’s “Step 1.”  It’s the starting point, not the finish line.  It’s the doorway, not the building.  It’s possible to be moral and virtuous without being Christian.  The anti-Christ may well be a virtuous person, with good morals, who does lots of good, has lots of followers, has good PR, ranks high in the polls, but rejects the Person of Jesus Christ and places himself at the center of all goodness.  Just read Vladimir Soloviev’s “A Short Story of the Antichrist,” first published in 1900.  Perhaps we may detect a little anti-Christ in ourselves.  “To do the right thing for the wrong reason is the greatest treason” (T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral).  For example, this might be experienced as a “tense generosity,” which makes us controlling of outcomes and demanding on ourselves and others – like a benevolent dictator – all for “the good.”  But that would be a deception.  “Everything that glisters is not gold” (William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice).  Rather than coming from “within” – that is, from grace – our good deeds would be flowing from a tense or exacting will.  That would be setting ourselves up for a big fall.  It’s the subtle error of “Pelagianism.”

St. Augustine had some sharp words for this kind of counterfeit Christianity.  It can sneak up on us like a snake.  Which is why we should examine ourselves.  Pelagius – who articulated the heresy of “Pelagianism” – said that we could become holy by sheer force of willpower and virtue.  St. Augustine called him on it: “This is the horrendous and secret poison of your error, that you claim to make the grace of Christ exist in his example, and not in the Gift of his Person.”  In other words, “What Would Jesus Do?” doesn’t cut it.  We need a love – that is, a spiritual and contemplative intimacy with God – from which we draw a supernatural strength and the courage to do the good that God wants us to do (which may not be the good we are at first inclined to do).  We need an encounter with “grace.”  Which leads us to “Step 2.”

Step 2: Jesus prayed often.  He would go to an out-of-the-way place – usually to a mountaintop, wilderness, or across the Sea of Galilee – and speak intimately with his Father in heaven.  When the disciples caught him in the act (see Luke 11:1), they were astonished: they had never seen anything like this before.  Before Jesus, intimacy with God was rare.  Hotshots like Moses had it.  But everyone else kept a distance.  Ordinary Jews didn’t have heart-to-hearts with God.  That’s why the disciples asked Jesus, “Master, teach us how to pray.”  Jesus’ intimate conversation with his Father was, in itself, his greatest lesson to the disciples.  As far as we know, he didn’t really explain it.  He only taught them one, brief prayer: the “Our Father.”  He wants us to go from talking to loving: meditating on his life, his wisdom and his Person.

Intimate prayer is the most perfect form of love.  We’re never more human than when we pray.  Prayer was Adam and Eve’s greatest pleasure in Paradise.  St. Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun who died in 1897 and is now a Doctor of the Church, said that, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”  This little surge of the heart is greater than all of the good works that we could ever do.  In fact, all good works mean nothing without prayer.  Prayer is the supreme act of love that gives life and meaning to all good works.

Whatever your walk of life – married, single, consecrated religious, priest – you have a vocation to live out the Greatest Commandment: To love the Lord your God with your whole mind, heart and being.  We all encounter obstacles which get in the way of this love.  But even the obstacles are used by God to humble us and make us feel our dependence on him for everything.  “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  Through this humility, the light of the living-God will shine brightly into the depths of your inner life.  Jesus is the Light of the world.  Seek his Person in everything you do.  Pray daily.  And He will show you the Way to Life.