Who do you say that I am? This question lies at the very heart of what it means to be Christian, even at the heart of what it means to be human. Wrong answers to this question abound: John the Baptist, Elijah, an ancient prophet. What about our modern world? There are many wrong answers found today.
Think about the new atheist movement. Not only is Jesus not God for them, there is no God. This group attributes everything evil in our society to the belief in God. Then there are the Da Vinci Gnostics. These people believe that Jesus was just another human: he lived, he died, he got married, he had kids, he was not God and he did not rise from the dead. These two suggestions are so far-fetched as to be laughable. Some people think of Jesus as a sage teacher. They think of Jesus' commands, his sermon on the mount, the Golden Rule, etc. Others know that Jesus is God and think of him as their friend, but don't really think of the Church as being important, they don't believe it necessary to follow the moral law, they believe in a disincarnate Jesus, a spiritual Jesus. Both of these answers are wrong, not because Jesus is not a wise teacher, not because we shouldn't have a spiritual relationship with Jesus, but because these answers are not complete.
There is only one correct answer to this question: you are the Christ of God. You are the one spoken of by the prophets, such as our first reading. We believe in you, we believe that you are God, and we have put on Christ on the day of our baptism, as Paul mentions in the second reading.
When we were baptized we answered with St. Peter: you are the Christ. Through this profession of faith and by the sacrament we have become children of God. But this question is unlike any question we have answered or will answer. This question is not only put to us by Christ. Rather, it cries out from our hearts, our souls, our very existence asks fundamental questions: who are we? What are we? How do we exist? For what do we exist? These questions are really nothing more than the question of Jesus: who do you say that I am. It is only in the context of Christ that our lives have meaning. It is only in the context of Christ that the questions of our existence find their answers. The question of Christ goes to the very heart of what it means to be human.
Since this question is unlike any other, it demands a different kind of response. It is not answered with mere words, but it is answered with our whole selves. Jesus explains how this question is answered in the rest of our gospel. First, he explains what it means that he is the Christ. It means that he will suffer and die for our salvation. That he will overcome sin and death by his own death, rising on the third day. Secondly, he explains that for us to enter into this resurrection, for us to live everlasting life with God forever, answering the very questions of our hearts, we too must deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow after Jesus. The shape of human existence is found in the cross.
Who do you say that I am? Christ speaks this question to the hearts of each and every human person. In Christ we find the answer to all of our deepest longings. But the response to Christ's question cannot be simply words. One of the biggest problems we face today is a kind of practical atheism. This happens when we profess a belief in God, a belief in Jesus, but we act as though God doesn't exist.
Who do you say that I am? You are the Christ of God, we answer, not only with our lips but with our whole being when we take up our crosses and follow after Christ, who leads us to everlasting life.