The most important thought we’ll have all day is our answer to Jesus’ question. Who do we say He is? That will determine everything about how love and whom we love. This is why Jesus wants to know what we think about Him. It’s not to make Himself feel better, or to know if He’s being efficient. It’s for our sake. To know Who Jesus really is will change everything.
Keep in mind, last week we had just heard that Jesus healed a man that was deaf and mute. Not long after that, he healed a blind man. And in the middle of all of that, Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish and fed the hungry multitudes. Then He realized that His disciples didn’t understand what He was doing or Who He is. It becomes clear that the disciples are the ones who are actually blind, deaf, and dumb—and in the greatest need of healing. So when He first asks them Who other people say He is, they are so impressed by the miracles, they think He’s just like one of the other prophets. Peter gets a sense that there is something different about Jesus, so he gives a different kind of answer—You are the Christ! He is right, but he still doesn’t quite understand what that means. So Jesus begins from this point on, in a way, to separate Himself from the “success” of the miracles, and to set His face resolutely toward Jerusalem. Here is the first time that He predicts His passion and death and resurrection—and it’s all tied specifically to Who He is as the Christ.
To be the Christ is not merely to work miracles—it is to give Himself away. And Peter doesn’t quite get this. With great love and devotion, no doubt, Peter tries to stop, even to correct, Jesus. But Jesus makes it very clear: as the suffering servant from Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus has given Himself as a gift completely to the Father, has received all power and all love from Him, and has now given Himself over to humanity, but He will be rejected. And it is in that gift to God and to humanity that we find out Who Jesus really is, and who we are.
One of my favorite images of this reality is the Dead Sea in Israel. It has the lowest land-based elevation in the world, which means that all of the water that flows into it has nowhere to go but to evaporate. Because all of the rivers that flow into it bring all these rich minerals and salts, when the water evaporates, all of the minerals remain. So very little life can survive in the Dead Sea because it’s one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, hence the name. And because all of these rich minerals come flowing into the sea, but have nowhere to go, what could be a life giving water has become poisonous. So it is in our faith life, in the life of grace. Like the Letter of James warns us, if we claim to have faith, but we never to anything to give ourselves away, or to share our blessings, the treasures we hold onto selfishly will become a poison to us.
There is a solution to this poison! The prophet Ezekiel prophesies that there will be a flood of water that first trickles out of the New Temple that God is going to build in the end times, then it inundates the wastelands of the Arabah, where the Dead Sea receives the new stream. This river will actually make the Dead Sea into fresh water and life will sprout on the shores and teem in the depths. It will be a new Garden of Eden. Unfortunately, so it seems, no New Temple was ever built with that kind of flood coming from its side. But we know that this image was actually fulfilled by Christ on the Cross, the true Temple, God’s definitive dwelling place among His people, from whose side flowed blood and water to make fresh even the deadliest places of this world.
The only way we will overcome death is to approach it like Jesus did. They only way we will really come to know Who Jesus is and so who we are is to look at the Cross. And as the Church’s teaching in Gaudium et Spes from Vatican II proclaims: “Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
One of my favorite saints who lived out this gift of self was St. Peter Claver, whose feast day we just celebrated this week. As a Spanish missionary, who left behind his whole life to come to Columbia in the seventeenth century, he was heartbroken by the condition of the many thousands of African men and women who were being bought and sold in the slave markets. Claiming for himself the title of “slave of the slaves,” his whole life became about pouring himself out for those who had been so horribly treated. Of my favorites stories about St. Peter is that he often just gave his cloak away to whomever needed it the most, when he would get right onto the slave boats and begin ministering to those in greatest need. Many times there were miraculous healings that came about because of this simple, selfless act. He didn’t need to make a big scene. He just loved the downtrodden by giving himself away to them. This really challenges me to think about how often I refuse to help those who are clearly in need. Who am I to make up God’s mind for Him about when and whom or how He will heal miraculously? The only way I may come to know God and to know myself is to make a sincere, and often very simple, gift of myself to those who need it the most.
So perhaps this is part of the answer about who Jesus really is to us. He’s the one who gives Himself away on the Cross as the Christ, the Messiah, so that we could make ourselves a gift to God and to one another, holding nothing back and refusing to calculate the cost. Sure, it may be easiest to speak eloquently about this kind of faith. And it’s messy to actually try to live it. But again, we cannot fully find ourselves except through a sincere gift of ourselves.