In the passage of Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus challenges his disciples with the two important questions: "who do people say that I am?" and later he asks "who do you say I am?" To the first question they reply that some people say he is Moses. Moses was the great liberator of Israel. Moses brought them the law from God on mount Sinai. He was a very holy man. He knew God, having spent time with Him on the mountain. He saw God face to face, and did not die. When he returned from the presence of God on the mountain, he face shorn like the light, and the people could not look at him. When Moses died, the Lord himself buried him. Jesus had so much in common with Moses that some people thought he was Moses. Some say he is Elijah. Elijah is reputed as the greatest prophet of old. He was so close to God, so united with God in spirit, that the Jews believed he would come back. He spoke to the Israelites of his day with authority and performed many wonders, so when they saw all that Jesus was doing, they thought that perhaps this is Elijah come back to life. Others thought he is one of the other great prophets such as John the Baptist whom Herod assumed had come back in Jesus when he (Herod) heard of all that Jesus said and did.
But beyond all the speculations of the crowds, Jesus asks a pertinent question of his own close associates. He wishes to know what those who have been with him all this while truly think of him, or what they have come to learn of his identity. So he says "And you, who do you say I am?" The disciples were thus faced with one of the greatest challenges of their lives. They could not hide under the anonymity of the crowd. They were to respond personally and directly. They were to make a personal commitment, a personal confession of who Jesus is to them. This was a great challenge posed to the disciples. The moment of truth had come, and they must respond. While others were still wondering how to respond, it was Peter the head of the apostles who was given the grace to answer: "You are the Christ of God." Another gospel report him as saying, "You are the Christ, son of the living God."
Jesus then told him: "Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man. Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven." Jesus' response amounts to saying that this was no ordinary human knowledge. It is clearly the grace of God at work in Peter. The Lord then goes ahead to confirm his position as leader of the Church, giving him the power of the keys, the power to bind and to loose, and promising that the gates of hell will never prevail against the church. We believe that the Lord continues to keep his promise, and so no matter how far away from the truth individual Christians get, the authentic Church of Christ will nevertheless endure in truth.
Today there are conflicting and sometimes contradictory claims and assertions about the person of Jesus Christ and his gospel of salvation. There are as many shades of opinion on Christ and his message as there are sects and confraternities. We can no longer presume that because two people are Christians, they would necessarily have the same opinion of Jesus and his way of life. For some, Jesus is a miracle worker, and no more. We go to him to have our problems solved, but he is not taken into consideration in some of the most important choices we make in life. Thus Jesus does not come into the discussion when we are discussing our business deals and our relationship with people of other ethnic groups, social classes or other political parties. So while worshipping the Jesus of healing, miracles and prosperity, we can cheat others and resent people of different racial and ethnic stock, and it would not matter. For some people, Jesus is simply a champion of social justice. They would use Jesus to promote social justice and equity, but would not let Jesus have any say when they are contemplating fornication, abortion or divorce. Matters of private morality are not issues of prime concern when such people are discussing Jesus.
The twenty-first century human society is a very plural society, with a multiplicity of contradictory ideologies and value systems. Within Christianity, there are various shades of moral orientations and spiritual perceptions. There are differing opinions today even among Christian theologians on such issues as the permissibility of divorce, war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality. It has therefore become more expedient today than ever before for individual Christians to have a mature personal commitment to Jesus, and to take a position on each one of the contentious moral issues of the day. As the experts engage in scholarly debates on the above mentioned issues, and as politicians lobby for support one way or the other, depending on where they stand on these issues, the individual Christian is often challenged to make up his or her mind and live by his or her enlightened conscience.
True, as the dominant culture in today's global society seem to have lost its spiritual and moral orientation and become more and more selfish, individualistic, materialistic and secularist, the individual Christian has to make up his or her mind, or decide where he or she stands with regard to the controversial issues of the day in accordance with how he or she understands the demands of Christ. The majority of people are likely to drift further and further away from the strict moral and spiritual demands of traditional Christianity. The majority of people in our day are likely to reject as unrealistic and undesirable the self-control, mortification and self-sacrifice promoted by traditional Christian life of holiness, and instead go for the easy way. More and more men and women are likely to reject the cross that is traditionally associated with the life of holiness, and settle for whatever is convenient. Yes, Christianity is likely to be increasingly watered down to suit the fancy of the majority who will not pay the price of a radical discipleship, but who will nevertheless wish to be identified as Christians.
The Lord tells us that many are called, but few are chosen. In the passage of Matthew under consideration, Jesus was not satisfied with what the crowds thought of him. It didn't seem to matter to him what the majority of people in Israel thought of him. What seemed to matter to him the most was what the twelve disciples who had been with him all the while thought of him. That is why the answer of Peter on behalf of the disciples was a welcome relief. For indeed his ministry would have been a complete failure if his closest associates had not acquired a higher perception of his person and mission. It would have been most disappointing if those who shared his company, listened to him teach, watched him perform miracles, watched him pray and ate with him, if these people did not recognise him as the Son of God. But Peter's answer showed that they did.
Indeed, only those who have met Jesus, those who have beheld his face, those who have shared his company and savoured his Word, are often able to live out his life to the full. Only those who have experienced the tremendous love of Jesus, who have been touched by his tenderness and compassion, are able to embrace his message of love without compromise. All others may engage in intellectual discussion of love, but they would hardly appreciate the true meaning of this divine love. Only those who have really experienced the forgiveness of Christ are able to go away and live the rest of their lives in thanksgiving and praise. All others can philosophise about sin and forgiveness, but they would hardly be able to turn away from the life of sin and extend forgiveness to others with ease.
No one who has truly met Jesus will ever be the same again. St. Paul is a powerful example of this life-changing encounter with the Son of God. St. Augustine too changed definitively when he really came face to face with Jesus. Like Moses who came back from the mount of Sinai with his face shining brightly, having encounter the Holy of Holies, anyone who really gets to meet Jesus will not only have a different perception of him, but will radiate his light and truth before the men and women of the world. They will not be carried away by all the strange doctrines and teachings that we are beginning to see in the modern world. They would remain strong, committed and determined (in season and out of season), to witness to the Son of God whose love is beyond measure. Contemplating the face of Jesus daily will help Christians to understand the person of Jesus more and more, and to embrace his ways, even when those ways are full of pain, even when they call for regular sacrifice, even when they call for martyrdom. We surely require a dose of the grace of God to be inside us in order to recognise Jesus in our midst and to strive to live his live in a hostile or non-supportive environment.