Last Sunday, I presided at Holy Baptism in one of our churches; one that hadn’t seen a baptism for a number of years. It was a great occasion, as you might imagine; made more so by the baptismal candidate himself, a boy about ten years old. We’re so used to the baptism of small children, when parents and godparents answer the baptismal questions on behalf of the candidates, that we forget that the questions are addressed to those actually being baptized.
But on this occasion, we couldn’t forget, as the candidate responded himself. “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” “I renounce them.” “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” “I do.” “Do you desire to be baptized?” “I do.” The congregation was inspired as it heard the voice of the young man making these awesome renunciations and promises, and then joined their voices to his in the words of the baptismal covenant and in the prayers of the liturgy. It’s one thing to hear these affirmations of faith from adult voices, but another to hear them from the voices of youth, speaking for themselves.
“Speak for yourself” is a theme of our Gospel reading today, as Jesus asks his disciples, first of all, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mk. 8:27); and then, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mk. 8:29). The first question asks for information, for the facts as the disciples know them. “And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets’” (Mk. 8:28). The disciples are simply relaying to Jesus what they know to be the case about what others are saying, reporting information that Jesus could have gotten elsewhere.
But the second question exists on a whole different plane of reality. Jesus isn’t looking for information with this question, but for commitment. He’s not seeking the facts as the disciples know them, but for the truth as the disciples live it. He’s not asking what others think, but instead seeking what is inside the disciples’ own hearts and minds. Jesus is asking them to speak for themselves, and it is St. Peter who answers. He tells Jesus, “You are the Messiah” (Mk. 8:29).
I said that Jesus was asking them about the truth as they lived it. When he goes on to talk about taking up their cross and following him, he’s reminding them that the answer he’s looking for is not just “talking the talk,” but “walking the walk.” Believing in Jesus means following Jesus, into the difficult and hard way of life that the world doesn’t have much use for. Taking up the cross means shouldering the responsibilities of discipleship, and embracing a way of service to the world: to our friends, our neighbors, and the strangers we encounter. It means giving ourselves for others so that we can discover what it really means to live.
The question that Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk. 8:27), is one that we can only answer for ourselves. That’s because it has to do with who we are, and the sort of people we want to be. The question seems to be about who Jesus is, but it really turns out in the end to be about our own identity. We are not the sole arbiters of our identity, any more than we determine our own destiny, but the question that Jesus puts to us is one we have to answer for ourselves.
Our celebration of Confirmation today puts this front and center, as we gather with members of the church who are re-affirming their baptismal vows. In the course of our liturgy, these disciples will have the opportunity to re-commit themselves to the Christian faith and life. They will step into the spotlight, and lead all of us in our own recommitment today.
None of us can follow this path on our own. We need the grace of God, given to us through the prayer of the church and the laying on of hands, in order to follow through. As we continue on the road, God will continue to give us grace, as we come to the altar to receive the Holy Eucharist, and join in communion with our fellow members of the church. We will not be alone.
“Who do you say that I am?” (Mk. 8:27) is at the heart of what we’re doing today. Each of our confirmands has the chance to answer that question. If Jesus is the Messiah, then each of our lives will be different. We’ll have a new identity as we commit ourselves to taking up the cross and following him. Each of us will have to answer this question, over and over again, in the days that lie ahead. No one else can answer this question for us. We will have to speak for ourselves.