During the course of one of our discussions at Council, I heard someone ask this rhetorical question. It set me thinking and supplied the title of this post.
'Who do you say I am?' Perhaps this question, which Jesus put to his disciples, is one we ask about ourselves in the minute we are born. ‘Who am I?’
If we were to time-travel back to that moment, as some claim to have done, our first cry must surely be a shaping of this fundamental question, asked of those who first laid their hands on us. We will go on asking it for the whole of our lives.
The newly born is giving voice to the acute loneliness of the human condition. In what capacity then does Jesus ask it of his disciples? It seems that its significance lies in the asking as much as in the expectation of an answer. The question seems to come with a particular authority, the authority of one capable of reconciling the God-forsakenness, the loneliness of the human condition, with the love of God. Jesus asks the question so that he can supply those who love him with the answer, the answer which will tell them who they are.
Just as the newborn child reaches out and rejects those around her in a single trembling gesture, so the human race continues to reach out and simultaneously reject the things which make for life and peace. This rejection and reaching out manifests itself simultaneously in greed, cruelty and the lust for power over others, combined with love for one’s children, the desire for a better life and a deep, mostly inarticulate, longing for meaning. This suggests that we should listen to the question on more than one level.
There are a number of theological areas to explore when it comes to understanding the paradox of human nature. Most of them have to do with the nature of sin and salvation, understood on the one hand as alienation from God and alienation from one another and, on the other, as the reconciling of all things in Christ. But they also return us to the question asked by the infant into the absence or nothingness which he experiences at birth just as he becomes, biologically at least, autonomous, no longer part of his mother’s life sustaining system, of her body, mind and, yes, spirit.
There is a time dimension to the question as well. Jesus asks it from within a particular historical context, at a particular time, but it is also the fulcrum on which the whole of human history turns and on which this present moment (as you are reading this blog) rests. If it spans time, if it moves with the dynamic of history itself and yet confronts us in this moment, it obliges us to hear and respond to still more questions.
Was Jesus more than human? Was he, and is he, God consenting to and embracing our humanity? Working on the basis of a unified sphere of history, a ‘then’ present in the ‘now’, a future which is also already being realised in the present, is it possible that he is embracing us even in this moment and will continue to do so ‘unto the end of the age’, as he himself put it?
Here we start to drop down to that level of understanding which invites us to sit loosely to the kind of a posteriori claims about God based on a certain way of reading history, science or philosophy, or of any intellectual pursuit which allows itself to be contained within a limited conceptual framework, and thus licenses assumptions which need to be re-questioned. Or which simply invite silence. Christ’s question is not an invitation to concur with a theory arrived at over time, although history, and what a particular history was leading to, was a significant defining element for his disciples.
The question was not a test, and it is not a test now. Neither was it addressed exclusively to future Christians, or to the Jews of his time, or to the followers of any one religion at any one time in history. Jesus was outside time, and outside humanly organised religion, while allowing himself to be held within both. As Messiah, he did not fit in with the assumptions of his day or concur with its expectations, anymore than he does now. But then, why should he? The love of God revealed in the person of Jesus was, and is, infinitely more exacting of us than our limited expectations of him could possibly allow for. This is perhaps why many people who met Jesus rejected him – and why others worshipped him.
Incidents of spontaneous worship recorded in the gospels help us to see the significance of the question which Jesus asks of his disciples and of us. They offer a new intellectual dimension which is that of deep knowledge, better known as faith. Christ’s divinity takes us straight to the kind of life with which we identify salvation. Indeed, the words ‘life’ and ‘salvation’ are etymologically linked.
So this is a universal, cosmic and at the same time uniquely personal question which invites more than mere opinion. It obliges response. It is an ‘I’ to ‘thou’ question, as the philosopher Martin Buber might have put it, requiring a willingness to respond and commit to the moment, and to the person we encounter in Jesus Christ.
An encounter with Christ involves hearing the question 'Who do you say that I am', from that place within us where we seek meaning, even if we do not know that is what we are seeking. So, for Christians, it matters how we answer the question, just as it did for the disciples. Theirs was not a qualified opinion. It was a declaration of his divinity embodied in response, that he was the Son of the living God. They had not worked it out. It had been ‘revealed’ to them. In other words, they understood, or knew, in the moment of his asking that they too had been understood and known by God.