Today Jesus asks the apostles and us to answer a question whose answer will determine the course of our Christian lives. Typical of Jesus, there is a question beneath the question, “Who do you say that I am?” and that is, “What difference do I make in your lives?” This truly is the answer Jesus seeks of his apostles, followers, friends—US. Jesus, like most human beings, near the end of their lives, wants to know if his time on earth has mattered. Has anything that he has said or done really got to people? Now if we were ever looking for proof of Jesus’ humanity—here it is! I have found myself as I’m sure you have, asking as the years roll by, have I made a difference, have I done what I intended with my life—have I been a true follower of my brother, Jesus? So, I think we can understand his question.
Jesus is asking those closest to him in ministry and probably in his life too, what effect he has had on the crowds, on them, in regard to his mission in the world. When we think of our own life journeys to discover who each of us is, his question makes sense to us. We are given life, but we need to discover how to live it—what to do with the gift. It often takes many years—for some, it takes most of their lives to discover and come to terms with their place in the world.
Joan Chittister, in her monthly, Monastic Way, a daily reflection on a particular monthly theme, writes this month about the journey into the self. She qu0tes David Viscott, a psychiatrist who said, “The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The work of life is to develop it. The meaning of life is to give your gift away.” We can see this journey in Jesus’ words to his friends. One of the very poignant bits to come out of the Orlando massacre was the truth of realizing for the first time for some parents of the victims, that their child was gay.
We are each someone’s daughter or son—that is our source, our starting point. We are not our parents, but they were our beginning, and our task in life is to differentiate ourselves—choosing to be like them or not, depending on what that experience of being parented by them was for us.
When Jesus asks, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”—he is asking THE BIG question that isn’t about who his parents were or what town he came from—he is asking the question that defines each of our existences—“What difference have I made in my world?” Life events allow us moments of knowing that we have made a difference and it is good when that happens.
Our present time calls us in many ways to make a difference. The news all this week has focused on Orlando, FL and the mass shootings there in a gay night club; a place the regular inhabitants felt was a safe place for them to be, to relax, to be themselves. A news reporter this week made a statement that really struck me—basically saying that many places that we once thought safe—a school, a church, a movie theater, a night club, are no longer safe places to be.
We are living in a time that allows people regardless of their mental capabilities or radical ideas to purchase weapons to carry out these mass shootings. We had a group in Congress this week that was trying to change this through a filibuster to make those opposed finally take action. Apparently there will be a votes on two significant measures to make us all safer from gun violence this next week because of their courage to stand up and speak their truth. The weapons that many of these perpetrators of mass violence use are military-style guns that are designed, not for hunting animals, but for hunting humans and we hear the defense given for such weaponry not being outlawed, that it would be a threat to the Second Amendment to bear arms, or “guns don’t kill, people do.”
Then I think of all the people involved in this most recent shooting in Orlando, the families, friends of the slaughtered ones, but also those who lived through this most horrible experience who will relive it again and again for some time. And if that isn’t enough, lay on top of that the fact that this was not a random terrorist shooting, but a particular group of individuals that was targeted because of the way that God created them.
What are we to do? What do we feel compelled to do? We attended a prayer service at the Lutheran Campus Center on Tuesday evening and one of the most poignant parts of it was when each of the 49 names were read aloud concluding with the name of the shooter making 50 of our sisters and brothers who are no longer with us. With each name, a candle was lit in their memory—a beautiful ritual signifying that their own particular “lights” will continue to shine in the memories of all who knew and loved them.
One of the frustrating things for Jesus must have been the inability of many to get beyond the signs and wonders he showed–his eloquent and challenging words of love, justice, peace, mercy—the miracles of care for the down-trodden, the sick, the fallen, and move to the realization that these words and actions had to be from God. As Nicodemus would proclaim later, a mere human couldn’t speak so, couldn’t act so, unless God were truly with him, and in him, and as a result, with us! Jesus wanted his followers to see beyond the miracles and accept his actions as a model for what they too must say and do—what we must say and do.
In the wake of yet another mass shooting, an action that many of us believe was preventable, we wonder and are frustrated about what can be done. We must look into our hearts and respond from the answers we find there.
The people of Jesus’ time apparently thought he was another John the Baptist, another Elijah, even though Jesus wasn’t really like either of these forerunners in temperament or life style. Elijah was a fiery prophet and John the Baptist, a prophet in his own right, was a hermit who chose to live separate from people and exist on a Spartan diet. Jesus came into the center of people and he and his apostles were often guests at banquets. These people—Jesus’ neighbors, friends and acquaintances were always looking for the “Messiah” who would do battle for them against their enemies, the Romans and others.
Little did they know that Jesus would be a messiah who would wage a different, greater battle—that of modeling life that was about justice, love, mercy, goodness—challenging the powers-that-be to be people of integrity allowing those most down-trodden and afflicted in their midst, “a place at the table”—a share of the goodness of life given to each of us at birth—our true identity and heritage as children of his Abba God.
We should never doubt, any of us, that Jesus our brother, came for all of us, into a culture that didn’t welcome all to the table and he came into the midst of that injustice and said that God’s house is for all of us and that everyone is welcome. A good friend once said, “The road is wide.” Jesus’ heart and mind was big enough to see that if the synagogue wouldn’t give everyone a place, he would take the meal out to the hillside, where all were welcome.
Another poignant bit from the prayer service at Lutheran Campus Center on Tuesday evening was when Pastor Corrine shared the meaning of the altar cloth we were using that night. It was white with the outline of a body drawn across it in black with a black dot in the center of the body. The cloth was made after an encounter that Corrine had with a student who came to her and stated that she was a lesbian and wanted to know if she was welcome here, because if she wasn’t, she’d just keep moving on. Corrine answered, you are welcome and you are loved, period! End of story!
Friends, through our readings today, we come to see not only who Jesus is, but who, ultimately, we are—maybe better said—willing to become. We see in the reading from Zechariah and in the gospel from Luke the foreshadowing of the cross. Both readings point to Jesus’ ultimate crucifixion—“they will look on the one whom they have pierced; they will mourn as for an only child, and grieve as people grieve over a firstborn.” I have read commentary this week about how these 49 massacred sisters and brothers, even though most of us didn’t know them, seemed like family. We bear grief for them, sorrow for their families because we are ultimately, FAMILY! These readings have to be faced by each of us—if we will truly follow Jesus. We must be open to the cross in our lives, in our world, wherever and whenever we see it. We must take Paul’s words to the Galatians to heart—because we have been baptized into Christ—there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. All are one in our brother, Jesus, the Christ.
So, my friends, there’s no getting around it—we are one—with no differences that matter—called by our loving God to make a difference in our world—to live as Jesus did. We have a decision to make though—a question to answer. If we say that Jesus is the Christ, then our path is clear—we must, if we say that we want to follow him, walk in his footsteps, living fearlessly, doing the right for ourselves and others, even if we must face the cross. We must keep our sights on Jesus, our brother, who is our hope and who has told us, “I won’t leave you, but will be with you always.”
Yet as we sometimes experience hard things in life that we don’t really understand, we may find ourselves wondering, “Why God, why this now—why don’t you do something, why let this happen?” We wonder if that promise that Jesus would be with us always is really something we can put our faith in. And then we witness the love and care of people all around us. I’m sure as time goes on, we will continue to hear stories coming out of Orlando of how those facing their own deaths cared for and ministered to others. It is at such times that we should clearly see and have no doubt about it—our God is present, loving us into wholeness. One such moment happened in our Congress this week when the leadership called for a moment of silence for the victims in Orlando and a prophet stood up, completely “out of order” and said and I paraphrase, I will not be silent—silence is not what is needed in the wake of such violence, action is! We must remember that our God is present in the goodness of each one of us—when we act on the courage to speak the truth—our God is there!
We began today pondering Jesus’ question, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” Peter answered correctly, “You are the Messiah”—one who came to show us the way to live, to love, to die and to rise. We, as Jesus, will have made a difference if we live and enjoy the life—the gift given by our loving God, but also remember to share it with others—to be grateful for all that is given and to give that gift away by seeing to it that the least among us receive justice, mercy and love. Amen? Amen!