It may be the most important, revealing, personal question in the gospels. After asking his disciples who people were saying he is, Jesus put them on the spot: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:13-20). At some point as we grow in faith, every one of us must answer the same question. We must stop repeating what we’ve heard from others and answer originally and unequivocally: Who do you say Jesus is?
Simon Peter answered by identifying Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed him because God had revealed that to him directly, not through any other person, and he said he would build his church on the foundation of Peter’s response. What he did next was unexpected. He “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone” what Peter had just said, “that he was the Messiah.”
It didn’t matter to Jesus who others were saying he is; he was interested only in how the disciples would answer. And it wouldn’t matter to others who the disciples would say he is. It mattered only that Jesus’ identity, the embodiment of perfect love, would be revealed to each person originally and directly by God and be expressed by each person just as originally. That’s the foundation, the rock, on which the community of faith would stand.
Authentic faith, the kind Jesus would build a church on, is not based on what we hear from others – from teachers, pastors, saints, theologians, church tradition, even from the disciples and their scriptures. Authentic faith is based on recognizing for ourselves the presence of God’s love embodied and hidden among us. It’s based on what’s deepest in our hearts (Jer. 31:31-34) recognizing and resonating with what’s deepest in the lives and relationships of those around us – the incarnation of love in our midst. That kind of love will penetrate even the gates of death.
The rock on which the church is built, the rock on which a sacred relationship with others is founded, is the recognition of the presence of the holy in each other. Anyone who builds relationships with others on recognizing the holy presence in each other person “will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matt. 7:24-25).
It’s growing popular today to consider each other not as holy and worthy of respect but as worthless and disposable, and that has real and practical results. Relationships in society are falling apart, and the foundation of our fragile experiment in democracy – respect for one another – is crumbling. “If the foundations are destroyed,” the psalmist wondered, “what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3). What can we do when we see the foundation of our life together falling apart? We can follow some advice that’s 1,800 years old.
Origen of Alexandria (d. 254), one of the most important and influential theologians in the history of Christianity, advised priests in the church not to preach to the people. Instead, imagine above the head of each person is that person’s angel, that person’s holy and essential being. Preach to the angels, he advised, and the people will rise to their holy potential.
Very few of us are priests and preachers, but all of us can follow Origen’s advice. Treat every other person as holy, as someone created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Imagine the angel in every person, and speak to the angels; build your relationship with each person’s angel; recognize each person as holy, as the incarnation of the divine. It’s the only thing I know that will be certain to restore the foundation on which our sacred relationships with others are built.
In the final scene of the movie Moonstruck, as the extended family is having breakfast together, Rose Castorini brings into the open the affair her husband has been having. She pauses during breakfast and asks her husband,
“Have I been a good wife?”
Cosmo shrugs verbally, “Yeh.”
“I want you to stop seeing her.”
Cosmo slowly rises from his chair, slams his hand on the table, and sits down. “Okay.”
“And go to confession.”
Cosmo pauses and shakes his head. “A man understands one day that his life is built on nothing, and that’s a bad, crazy day.”
“Your life is not built on nothing,” Rose tells him. “Te amo.” [“I love you.”]
She relaxes, and the tension breaks.
When the rain falls, and the floods come, and the winds beat upon our house, as they will sooner or later, the house built on love will stand. The community built on recognizing and relating to the holy in every other person will endure.