Jun 21, 2013

13th Sunday: The central question

"Who do you say that I am?"

Zech 12: 10-11,13:1
Gal 3: 26-29
Lk 9: 18-24

For many of us, our teenage years are ones that we would admit were not always easy.  While there are good memories, there are also some painful ones.  Maybe it was our complexion, our mood swings, our inability to feel like we fit in, our perceived social or physical awkwardness, or other circumstances such as a tough home life because of parents who were distant from each other and from us.  Whatever our condition may have been, we also know that in time, things settled down and we began to understand ourselves and feel more confident about future. The years of our 20’s and beyond generally begin to set a clearer direction.

But, the teenage years are a time to search for our own identity and to establish some sense of independence.  The unspoken but natural question for all of us was, “Who am I?” Often we base our own self-assessment on the opinion of others.

While Jesus was hardly in some crisis of personality angst in today’s Gospel (Lk 9: 18-24), he did ask to hear what the crowds were saying about him and ultimately what his own inner group of disciples thought about his identity. “Who do the crowds say that I am?”

Was it a leading question?  Did Jesus expect a particular answer and just bait his disciples?  Well, I think it begs the same question from us today – who do we say Jesus is? The answer to that question cannot be ignored and does make all the difference in the world and in our individual lifestyles.  

We find Our Lord in prayerful isolation. The feeding of the 5, 000 has just taken place. Jesus fled to a deserted place for the people, after experiencing his power, were ready to make him King! He knew that his mission was a different kind of power. However, that time alone is productive for he seeks some divine connection with his Father.  The question next asked by him is significant and in light of what just took place on the hillside it may hold even more importance.  

To his disciples, evidently nearby, he asks: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” Remember, they just left the crowds.  As the disciples walked among them for distribution of the miraculously multiplied loaves and fish, they surely heard some remarks about Jesus: “We heard them say; John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the ancient prophets!”  We can extrapolate to assume that Jesus also sought what they have been hearing from other crowds they encountered during his ministry.  The question is a general one.

Then, Jesus turns to his disciples: “But, who do you say that I am?” Now, the personal is reached: What do you think? It’s a harder question of course since it demands one answer from their personal opinion and not to just go along with popular sentiment. As we know, the ever exuberant Peter states: “The Christ of God!”- the Anointed One, the Messiah!   We can assume Peter stated this with conviction and not as a rhetorical question.  Matthew’s version (Mt 16: 18) of this scene is perhaps more familiar since we know that Jesus then addressed Peter as the “rock” upon which “I will build my Church.”  Jesus would have never made such a bold commission if he was not convinced that Peter was convinced of this great truth.

Yet, it seems Luke put emphasis on Jesus’ rebuke to “them.” It apparently wasn’t only Peter who shared this insight but the other’s as well, though Peter spoke for the group. He was right. Still, to Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus offers a reprimand? Why wouldn’t he want it to be known that he was indeed the Messiah – the Christ of God? After all, to have heard the crowds compare Jesus to John the Baptist, Elijah or another of the ancient prophets was quite an honorable comparison.

Scholars have referred to this as the “messianic secret.”  While Jesus’ mission was indeed to all of humanity and his mission is meant to be good news for all history, it is the messianic concept of Peter and its implications that Jesus rebukes.  Not the person of Peter or the other disciples but his limited understanding of who and what the Messiah was meant to be. Not the military leader, the savior of the kingdom of Israel who would banish the occupying Romans and establish the power of Israel but the suffering Messiah: “The Son of Man (ancient term for Messiah) must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

The Kingdom which Jesus established is beyond geography or political ambition.  It is not one that is bound in a particular period of history or one that begins an earthly monarchy of rulers.  It is a kingdom that applies for all times and is not limited by this world alone but ultimately finds it fulfillment in the life beyond this one.  

Jesus’ sacrifice for us and the graces that flow from that singular event on the cross and the resurrection forever changed the relationship between humanity and God.  The morals and values we live by are directly related to Jesus’ own life among us. We are citizens of a kingdom in which its members are marked by the power of love and service. 

As he carried his cross so must we, he says today.  The denial of the self is about relationship, I feel.  If we deny ourselves, recognize that we are not the center of the universe and that life is a gift meant to be lived ultimately for others after Jesus’ own example, then we can call ourselves true disciples of the Lord.  It is not so much about what we do but what he has done for us. The question is always both corporate and personal at the same time – who do we/you say I am?

Maybe in our weekly profession of the Creed we see it most evident.  We begin “I believe in one God . . .” The Church, as one united in faith, proclaims “I” believe but it demands that each member also answer that same profession.

High ideals?  Yes indeed.  Impossible to achieve?  By ourselves, yes, but with his grace we can dispose ourselves to such high ideals, even if it means we are judged by others or persecuted for our faith. 

St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians this Sunday states: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ . . .” (Gal: 326-27). As our clothing identifies us so too does our “Christ-clothing.” Our gathering for Eucharist is when we see our fellow members and we are all sent out to bring others to see “the Christ of God.”  
Grant, O Lord,
that we may always revere and love your holy name,
for you never deprive of your guidance
those you set firm on the foundation of your love.
(Collect for Sunday)