Strange ideas about Jesus have circulated for years. Even during his life on Earth some saw him as a political revolutionary, others simply wanted him to be a miracle-worker who would give them whatever they desired. After his ascension into Heaven people came up with all sorts of theories about who he was: that he was God appearing in human form or pretending to be human; that he was a very special human being that God adopted as his Son; or that he was a kind of demigod.
And the theories continue still. The 1970’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar presented Jesus as a mere man: young, confused and troubled. In his Da Vinci code novel thirteen years ago Dan Brown married Jesus off to Mary Magdalene and made them the ancestors of the French Kings. Many today simply consider him a great man alongside the likes of Buddha, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. But Jesus himself insisted he was the Christ, the Son of God, and for this he was crucified.
Today we heard the central passage or the climax of Saint Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus asks the Apostles and us “Who do you say I am?” But first he asks “Who do the people say I am?” Between these two questions and the two responses they illicit there is a huge gap, a great leap, a “conversion” if you like. To answer Jesus’ first question, “Who do people say I am?”, it is only necessary to look around and listen to the opinion of other people. But to answer the second question, “Who do you say I am?”, it is necessary to look inside, to listen to a different voice, to the voice that does not come from mere flesh and blood but from the Father in Heaven who speaks directly to our heart, as was the case for Simon Peter in today’s Gospel.
To answer this question is to listen to the voice that says “Jesus is my Son, God from God, Light from light, true God from true God; who become flesh and dwelt among us; true God and true man; who for our sake suffered death and was buried; who rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven; who is our saviour who intercedes for us; who is the way the truth and the life; who is the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Such faith in Jesus Christ is not the result of our own human effort or reasoning, as much as we might think and reflect upon these things. Ultimately, such faith is a gift from God. For, as Jesus says to Peter “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.” If you do not have this faith from God, then ask him for it. Tell him you dearly want such faith.
And faith does not simply provide us with information about who Jesus Christ is. Faith also entails and even demands a response, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a surrender of our whole person to him. For if Jesus truly is who he says he is, the Son of God and not just some clever man or great prophet, what response other than complete surrender comes anywhere near being satisfactory? Perhaps few of us ever achieve complete surrender, but we keep at it as best we can. And since faith involves following Jesus, it must become constantly stronger, deeper, and more mature to the extent that it leads to a closer and more intense relationship with him. Faith cannot stand still.
Returning to our Gospel passage, having received Simon Peter’s profession of faith Jesus makes Peter the rock upon whom he will build his Church. Jesus replies to Peter “So I now say to you. You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” My Church! The Church is not simply a human institution like any other, but is closely linked to God. Following Jesus in faith means walking at his side in the community of the Church. Jesus called his disciples to follow him together, with one another. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. If we try, we end up lost; we risk never truly encountering Jesus or we end up following a counterfeit Jesus, picking and choosing just the bits we like or that appeal to us!
In this Gospel passage today Jesus doesn’t seem to care too much about what the people think of him. What he really wants to know, and what he really cares about is what his disciples think of him, what you and I think of him, and he doesn’t let them or us hide behind public opinion. The force of public opinion is incredibly strong in today’s world. Jesus does not let us hide behind that opinion. He doesn’t let us say: “Oh, it’s what everybody else thinks so I’ll go along” or “Everybody else is doing it. Why shouldn’t I?” No, Jesus wants us to give voice to our own answer and to stand on our own feet!
And Jesus wants us to speak and stand together as his Church; to stand against the underworld, against the winds and tide of public opinion which would reduce him to a mere man and which would restrict the freedom of his followers to practice and live our life publicly in accordance with our conscience and faith.
And Jesus does not just want us to passively withstand these forces but to actively confront them in a loving and peaceful way. For Jesus did not say that his Church would simply hold out against the underworld but that the gates of the underworld would never hold out against his Church. So we are called not just to withstand the forces that rail against us but to get involved and confront them peacefully and lovingly. Legalising abortion and euthanasia, redefining marriage, and restricting the individual’s freedom of conscience and religion to resist and stand against these things have been and are still very real issues for us as individuals and as a Church.
We can only do this successfully when we stand together as his Church. The Church has done this successfully many times over in the past, and we are called to do so again in our own day. May the good Lord grant us hearts of courage and love.
Some ideas and phrases based on Bishop Fisher’s letter in the October 2013 Parramatta “Catholic Outlook”; Pope Benedict XVI’s homily for the 2008 World Youth Day Mass in Sydney; and Fr Cantalamessa’s 2008 Gospel Commentary for 21st Sunday of Year A.