Now it happened that as Jesus was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
- Luke 9:18-24 (ESV)
When prayer is mentioned in St Luke’s Gospel, we know that something really important is about to happen. Here Jesus is praying, but it says that he is praying “alone” even though the disciples are “with him.” Each of the Gospels shows us how Jesus would draw aside from those who were with him just to pray to the Father. And St Luke places special emphasis on the relationship between the praying of Jesus and his mission. (This theme continues in St Luke's "second volume", his story of the early Church - The Acts of the Apostles - beginning with the community of disciples waiting in prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to equip them for their mission.)
We need to pause on this point, for sometimes we imagine that we need perfect conditions in order to grow in prayer - like waiting until we can go on retreat to “get away from it all.” Of course, we should go on retreat if we can. Jesus himself did when it was possible. But it’s also important – I think more important - for us to learn to pray “alone” in the crowd, during the bustle of our daily lives, or at home especially if those with whom we share our lives do not share or understand our faith journey. A lot of Jesus’ praying was of this kind.
His prayer and his mission are bound up together. It’s the same for us.
WHAT HAD THEY SEEN HIM DO?
What is it about this particular moment that led Jesus to ask his disciples who they thought he was? Well, let’s look back on all that had happened so far as written up by St Luke:
* Chapter 3: Jesus is baptised and anointed by the Holy Spirit.
* Chapter 4: Jesus goes to the desert for 40 days and 40 nights and is tempted by the devil, before teaching in synagogues around Galilee (including Nazareth where he caused an incident), releasing people from evil powers, healing Peter’s mother-in-law, and leaving Galilee to preach and teach in Judea.
* Chapter 5: Jesus preaches from a boat, enables the disciples to catch a large haul of fish, cleanses a leper, heals a paralised man, calls Levi the tax collector to follow him, reaching out as well to a large crowd of tax collectors and Pharisees.
* Chapter 6: Jesus seems to be breaking the Sabbath by picking grain and healing a man’s withered hand. He gathers more disciples, and preaches..
* Chapter 7: Jesus heals the Centurion’s servant, raises a widow’s son, welcomes the anointing of his feet by a woman (a “public sinner “) whose sins he had forgiven.
* Chapter 8: Jesus teaches, raises up Jairus’ daughter, and heals a woman’s haemorrhage.
* Chapter 9: Jesus sends a group of disciples out to preach and heal in his name. His real identity is is being debated. Is he a reincarnation of John the Baptist? (That’s what King Herod wondered!) When the disciples’ return, he feeds the five thousand.
WHO IS HE – REALLY?
So, we come to this crucial point in the ministry of Jesus. He is praying “alone” while the disciples are “with him.” I think he’s been praying about them and their role in continuing his mission. He knows how important it is for them to grow in their understanding of who he is and what his mission is really all about.
So he asks them the two questions we hear today.
The first, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” is a kind of survey question. And they answer: “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” We can almost hear them eagerly reporting what they have heard.
The second question, is more personal: “But who do YOU say that I am?” Peter answers on behalf of them all. They have been with Jesus. They have witnessed his actions. They have seen his love for the people. They themselves have experienced his love. He has touched their hearts and their lives. They have sat at his feet and been nourished by his teaching. For Peter and the disciples, Jesus is unmistakeably the Christ, the Messiah, God’s “anointed” one.
MORE TO LEARN
Many people reading this passage for the first time are surprised that Jesus then tells the disciples to keep this to themselves. Surely he would want them to let all and sundry know who he really is. I think that Jesus knows the disciples have a great deal more to learn - about himself, about the real captivity from which he rescues people, about the suffering he would endure - before they can begin to understand what they profess. In fact, it will only make sense to them after he has died and risen from the dead.
Lots of Jewish people at that time expected God to send a messiah (“anointed one”) a “warrior king” who would expel the Roman legions from their land and restore them as a sovereign nation. This is the background to Peter acclaiming Jesus as the “anointed of God.” But his idea of “the anointed one”, the “messiah” or “Christ” certainly had no room for a suffering messiah.
It is a sacred wonder of the Christian faith that God’s “anointed King” redeems us by entering into the human experience of suffering and pain, not just “for us” (in the sense of bearing our sins and absorbing their consequences - although he does that!), but also “with us” in order to accompany us in the extremities of our circumstances, so that we might know the depths of his transforming, strengthening love.
I wonder if Jesus spent this particular time of praying “alone” mulling over the pain and suffering that lay ahead of him in the fulfilment of his role as the “anointed of God.” After all, it is now that he tells the disciples that he “. . . must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
TAKING UP OUR CROSS
But the real crunch here – for the original disciples as well as for us – is that, according to Jesus, suffering will also be part of the lives of all who follow him. Being his disciple, now as much as in the early years of the Church’s story, means a life of “joy and peace in believing” (Romans 15:13), “life in all its fulness (John 10:10). But it has nothing to do with protecting our own interests and privileges, ensuring our own comfort and status, or even with “saving our own life.” It has everything to do with deepening our union with him and responding sacrificially to the distress of those around us who so desperately need to know God’s love and our love, accepting that even the suffering we endure becomes redemptive when prayerfully offered to the Father in union with the suffering of Jesus and embraced for his glory and the redemption of the world.