‘Who do others say that I am’ Jesus asked the disciples. They responded some say John the Baptist, or Elijah or one of the prophets. If Jesus had been John the Baptist he would have been limited as an instructor in moral living, as Elijah only a mystical leader though close to God, and as one of the prophets, simply a spokesman and not the second person of the Holy Trinity and therefore God.
Then he asks, ‘who do you say that I am?’ How would you answer him? Others in our day say that he is a prophet, a teacher, a radical, a politician, a myth. But who is he for us? Is he the Christ as Peter declared? It is important that we honestly answer the question for ourselves if we are to truly live as his disciples growing in holiness in anticipation of eternal life.
In the 19th century English writer Charles Lamb was debating with friends about who was the greatest literary genius of all time. The discussion came down to William Shakespeare or Jesus of Nazareth. Lamb concluded the debate by saying: “I’ll tell you the difference between these two men. If Shakespeare walked into a room, we would all rise to greet him, but if Christ came in, we would all fall down and worship him.” If we declare Jesus as God, Messiah, our Redeemer, we must worship him but we also must allow him to shape all that we do and say.
Jesus in the Gospel reading candidly identifies what declaring him as Messiah means, what Christian discipleship asks of us: denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him.
Denying ourselves means to empty ourselves of our selfish desires, fears and want to control. That is hard. Peter had a hard time. Just having declared Jesus to be the Christ, upon learning of Jesus’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem to suffer and die Peter wanted Jesus to change his travel plans. He missed the ending words “and to rise after three days”. Who can blame him: suffering, rejection, death are not what we want for anyone, for Jesus, for ourselves. And we can get stuck on what we want rather that what God expects, stuck in on ourselves rather than on whom God created us to be. Saint Mother Teresa once said, “Let Jesus use you without consulting you.”
I must admit that since I have become a bishop people say wonderful things to me about my ministry for which I am grateful (although the verdict is not unaminous). I have to watch that my head does not grow too big for my mitre. Have you noticed the red line on my forehead? I think it is there for a purpose, a reminder of the need for humility, a need for us all. I recall reading about the time when President George Herbert Walker Bush visited a nursing home. He asked a resident, ‘do you know who I am?’ ‘No,’ said the resident, ‘but ask one of the nurses and she will tell you’. Deny yourself, fill yourself with God.
Then take up your cross. To do so means sometimes to suffer ridicule or rejection or persecution as we are today when our religious liberty is threatened or when family members reject Christ and his Church, or when we suffer because some Church leaders have violated their ordination promises to live chaste lives. Think of the Christians who are being persecuted around the world. Talk about bearing a cross. Our cross may sometimes be as simple as giving of ourselves in time, treasure and talents when we would rather not. To do so though allows us with God’s grace to purify ourselves, come to terms with the darker parts of our hearts, to accept God’s will and bear our burdens well. He helps us carry them.
There is an old movie entitled “Stars in My Crown.” In it there is an elderly African American named John who had been a kind of uncle to several generations of children white and black, telling them stories, teaching them to fish, spending quality time with them. He owned a little cabin and some land where he continued to live after his wife died. Then a deposit of copper was discovered running through his property. Some of the town’s leaders offered to buy his land. He turned them down, wanting to finish his days there in his little cabin. When he refused their efforts they made threats against him. Many who had been mentored by him as youths turned on him; such is the sin of greed. At one point he was told: “if you are not off the property by sundown tomorrow we are going to come and hang you.” A local minister learned of this and went out to John’s cabin. When sundown came the executioners rode up on horseback decked out in white hoods and masks, the Ku Klux Klan, who in history protested against Catholics even in front of this Cathedral less than 100 years ago.
The minister stepped out onto the porch of the cabin with John and said: “John knows that he is going to die. He asked me to come out today and write his last will. He wants me to read it to you. He wants to give his fishing pole to Pete, because he remembers the first bass Pete caught with it. He wants to give his rifle to James because he learned to shoot with it.” Item by item he gave his possessions to those who he had nurtured as youth but now as men had come under cover of sheets to take his life. One by one the men turned away. John’s grandson watched all this and ran to his grandpa and said “what kind of will was that.” Grandpa looked at him and said, “It was the will of God, son, the will of God.” Someone said that false faith hopes that Jesus will give us what we want someday. True faith allows us to learn to love what God gives us today. Sometimes that means bearing a cross of suffering or questioning or letting go, trusting in God’s will.
Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. St. James in the 2nd reading reminds us what following him means, reaching out in charity to one another. He wrote ‘that faith without works is dead’. Professing true faith in Jesus as Messiah and as our redeemer inevitably leads to expressing that faith in acts of love and mercy. We do not earn heaven by actions, but we express our faith through actions.
Who do you say that I am? Jesus asks us today. How we answer and live that answer will make all the difference.