As I continue to re-group since our epic trip to Alaska and to reflect on the state of retirement and all that it means to and for me; I find the gospel for this Sunday’s Mass very helpful. Jesus asks his closest companions to tell him who they think he is. They have lived with him for three years, have watched him minister to others—to them, preach the Word and now, he basically wants to know, do they get it? Has he made any difference to them, to the world? I think as a person looks back on their life, having lived the greater portion of it; there comes the thought, “Have I been faithful to God’s gifts—have I been a true follower—have I lived for others, as well as for myself?—have I basically done good and not bad in my life thus far?” And then for me personally, looking at retirement and what that means, “What comes next?” “Is there anything else I should be doing, or should I be doing what I already am doing, only better?”
For Jesus, the questions were perhaps more urgent as he probably, instinctively sensed that his time in this life was short. I believe that most of us grew up in the faith believing that Jesus had all the answers, knew exactly what lay in store for him, but present day scholarship tells us that he probably had to learn as we do, little by little, what his divine call was and then act upon it.
His question to his disciples near the end of his life is a very human one—has my life made the difference that I, that God wanted it to make? Who do people—who do you say that I am? The first part of the question is easier to answer than the second. Relating what others are saying and believing is one thing, but then to speak, out loud, what is in our own hearts is quite another thing! Who is Jesusfor us?
In preparation for this homily, I spent time with a small volume by Jesuit, William Barry, entitled, Who Do You Say I Am?–Meeting the Historical Jesus in Prayer. His thesis is basically that the more that we can get into the humanity of Jesus—what was he thinking and feeling in any given situation, the more we will come to understand, know and love this human brother who lived so perfectly as well, the divinity of God.
An added tool that Barry used in this book of almost twenty years ago to help himself and us to answer Jesus’ question is to pray and to have his readers pray before each section of text asking Jesus to help us know what was in his heart and mind at this point so as to grow closer to him and love him more.
I think most of us would agree that the relationships that we truly invest in during our lifetimes with people we say we have come to know and respect, eventually, to love, are the ones that mean the most to us. Barry is suggesting just this—not that we settle for simply saying, “We take it all on faith,” as he did for much of his life, as many of us probably did, and perhaps, still do. He is asking us to truly engage the Scriptures—read them and re-read them—let them soak in, challenge us on a purely, human level. What was on Jesus’ heart, in his mind when he asked his closest friends on this earth to tell him who they believed him to be?
I began this homily with my own quest asking what my life means to me now at 65+ years having lived the greater portion of it, reflecting on what has been and what will yet be and then relating the questions to Jesus’ search at the end of his life. We find often that the Spirit works through our purely human questions and gives guidance, often through others, about the path we have chosen, the way we should go.
In today’s gospel the Spirit encourages Peter, in his usual impetuousness to affirm Jesus’ mission among them—“You are the Messiah!” Some texts say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Messiah means Christ, the anointed One—the One we have expected for so long. Now we know that Peter is being prompted by the Spirit because of his statement later on in this same gospel basically asking Jesus not to continue in his mission of being the messiah if it means his death—he clearly didn’t know what he was saying in his proclamation of faith earlier—to be the messiah carries with it, suffering. Even our first reading from Isaiah lets us know what the messiah will have to undergo. Peter, as well as most people living in Jesus’ time romantically thought of the messiah as one who would come to rescue and save them from all their foes.
On some level Jesus must have believed this of himself—that he was the messiah; at the very least, he was aware that God, his Abba had called him to a special mission. But Jesus, like us, was human, complete with doubts when he was tired and frustrated with the day in and day out struggles of leading a sometimes, obstinate people. We think of another time in Scripture when Jesus wept over Jerusalem, that for all his years among them, his teaching, preaching, the gift of his very life for them; they still didn’t get it.
It is good for us to remember that Jesus’ life was a series of radical choices that were very counter-culture for his time. He apparently chose not to marry, something that would have set him apart from his peers, even brought ridicule from family and friends. Scholars, such as John Meier in his seminal work, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus say that Jesus believed the end times to be very close, so to take a wife and have children, would not have made sense to him with that frame of mind. But even so, how often did he perhaps wish to be purely human and enjoy the companionship and love of a wife and the children the two of them would create?
Jesus also made the decision to leave home and family, another radical choice for his time and culture as family was considered so important—a sign really of one’s place on earth. And then came his teachings that were really geared toward society taking care of the least among us—a position that challenged the powers of his time about not doing their part to alleviate the suffering.
So friends, I believe we should come to Jesus’ question here to his first followers, to us, with a full mind and heart geared at coming to understand him as best we can, in his full humanity, because it is there that we will better be able to know and love him in his divinity. We are all, as someone wise once said, “Divine creatures here, having a human experience.” I believe we can best understand our brother Jesus if we stay rooted in the gift of our God-given humanity and like Jesus, strive to live this existence to the fullest uplifting the divine nature that we all possess through not faith, but action as James teaches today. And then answering Jesus’ question becomes easier and loving him a most assured end result.