Who Do You Say I Am?
by Fr. Rufus Pereira
I thought at first the guide was making a mistake in taking us up north beyond the confines of Galilee and out of the Holy Land during my pilgrimage in April 1984, - till we came to an Arab village called Banias, which in ancient times, the guide now explained with gusto, was called Panion, after the Greek god Pan, and which in biblical times was called Caesarea Philippi to distinguish it from Ceasarea Maritima on the sea coast, the seat of the Roman Governor of Judea. This town was built in honour of the Emperor, hence Caesarea, and by Philip, the tertrach of Ituraea and Trachonitis. And then the guide read to us from Mark chapter 8 verses 27-38.
This passage is the midpoint in Mark's Gospel, between the narratives of the three years ministry of Jesus' preaching and healing and of the short period of immediate preparation for his passion and death. Jesus had taken his apostles up north of Galilee and they were now around Caesarea Philippi, where there was the popular shrine of the god Pan installed in a niche high up on the mountain side of sheer rock. There yonder were the thousands of devotees who had come to pay homage to this deity - and here at a distance was a motley band of mostly Galilean fishermen who had accompanied Jesus, a stationary carpenter turned itinerant preacher.
Jesus turned to the ungainly group of his followers as they gazed speechless and ill at ease at the vast multitude of pagan worshippers and, with a dramatic gesture of pointing at himself, asked them, "What do people say about me?" Caught by surprise and speechless at first, they insisted that the people, among whom he had exercised his teaching and healing ministry for three years, did hold him in high esteem; some were even convinced that he was John the Baptist resurrected, while others believed that he was Elijah come back, or at least one of the prophets. Then Jesus pointed at them, his own disciples, who had been so intimate with him for three years, and had heard him preach and seen him heal at close quarters, and asked them the same question, "But who do you say I am?" And Peter their spokesman replied in so many words, "To us you are not a mere man however great he may be. You are someone special - You are the Messiah, the promised one, come from God himself."
Jesus will be asking the same question of each one of us, "Who do you say I am?" or, "Who am I to you?" For that is the overriding question in the Bible whose answer will make a difference in our lives. Is he just one of many great religious leaders or even the greatest of them or even someone beyond just human categories? I too had to answer that question right from my childhood.
The first Jesus that I knew was when I was just a child. To me then Jesus was the statue or picture of Jesus on the family altar or the baby Jesus in the Christmas crib. Of course now I know that is not Jesus, as he stills seems to be unfortunately for many simple people. But things are changing. I was visiting a charismatic family in Bandra, Mumbai. To make conversation with their little daughter of three years, I pointed out to her the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall and told her with a wise nod, "See, that is Jesus!" But she just stared at me and said, "No! That is picture." And pointing to her heart she continued, "Jesus? In my heart!" But to me at her age that picture was Jesus.
Then I went to St. Andrew's High School, Bandra, Mumbai, and there I met my second Jesus. My favourite text book was Schuster's Bible History which narrated the story of a miracle of Jesus on one page and had a beautiful line drawing of that miracle on the facing page. To me then Jesus was a great healer or miracle worker. But now I know that is not Jesus either, as he is again unfortunately to so many thousands who go to him only for healings and miracles. In his own life time Jesus would run away and hide himself from people that came to him only from this motive (Lk 5:15,16).
I was giving a retreat to the high school girls of Presentation Convent, in Kodiakanal, South India. On the last day I was praying over them for their needs. One girl asked me to pray for her father. Then after some time I saw her again in the queue, and questioned her, "I have already prayed for your father, haven't I?" She said, "Yes, but now pray for my grandfather." I spotted her in the queue a third time and when she came up to me I asked, "Now, what?" She said, "Now pray for Chico." "And who's Chico?" I asked her. "My pet dog" she replied. For her Jesus was just one who healed daddies, grandpapas and pet dogs.
I met my third Jesus, when I joined the Diocesan Seminary at Parel, Mumbai. For when I chanced to read books in the library that questioned the historicity of the Gospels and the very historical existence of Jesus, my young seminarian blood began to boil. I then commenced reading other books to prove that Jesus really existed - but nothing more. Now I know that is not Jesus either. He is not just a historical figure - full stop. He is much more than that.
Then I went to theology where I met my fourth Jesus, - Jesus, the great teacher, whose beautiful teachings so fascinated me that I wrote my doctoral thesis in Biblical Theology on 'God is Love' ('Agape' in the Gospel of John). To me then Jesus was the greatest teacher in the world as he was also to Gandhi - but nothing more. Now I know that is not Jesus either. He is much more than that.
Years later, I had an experience in which I encountered Jesus as a person, - a person who was more real to me than any person I ever knew, with whom I could have a relationship, knowing that when I spoke he would be listening and when I listened he would be speaking. That is Jesus!
When John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to his two disciples, they started to follow Jesus at a distance. Suddenly Jesus turned round and asked them, "What do you want?" Not knowing what to say, they simply blurted out, "Teacher, where do you live," as if to say, "Lord, we don't want a teaching or a healing from you. We just want you - as a person, we want to see you at home." And Jesus said, "Come and see," as if to say, "Come and be with me, and know me as a person." One of them, Andrew, had such a deep experience that he went straightaway and told his brother Simon, "I have met Jesus. I have found the Messiah, the one we have been waiting and searching for" (Jn 1:35-41). Now I realise what Cardinal Suenens meant when, the very first time I met him at the International Catholic Charismatic Convention in Rome in 1975, he asked me just one question, "When did you meet Jesus?"
When I was teaching Geography in Holy Cross High School, Kurla, Mumbai, I gave my students lessons on snow. I told them all that I knew about snow. I described it to them the best way I could, I showed them pictures and slides on snow and told them what it looked like and how it felt. But later in October that year I took them for an excursion to Kashmir, in the Himalayas of north India. From the bus we could see the snow clad hills in the distance. Then proceeding further we began to see the snow on the ground as we peeped through the glass windows on either side of the bus. When the bus did come to a halt, I jumped out into the snow, took it into my two hands, held it close to my eyes and cried out, "So, this is snow!" In that period of teaching about snow, I only knew about snow. Now I knew snow. In the same way I only knew about Jesus before - now I know knew him!
In the OT Book of the same name, Job and his friends are discussing about God and his actions and dealings with man right through 34 chapters, 4 to 37. God is hearing patiently and at the end of their discussions, he gives his answer by asking Job question after question for full four chapters, 38 to 41, "So you know me, you say, Job, but do you really? Then tell me how did I make the sun and the moon," etc. etc. In the very last chapter, Job finally admits, "Enough, Lord. I have been very foolish to presume that I knew you so well. I have been talking too much, when I knew so little and things were beyond my understanding. But now I realise that all these years I only heard about you from others, from second hand sources. But now I have seen you with my own eyes" (Job 42:2-5).
But even that is not in fact sufficient. The Apostles had been with Jesus for three complete years, listening to every teaching, witnessing every miracle and healing, having close fellowship with him day after day. And still what were they before Pentecost? They were so dull and fainthearted, so fearful and sinful. Jesus would ask them in sorrow, "Have I not been with you all this time and you still do not know me" (Jn 14:9). They slept at prayer, took up a sword to defend Jesus, were jealous of one another, were suspicious even of Jesus, hid behind close doors out of fear, etc. This shows that just doctrinal knowledge of Jesus is not sufficient. What is needed is a personal encounter with and a vivid experience of the crucified and risen Lord. And that happens only when we receive the Spirit of the Lord.
Jesus himself said, "I will send you the Holy Spirit and he will not just be among you, but will dwell in you and then my Father and I will come to you and live with you" (Jn 14:16,17,23). It is only then that we will understand Jesus profoundly in his double function as Teacher of God's Word and Healer of men's hearts, and in his double relationship of Intercessor with God and Servant of men. It is with sheer joy and absolute certainty that I love to sing one of my favourite hymns :
I serve a risen Saviour, He's in the world today,
I know that He is living, whatever men may say;
I see His hand of mercy, I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him, He's always near.
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me, and talks with me, along life's narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart!
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