One day, Jesus was with his disciples but praying alone.
At a certain point he raises his head and asks them a question: Who do the crowds say I am?
Note how he distinguishes between his disciples and the crowd? They are two distinct groups. The crowd is all those busy people of the world who have no real grasp of the things of God; at best they are still searching for him, at worst they are not interested. They readily gather when there is something to be ogled at, such as one of Jesus’ miracles, and will applaud wildly when he does something which wins their approval.
On the other hand, the crowd can turn very quickly and brutally, and even demand the crucifixion of an innocent man. This is because the crowd can be manipulated rather easily by clever individuals who understand the dynamics which move it. It’s called ‘working’ the crowd.
Jesus does not call the crowd. He calls individuals from or out of the crowd to become his disciples, to follow him. He does not exclude anyone but invites them to willingly accept the uncompromising demands of discipleship.
The crowd lives its own kind of life and thinks its own kind of thoughts. Today we call it ‘group think’ which is made up of many and varied rumours and stories circulating around an issue. As we see by the answers it gives, the crowd has no idea: John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the ancient prophets come back to life.
We, the disciples of Jesus, are not the crowd. We are called to stand apart from the crowd. We must not act like it nor must we think like it. When we do it is a major tragedy.
As disciples we are bound tightly together by one truth to which we give total allegiance. This truth is revealed to us by the Lord himself. It is a truth not just to be believed but a truth to become. Nothing can be more personal than this.
It is Peter who announces, 'You are the Christ of God,' but because it is not yet the full truth Jesus gives them strict orders not to tell anyone anything about this. They have yet to understand that the Christ must suffer grievously, must be rejected and put to death, and be raised up on the third day. And as if this were not enough of a shock they have yet to understand that they are being called to walk the same path.
Jesus spells it out: If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.
Jesus is not ordering us to be disciples; he never forces. He is simply setting forth the uncompromising demands of discipleship. As he proposed to the rich young man: If you would be perfect … so now he proposes to would be followers: If anyone wants to be a follower of mine … .
Discipleship is our grace-filled response to the person of Jesus; we have to come to know the one we are following. ‘Who do you say I am?’
The answer to the question ‘who?’ must be mine. Your answer will only be for me knowledge about Jesus. My following must be based on my natural, spontaneous, personal response to the person of Jesus as I know him. Listen to St Paul writing about his own, personal difficulties in his second letter to Timothy (1:12): I have not lost confidence, because I know who it is that I have put my trust in… .
I know who it is that I have put my trust in … I, I, my.
And he goes on to say: ...and I have no doubt at all that he is able to take care of all that I have entrusted to him until that Day.
I have no doubt … I have entrusted...
Nothing is more personal than discipleship but it is not a personal achievement. It is only a personal achievement when we fake it. Then our discipleship is like the role played by a movie actor. If we play it well we can win applause but it's not real. True discipleship is as real as a flu virus or a gastro bug when it gets into your bloodstream. You can’t fake that.
Discipleship is never static, it grows, because the answer to the question ‘Who do you say I am?’ is never static. It must be answered anew every day just as the cross of our life must be hoisted anew onto our shoulders every day.
As the answer to the question deepens so does our following and, then, our becoming.
A final insight - the Church, the Catholic Church, teaches us about Christ through her Sacred Scripture and through her Tradition. In the Church the answers are given and in the following, they are confirmed.