Thinking Anew – ‘Who do you say I am?’

“Our characterisations of Jesus are shaped by personal experience and prejudices”

Tomorrow’s gospel reading takes us to Caesarea Philippi and a conversation between Jesus and his disciples.

He asks them who people think he is. “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’”

It is important to note that St Matthew’s Gospel has a strong Jewish background and Peter’s answer reflects that influence, so perhaps from our point of view the question is just as important as Peter’s answer. Who do we say that Jesus is?

Let’s begin with a different question. What do we think Jesus looked like?


Considering that he is the most painted figure in all Western art most people probably think they have an idea but the truth is we know little other than that he was a Jew (or Judaean) and probably dark skinned.

In art and people’s minds he is westernised, made to look like us, sometimes pale skinned with blue eyes, and that he most certainly was not. He might well have had difficulties with Immigration at Dublin airport.

There is a temptation to see Jesus not only looking like us but being like us from a social, economic, political and religious perspective. He becomes less challenging, more amenable, when we see him as an affirmation of who and what we are. Thus, he becomes a communist or a capitalist, a Catholic or a Protestant, opposed to all the people and things we disapprove of.

The Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer is best known for his opposition to the Nazis during the second World War. It cost him his life.

What is less known is that in the 1930s he spent time in America at Union Theological Seminary and regularly attended services in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem with an African-American friend.

In his book Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus, Dr Reggie Williams discusses the impact of the experience on Bonhoeffer's thinking. [This is highly significant in the light of the recent supremacist violence in Charleville].

“Bonhoeffer immersed himself in Harlem and saw white America from the perspective of black American outcasts. He had witnessed a white American accommodation of religion and domination in the form of a white Christ. But with African-Americans in Harlem, he did not find Christianity striving to accommodate itself to white supremacist civilised society, nor did he find the liberal Christian expression of the Berlin school of theology that trained him in Germany. In Harlem, Bonhoeffer finally heard something different. He encountered a black Christ as the subject of worship in a Christian dialogue about sin, grace, the love of God, and ultimate hope, ‘in a form different from that to which we (Germans) are accustomed’. The real point of church and Christianity was apparent to Bonhoeffer in the church of the outcasts, where he heard about Jesus as the centre of Christian devotion and where Jesus was celebrated with ‘captivating passion and vividness’.”

This warns us that our characterisations of Jesus are shaped by personal experience and prejudices.

In Jesus’s discussion with the disciples, it is arguable that Peter’s confession on behalf of all the disciples silences them, but it alerts us to the limitations of theological language. If we focus on the question, not Peter’s answer, then it becomes more challenging. Instead of affirming Peter’s authority the question invites all of us – irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender or class – to explore what Jesus Christ means not only for us but for others as well.

“Who do you say I am?”

It is not an easy question to answer but St Ambrose left us this: “As the print of the seal on the wax is the express image of the seal itself, so Christ is the express image – the perfect representation – of God.”