Identity and Mission
In many other circumstances and occasions, the people we are relating with, whether friendly or inimical, are naming us. Most often, we give "pet names" or nicknames to people we are intimate or familiar with. The act of giving a name to the other brings a sense of belonging to all those involved. To give a name or nickname to a person connotes a "proprietorship" over the person in the sense that the giver of the name influences how the other will be known. Name of endearments among lovers, between friends, between a parent and child testifies to this idea. When another name you, you are in some ways connected. On the other hand, "name calling" can also bring about negative results such as rejection and emotional trauma if done by people who are unfriendly like those bullies in school. Thus, we can see how the act of naming a person has a certain power of "possession" over those named.
In some ancient cultures, the significance of the name is highly valued. Nomen omen est. In fact, the knowledge of a person's name is not confined to the acquisition of the person's given name but can be use as a metaphor to state the knowledge of who the person is. It is even consider as the portent of what is to come and what the person could become. Thus, the name of the person is believed to contain the potentials of the person, in a way the person's identity and destiny. It is in the initial stage that the knowledge of the other person's name is very important in establishing a relationship. In fact, when a person is interested with another person, the first important piece of information one wants to get is the other person's name. It is plausible to claim that the desire to know a person's name connotes an attempt to enter into a relationship albeit this may be a transitory or a permanent relationship varying in depths and breadth. Knowing the other person's identity is essential to the establishment of a relationship with that person. It is not possible to claim that one has a relationship with another person but that he/she does not know who the other is.
Jesus in asking Peter the question 'Who do you say that I am?' is actually inviting Peter to enter into a new level of relationship with him. Admittedly, this particular Gospel narrative primarily refers to the Petrine ministry, but it can also tell us some aspects of vocation in general. The story in Matthew (16: 13 - 20) points to the fact that ministry is intimately related to our understanding of who Jesus is. It is the minister's knowledge of Jesus (and the consequent relationship with him) that serves as the reference point for ministry determining its dynamics.
This brings us to the second point, that ministry is rooted in Divine initiative since we can only know Jesus by the grace of God. Our understanding of Jesus is primarily a gift by which God makes the initial move in the relationship. Clearly, in this Gospel narrative, Jesus initiated the question "Who do you say that I am?" To this question, Peter replied that Jesus is the Messiah. This knowledge comes from the Father as a gratuitous gift of which Peter neither earned or worthy of.
There is another story found in the Acts of the Apostle, which shows how the knowledge of Jesus leads to a new relationship with the Lord leading to a new identity and mission. Yet, this time, it is man who questioned God, the reverse of the Gospel narrative. The Acts of the Apostles tells how Saul after falling along the road to Damascus asked the voice he heard with the question "Who are you Lord?" (Acts 9: 5). In a similar vein as with the Gospel story, the knowledge of the identity of the other brought about a changed life, a new relationship. In this case, a radical change in the life of Saul. The Acts narrated how after this encounter Saul became an ardent and zealous preacher of the Good News of Jesus. Once more the elements that were present in the Peter story namely: that there is the Divine initiative and life-changing relationships that arise from this encounter are present. It is a paradox that as a person seeks to know God more, the better he/she comes into an understanding of who he/she is. As Paul seeks to know who spoke to him on the road to Damascus, he also came into the truth of who he is and what he was meant to become.
On a personal note, there were many experiences in my life when I felt Jesus asked me the same question, which he asked Peter 'Who do you say that I am?' I would like to share three of these moments. The first time was during the time when I was discerning what my life vocation is. It was when I was making my choice whether to continue my work career in education or to enter the seminary. It was a defining moment for me. At that time, my career was going very well and I was having good promotions. In fact, only after three years of teaching I was promoted to head the academic programs of the school where I was working. Yet, deep in my heart, I felt that Jesus is asking me what is his place in my life and its effect my life. This is a question that demands change in my life. I felt that Jesus is calling me to enter the seminary to study for the priesthood as a consequence of my relationship with him.
The question of who Jesus is for me continued even after I entered the seminary. The second time was during the time when I took up a yearlong leave from the seminary. During those moments, I realized among many other reasons, that my experience in the seminary has become too intellectual. Slowly, God is becoming an abstract concept instead of being a person with whom I can relate. My desire to know Jesus led me to decide to take a break from seminary life. It was a painful decision because it was like passing through a trial by fire. Jesus, however, is calling me to somewhere else. It brought me to an orphanage where I served as a volunteer. This mission experience unveiled to me another face of Jesus among the poor and the rejected. Jesus became more real to me rather than just learning about him in books and lectures.
At present being a newly ordained deacon, the Lord continues to ask me the question of 'who he is' for me. I am being invited by the Lord to enter into a new state of relating with him. From this new state of relationship with him, I am called to relate and serve those whom the he will send me. While at the same time, he shows me for who I am a beloved son of God.