24th Sunday OT:
At the heart of our gospel today is the question of identity. The question begins in general terms, even Jesus says: who do people say that I am? The responses of the people are as general as Jesus' own question: some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others one of the prophets. In other words, some people say you are a great preacher who is traveling around preaching repentance just like John the Baptist. Others are saying even more, you are a prophet like Elijah who was the man of God. These answers are not wrong, Jesus was a preacher who spoke of repentance; he was a prophet who spoke about and for God. But, while these people who said Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or a prophet might not have been wrong, they weren't correct. These titles do not get to who Jesus really is.
After this question of generalities, Jesus makes it alarmingly concrete: who do you say that I am? What an uncomfortable question! Imagine that someone walked up to you and asked: who do you say that I am? Even if it was your spouse or your child, it would be a hard question to answer.
Jesus really puts Peter on the spot here. Who am I? Do you know me better than those others who think of me as just another prophet or preacher? Am I more than that? But, Peter doesn't even hesitate: you are the Christ. This answer is vastly different from the previous answers, which were generic and spoke about the things that Jesus did. This new answer gets to the very identity of Jesus: you are not just some preacher, not just another prophet: you are the Christ, the son of God.
So, it seems like there are two camps in the world: those who know about Jesus, and those who know Jesus. The first group sees only the things Jesus said and did: he is some great prophet. The second group knows Jesus, knows his identity: you are the Christ.
How is Peter able to see Jesus and identify who he really is? How does he get into the second group? There is no doubt that Peter heard Jesus preaching, that he thought of him as a prophet, but how did he get past the generalities? Peter knew Jesus. It is just that simple. Peter had a relationship with Christ, he spent time with him, spoke with him, followed him, etc. He got to know Jesus on a personal level. He was able to move beyond generalities because he encountered Jesus in the specifics of his life.
Don't we all want to do the same? Don't we all want to know Jesus? It is not enough to know about Jesus; salvation, holiness, and grace come from knowing Jesus. How do we get from the first group to the second group? Jesus gives us a roadmap: whoever wishes to follow me must deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow after me. The way to know Jesus is to follow him, the way to follow him is to deny ourselves and take up our crosses.
This is, by no means, an easy task. The road of discipleship can be a road of suffering and hardship, but this should not surprise us. We are Christians, we bear the name of Christ. He suffered, and we suffer. He denied himself on the cross, we deny ourselves in our daily lives. But it is in and through our difficulties that we follow Christ, that we become like him, that we get to know him. Here in this holy Eucharist, Christ comes to us and he asks us the same question he asked St. Peter: who do you say that I am? We will only be able to answer this question well if we follow Jesus, if we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ.