17 September 2006

Who does Jesus say that you are?

24th Sunday OT: Isa 50.4-9; James 2.14-18; Mark 8.27-35
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation


Last night I walked in the common room of the priory to hear a very familiar, distinctly southern voice on the TV. Even before I made it around the couch to see his face, I knew that Fr. Aaron was watching Brother Billy Graham preach. The logo in the corner of the screen told me that this was a “Billy Graham Classic.” Br. Graham’s powder blue polyester suit and full head of brown hair told me this classic was from about 1976. I listened with the ears of a child and I heard the familiar stories of the Bible, the familiar cadences of my Baptist past, the comforting assurances of a personal meeting with Christ, and I heard again and again the signature Protestant theology of faith alone, the lone sinner coming to salvation in a moment of decision, the instantaneous clarity of one’s relationship with God accomplished in a flash of acceptance, just one heartbeat of true openness to the Father’s mercy and BAM! you’re done! At the all too familiar altar call, I watched hundreds of people stream down the aisles of the stadium to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior. And I thought to myself: “You people have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into!”

Who here wishes to lose his life? Who here wishes to deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Jesus? Who here will refuse yourself what you think you need, what you think you want, will reject all those people, all the stuff and prestige that seems so essential, reject all that in exchange for a life of sacrificial service? Who here will heft the instrument of your greatest pain and eventual death, heft it onto your shoulders and carry it to the garbage dump of your unjust execution? Who will follow Jesus?

Be careful. Be very careful. Denying yourself what you want and need, inviting suffering and death into your life, and walking on the path of Christ-like passion and righteousness is dangerous. It’s more than dangerous; it’s explosive, it’s a volatile risk, a decision reached with grace in awe and lived with ears wide open and tongue loosely freed. This is no stunt. No walk along the trimmed paths of a safely tailored wood. This is soul-shattering serious business, commitment to the brim of your deepest well, filled up and overflowing with just two words: “The Christ.” Who do you say that Jesus is? The Christ. The Anointed One of the Father. Messiah. Emmanuel. God With Us. Be careful. Be very careful. Risk nothing on a vain word, a futile gesture. Risk nothing on a pretense. Risk nothing on a drama, a skit, a made-for-TV moment of tears. We’re not playing at Church here! But please, risk everything, all things, on a steadfast truth, a faithful word. Risk everything answering that groaning longing, that bone-deep, itching desire. Rest your restless heart where Peter has rested his. With confidence, he takes his well-rewarded risk: “You are the Christ.”

Who do you say that Jesus is? Prophet. Brilliant teacher. Rabbi. Essene monk. Son of Joseph and Mary. Pacifist revolutionary. Radical social reformer. Delusional cult leader. Figment of the imagination. God. What possible difference does it make? Labels are peeled off as easily as they are slapped on. One label, two labels, three. No matter. Who he was then and who is now is largely irrelevant. Largely inconsequential to who I was, to who I am. He can be a teacher of ethics, a cultural pioneer, a non-violent demonstrator, an unwed mother, a suicidal teenager, a laid off fifty-something year old, a mad priest, a delicate child. He’s all things to all people. What does it matter who I say he is? If you do not know who he is, cannot or will not say who he is, how will you deny yourself for his sake? Whose sake? Will you take up an empty cross? Who will you follow? You must know who Jesus is and you must speak the name of Jesus so that your works may be signs of your faith. To demonstrate your faith, your works must be worked in the name of Jesus the Christ. Who do you say that Jesus is?

And perhaps more frightening than that question, is this one: when Jesus the Christ looks back at those claiming to follow him, when he looks over the crowd, all those yelling “Lord, lord!” who will he say that you are? Will he see a half-hearted wannabe or a hero of the Word? A mush-mouthed apostle or a proclaimer of the Good News? A wallower in anger and despair or a rejoicer in love and mercy? A slave to disobedience or a freed child of faith. Who will he say that you are? Who do you say that you are?

What do your works say about you? How do you demonstrate your faith? In other words, to say that you have faith, to say that Jesus is the Christ, and then fail, utterly fail to act as though you believe this, to fail to demonstrate concretely your claim to faith, this failure is death. And what a silly way to go. Do you think for a moment that our loving Father would ask us to believe in his Son for our redemption, to accept His invitation to live with Him forever, and then turn around and make it impossible or even difficult for us to do so? Everything necessary for our redemption and our growth holiness is freely given, freely infused in us for our use, just waiting for our cooperation. We are graced, gifted with all that we need to name the Christ, to deny ourselves for his sake, to carry our cross, and to walk in his ways. In other words, when he looks back at us, those following in his way, bearing our crosses, we may ask him, “Lord, who do you say that we are?” He can say, because his own suffering, death, and resurrection has made it so, he can say, “You are the Christs.”

If I were a Baptist preacher, maybe Br. Billy Graham, I would cue the choir to start “Just As I Am.” While they sang softly, I would ask all those touched by the Lord this night to come forward, to stand before the altar and ask Jesus into your life. I would urge you to accept Christ into your heart and make him your personal Lord and Savior. But since I am a Catholic priest and Dominican preacher, I will instead invite you forward to take into your bodies the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, to eat his flesh and drink his blood. To take into your life—your flesh and blood—everything that he is for us. Teacher. Savior. Brother. Master. Son of Mary. Word Made Flesh. Father and Holy Spirit. God. And then I will invite you to leave this place with his blessing to grow in holiness by serving one another, to proclaim the Good News with your tongue and with your hands, to thrive wildly in the abundance of graces that the Lord hands you, the talents He gives you to use for His greater glory.

If you know what you’re getting yourself into, walk these aisles this morning/tonight, stand up and come forward to eat and drink, and know that you stand and walk and eat and drink and serve because he is the Christ, he is the Anointed One of God, and he says to us all and to each: “You are the Christs. Follow me and do our Father’s will.”

1 comment: