In today's reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus asks the disciples two questions, questions that still have significance for us today.
The first question that Jesus posed to the disciples was, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" And they answered, "John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen." Now none of these descriptions of Jesus was hostile. Their answers showed that, unlike the religious leaders, the crowds, the people at large, were friendly to Jesus. They were interested in him, curious about him. There was something about him that intrigued them; they continued to flock to him, to listen to him teach. They hoped to see him work miracles, and some of them did. They knew that there was something different, something special, about this man Jesus. And so they speculated about him. They wondered if John the Baptist, whom Herod had executed, had somehow come back. Or could it be Elijah? There was an ancient tradition that Elijah, who had been taken up into heaven in such a mysterious fashion, would someday return. Or perhaps, they thought, this man Jesus was one or another of the other prophets of old, miraculously arisen and returned to bring messages about God's kingdom, messages that Jesus did continue to speak about.
The people recognized at least part of the truth. They knew that Jesus had a message for them, an authentic message from God. You can't blame them if they didn't recognize the whole truth, the truth that the Apostle Peter was inspired to give when Jesus asked the next question: But who do YOU say that I am?" And Peter answered: "The Messiah of God." How did Peter know that? Was he so much smarter, so much more in tune with God than anyone else? No, he wasn't. In fact, in Matthew's version of this story, Jesus says to Peter: "...flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven."
And he "sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone." From our vantage point that always seems strange, but Jesus knew that there was much to be accomplished in the days that lay ahead. It was not until after his resurrection, until, in fact, he was promising to send the Holy Spirit, that he explained their mission to them: "...you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Samaria, and to the ends of the world." (Acts 1:8)
If Jesus asked these questions today, what would our answers be? "Who do the crowds say that I am?" What about all those people out there, the ones we come in contact with every day-at work, at the store, in our neighborhoods, even at home? What do they really think about Jesus, if indeed they think about him at all?
Many of our friends and neighbors are followers of Jesus. Many of them aren't. Some people in the modern world are a little like the crowds described by the disciples; they have a basically benign view of Jesus. They see Jesus as a great teacher, a good and wise man, one of the great religious figures of antiquity-right up there with Moses, Plato, Confucius, and the rest. There are others, sad to say, whose picture of Jesus is not even that favorable. It is not that they are hostile, as were the Jewish leaders in New Testament times, but that they are simply not interested.
Oh, probably they have heard the name, but as far as they know, Jesus has no relevance for them today. To them, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just a name-the name of a religious fanatic, perhaps, who lived long ago and far away-certainly not someone who has anything to say to the sophisticated world of the 21st century! They are bewildered by the people they see who get up and go to church on Sunday mornings; the people who cling to an antiquated superstition; the people who call themselves Christians.
So what happened to, "you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth?" What about the Baptismal Covenant, in which we promise "to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?"
In the New Testament we see that Jesus and the disciples met with great opposition. Throughout history, and still today in some parts of the world, the followers of Jesus meet with not only opposition but with outright persecution. Countless numbers of Christians have given their lives in witness to the power of Jesus Christ.
But we don't meet with much opposition or persecution, do we? Instead, we are too often met with apathy, if indeed people even know we are followers of Jesus Christ. How can this be? What has gone wrong?
Perhaps we will find the answers to these questions if we ask ourselves yet another question, the same question that Jesus asked of the disciples: Who do you say that I am? This can perhaps be broken down into a few more questions.
The first is, "How do I really see Jesus?" What image of him comes into my mind? There are many possible answers to this; probably each of us has more than one.
Do we see Jesus as Good Shepherd, Savior, Redeemer, friend? Perhaps we think of Jesus as our Beloved, one closer to us even than spouse or child, father or mother. Jesus walks with us, he loves us, he forgives us, he helps us, he makes everything worthwhile. Jesus holds our hand, he never lets go, he is always there, he will never leave us alone. What would our life be like without Jesus?
And that question leads us to another series of questions. What difference does Jesus make in my life? What is it about my way of being and doing that would not be, could not be, if it were not for having Jesus in my life? Have I really given my life to him? Or are there areas where I am holding out, where my life is not noticeably different from the lives of those who see Jesus as an irrelevant relic of past superstition?
Who do you say that I am, Jesus asks. Who do you say that I am, not just intellectually, not just when you stand up in church on Sunday and recite the Creed, not just when you are enjoying quiet moments of prayer, not just when you are sharing with your fellow Christians. All these things are good. But there is more to being a follower of Jesus. Who do we say that Jesus is, in those places where our lives are lived? Who do we say that he is, when we are in the presence of those who don't know Jesus, those who aren't interested or even, whether we know it or not, those who might be just a little curious about Jesus? What does the way we live our lives say about who Jesus is? Is the joy, the love, the peace that we find in Jesus reflected in the way we live our lives?
See these Christians, how they love one another, it was said of the followers of Jesus in the Early Church. We should so live that it will also be said of us. Only in and through us will Jesus make himself known to those who do not know his love. Edward Schillebeeckx, the great modern Dutch theologian, wrote: "Jesus' light burns in this world only with the oil of our lives, in quite particular circumstances, in which we emanate liberating light or dim and quench this light." It is up to us.
Brothers and sisters, we gather here today in the name of Jesus. We have not come together to celebrate a belated memorial service for a good man who died a long time ago. We come to celebrate the risen Christ in our midst. May his light, the light of the world, a light to enlighten the nations, continue to shine in us. May Christ the Morning Star who knows no setting, find this light ever burning in us-he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. AMEN.