Matthew 16:13-20 (21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, year a)
What kind of car do you drive? What do you do for a living? What do you study? Android or iPhone? We often ask people these questions because the answers they give (particularly about their choice of smart-phone...) tells us a lot about what kind of person they are. Though such questions are helpful, from this Sunday’s Gospel we can gleam three more important and fundamental questions. The answers we give to these three questions strike to the core of our identity and how we have chosen to live our life.
1) Who do you say Jesus is?
Jesus poses the question of His identity in the Gospel. First, the apostles explain that the people think Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. Next, Jesus challenges the apostles to tell Him who they personally believe He is. Peter alone responds with the grace-filled profession of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. In other words, Jesus is God incarnate, come to save the world. Today, who do the people say that Jesus is? Most would say He was a good man, a wise leader and a sage teacher, but stop there. Though safe, these responses do not answer the question Jesus wanted to know about His identity. Jesus was an incredibly provocative individual; He wasn't really concerned if people thought He was good, wise or caring. Jesus claimed to be God and our Savior. Like Peter, each of us needs to decide if we believe Him or not. In his famous “trilemma”, C.S. Lewis, a Christian author best known for the Narnia series, explained the choices we faced when responding to this question. As Jesus claimed to be God, we are left with three options. If Jesus knew that He was not God and yet claimed to be, that would make Him a liar and a vicious and manipulative man. If Jesus honestly thought He was God but really wasn't, that would make Him a lunatic and a very dangerous man. When we look at the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus’ behavior proves He is neither a liar nor a lunatic. C.S. Lewis argues that we are left with one final option: Jesus is exactly who He claims to be and is thus our Lord. When we believe that Jesus is Lord, we must respond by worshiping Him and putting Him at the center of our life. Liar, lunatic or Lord? Who do you say Jesus is?
2) Have you been “called out”?
After Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus talks about His Church. Believing that Jesus is Lord is not the end. When we believe this we become part of a community founded by Jesus, the Church. In the original Greek, the word for Church is ekklesia, which literally means “called out from”. The question is, called out from what? The scriptures make it clear that we have been called out from the world. Now, we know that in the world there certainly is much good. When the Bible talks about the world, however, it is referring to all the evil that exists which is in opposition to God’s plans: greed, error, violence, jealousy and jealousy. The Church, therefore, is a people who have been called out from the world, gathered and given the job of continuing the mission of Jesus to fruition. Simply asking the question, “are you Catholic?” is not enough. We can say we are a Catholic - perhaps we even go to Mass each Sunday - but this fact makes little difference in the rest of our lives. We are no different from the world. To help us consider whether we have truly been called out, it is helpful to consider this question, often asked in sermons: If being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Seriously, think about it. Imagine for a moment that it was illegal to be a follower of Jesus. One day you are dragged in front of a judge. For weeks prior to this, all your actions and words were under secret surveillance. At your trial, all the evidence is brought forward. How would the trial go? Would you be acquitted and found not guilty of being a Christian? Would you be convicted and found guilty? Would there be reasonable doubt in the matter? Have you been “called out”?
3) Are you a person of hope?
As members of the Church, the world won’t let us leave it without a fight. Outside the world we witness violence, persecution and an often discouraging response to the Church and her message. Within the Church too we see sin, scandal and division. Much of what happens both within and outside the Church, can tempt us to fall into a state of hopelessness. In the Gospel, Jesus gives us an assurance that should be a constant source of hope: “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”. Jesus is victorious. Since the Church is His Body we can be sure that it will weather all storms, whether they come from within or without. This hope is expressed in an interaction between Napoleon and Cardinal Consalvi, that is as funny as it is serious. At this time, in the early 1800’s, Napoleon and his army were sweeping across Europe, conquering country after country in an effort to dominate the globe. At the height of his power, Napoleon issued this threat to Church officials: I will destroy your Church. Hearing the threat, Cardinal Consalvi responded with what must be one of the best comebacks in history: He will never succeed. We have not managed to do it ourselves. In the Gospel, Jesus mentions a very important source of hope within the Church. The Church will be built upon Peter. As Catholics we see this as referring to the Office of Peter, also known as the papacy. The Office of Peter is a special gift of Jesus to the Church which helps us maintain unity as a community following Jesus and continuing His mission. For me personally, Pope Francis, like the popes before him, is a sign of hope. With his words and actions Pope Francis strongly reminds us that as members of the Church we are to be people of unshakable hope founded on the words of Jesus.
Socrates famously said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. To live well, we need to take the time to get to know who we really are and what we are living for. Just as asking others questions is a great way of getting to know them, asking ourselves questions is a wonderful way to get to know ourselves. Today take some time to examine your life by answering the three questions posed by today’s Gospel: 1) who do you say Jesus is?, 2) Have you been “called out”? and 3) Are you a person of hope? Let us make our lives more and more worth living.