A Life Time of Answering (Mark 8:27-30)
People have wondered about the surprising, almost jarring response Jesus makes to Peter right after this apostle gives the exact right answer to the question, “Who do you say I am?” His reply, “You are the Christ.” But Jesus stops the exchange with his words, “Don’t tell anyone about this.” Why the shutdown?
While this likely has something to do with Jesus wanting to keep his identity a secret, it also might be a way of underscoring the difference between what this word “Christ” meant to Peter and what it fully means. Its scope is vast, taking in all of creation and encompassing all of God’s redeeming love for everything in that creation. In Peter’s constricted understanding, “The Christ” meant the long-awaited Messiah who would overthrow the oppressive Roman rule and set things right for the Jewish people. He answered, “Christ,” but meant it in only a narrowed down sense.
Peter’s under-response touches on a question facing every disciple. How much of a gap exists between my understanding of who God is, and who God really is — granting that a vast gulf always exists between my appreciation of God and the fathomlessness of the Divine reality.
Memory is a way to notice this contrast. Thinking back over the years, what answers have we given to the “Who am I” question — not the book answers, but the “life-answers,” the ones that rose up out of our lived experience. What have been the different personal testimonies we’ve given over the years to the stamp of God’s presence in our lives?
Someone once confided that she “met the Lord” for the first time during a period of terrible grief. Her father had passed away, and in the weeks and months that followed she didn’t know how she would ever recover her balance. In those somber days she felt an emptiness unlike any other and from this hollowed out place begged God for solace. After a long and barren period, a certain inner presence began to show itself, a warmth and closeness taking hold at level she knew was her heart. Her answer to “Who am I?” — “You are the comforter. You are the holder of my sorrow.”
I read of another who came to know God as the Strengthener. Under enormous pressure from a combination of stress on the job and the alarming behavior of his child, there were days, he wrote, when he didn’t know how he could continue, so flat on his back did he feel. But later when things had improved, he came to realize that he couldn’t have gotten through on his own. There had to be a strength and resilience coming to him that was not his own. So to his “Who am I?” — “You are the Strengthener, the Sustainer, the Bearer of Burdens.”
Still another response comes from a person who was bowled over one evening by the startling beauty of an ocean sunset. Seeing this golden path stretching out to the horizon, hearing the squawking sea birds overhead, smelling the salt breeze and feeling the warmth of the sand underfoot, she could sense being taken someplace beyond. There was a solidness in and behind this beauty, some benevolent source of it all as if flowing out from some bottomless fountain. Her answer to the “Who am I”? – “you are the splendor in nature, you are the loveliness in creation that breaks through and leaves me breathless.”
Lest we forget, there’s the classic Vincentian Family answer to “Who am I?” — “You are the person who is neglected and overlooked and cast out to the margins of society.”
All of these are personalized responses to the question Jesus puts us to us about who he is. With Peter we answer, “The Christ,” and fill out that title with the meanings we’ve initially taken in. But each of us pulling on the witness of our experiences can say more. Mining memories for the graced times when the Spirit’s presence broke through our everyday, we can locate those visitations when we contributed our unique answers to that saving question put to Peter. “You are the Christ, my strength, my solace, my abundant compassion, my wonder, my neighbor in need – and on and on.