Sometimes it’s a matter of asking the right question. Einstein claimed that the theory of relativity developed because he asked, “What would it be like to ride on a beam of light?” The ancient Rabbi Hillel inspired modern-day politicians as diverse as Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan with the question: “If not us, then who? If not now, when?” And, of course, probably the most important question posed in any individual’s life: Will you marry me? Jesus poses two questions to his disciples today. The first, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” we could answer very easily. There have been, over the past two thousand years, some very definite things that the crowded history of Christianity has said about Jesus. We summarize them in the Creed. Jesus is the Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, God from God, Light from Light, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, Incarnate of the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, he suffered, died, rose, ascended and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Good answer. But Jesus doesn’t stop the questioning there. It is simply not enough to know what other people say about Jesus. WE have to answer a much more personal question. So Jesus goes on to ask the right question, the important question, the vital question, a question of life and death: “who do you say that I am?”
There isn’t any right or wrong answer to that question. It is, after all, addressed to each one of us as individuals. “Who do YOU say?” And, probably, the answer has shifted over the course of our lives as we have had different experiences. But answering that question is a matter of life and death since it determines the shape of our existence in this world and in the life to come. During our prayer this week each one of us should answer that question for ourselves. Let me share with you one man’s reflection on how he would answer “Who do you say that I am?”
Let me start with the slaughter of eight good people at a Bible study in Mother Bethel AME church in Charleston. Or I could start with the killing of forty-nine innocent people in Orlando. Or, closer to home, I could start with the murder of an unintended bystander coming out of Starbucks on 35th and State. Let’s add racism, patriarchy and crime to the mix. And let’s also include such natural occurrences as birth defects, cancer, weather disasters. The point is that there is so much undeserved suffering in this world. Things are not fair. We can’t figure out why this stuff keeps happening. So when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” I think of Jesus condemned by Pilate. I think of Jesus carrying his cross up Calvary’s Hill. I think of Jesus’ torn and broken body being placed in the arms of his grieving mother. A whole boat-load of undeserved suffering there. But I also remember that after three days Jesus rose in triumph, restored hope among his despairing disciples and ascended into glory as Our Lord. So my answer to his question: Jesus, you are the one who shows me that God makes a way out of no way. You are the one who demonstrates that God never fails. You teach me that Good Friday will pass and Easter Sunday is coming. Jesus, for me you are the promise that in God’s time all will be well, all manner of things will be well.
But that is not the only answer I give to the question. Every day when I go to work and I hear Jesus ask “Who do you say I am?” and I answer, “You are standing in line at the food pantry. You are the panhandler as I get off of the bus downtown. You are the person in bed when I visit the hospital.” I say this because echoing in the back of my mind is the parable where he said, “When I was hungry you fed me. When I was naked you clothed me. When I was sick and imprisoned you visited me. Whatsoever you do to the least, that you do unto me.” Since that is so, I realize that all of these people out there have a claim on me and I have a stake in them. The way I use my time, the things I do with my money, the decisions I make during an election all have to reflect the fact that I keep bumping into Jesus every day in the wounded parts of the Body of Christ.
One more answer arises to Jesus’ question: who do you say that I am? When I look in the mirror in the morning I recognize the family resemblance. Like Jesus, I am a child of God. He is my elder brother. St. Paul says that through baptism I belong to Christ, I have clothed myself with Christ. “It is now no longer I that live but Christ lives in me.” So who do I say Jesus is? The man in the mirror. Since that is so, I must go with Jesus into Gethsemane. I add my prayer to his. Father, if it is possible let’s try Plan B. Let this cup pass me by. But let it be as you would have it, not as I. Who do I say Jesus is? The one who helps me to trust that God’s plan for me is better than my plan, that God’s will for my life – even though it involves denying myself and taking up my cross daily — is exactly what I need for a happy and healthy existence.
Of course there is another vital question that Jesus asked besides “Who do you say that I am?” This question occurs in St. John’s Gospel. After some of Jesus’ followers get their knickers in a twist over the teaching of Our Lord about the Eucharist they depart from his company. No doubt with a heavy heart he turned to the Twelve, to his chosen ones, and asked, “What about you? Will you also leave?” To which Simon Peter, always Johnny on the spot responded: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And that, Church, is the right answer.