From Luke’s Gospel:
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 9:18-20 – October 18, 2012)
“Who do you say that I am?” Better writers and more erudite theologians than I have noted that this is the question at the heart of the gospel, the question that each person must answer for him- or herself. C.S. Lewis addresses it in one of my favorite of his writings, Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him. I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher, he would either be a lunatic on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (Mere Christianity, Harper:2000, pp. 40-41)
I thought of this quote back in an earlier presidential campaign when former president George W. Bush was asked who his favorite philosopher was. His answer was, “Jesus Christ.” But as Lewis says, Jesus wasn’t a philosopher; he wasn’t a moral teacher. Jesus was (and is) either God incarnate or nothing at all of note, simply a madman.
Our answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” is important not because it defines Jesus, but because it defines us. If Jesus is simply a philosopher (a nice way to say “lunatic”) then we can smile nicely at him, pick and choose which of his teachings we will follow, and go about life as master of our own existence. If Jesus is God, we must fall to the ground before him, pick up our cross and follow him, and go wherever he leads as master of our existence. Thus, the real question that we must answer (and we must answer it each day) is not “Who do you say that I am?” but “Whose do you acknowledge that you are?”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.