In today’s Gospel Jesus asks these penetrating questions: “Who do people say that I am? … But who do you say that I am?” This last is an important question. Who do you say Jesus is? Many different answers are given.
When I was a student at the Catholic University of America getting my Masters degree in theology I would often go to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is on the grounds of the Catholic University. Anybody ever been there? Across the apse in front, over the altar, is a huge mosaic depiction of Jesus Christ. Jesus is seated. He is frowning. Flames of fire shoot out from His head. His hands are raised in a kind of “touch-down” sign, looking like He is ready to slap anyone getting too close. He stares intently forward out of his deep blue eyes, framed by his flowing blond hair. His robe is slung over one shoulder, revealing powerful pecs and muscles. We used to call him “Jesus of muscle beach” because of that. He did not look very friendly, nor approachable. Indeed, a cordon of angels in long chasubles stand hand to hand in front of him blocking anyone from getting too close.
This is not a warm and fuzzy answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” But it is a strong, powerful answer. Here is a mighty Jesus who is definitely on top and in control. The immigrant community who built this shrine probably wanted a strong Jesus to show that their Catholic Jesus could take on and best the Protestant Jesus: ‘my Jesus can beat up your Jesus’ kind of thing. And that is one answer to “Who do you say I am?”
A more popular response today would be to see Jesus as the Good Shepherd, someone who lays down His life for the sheep. This is a much more approachable image of Jesus. Jesus seeks us out when we are lost, places us on His shoulders and caries us home. It is a comforting image for people who are hurting. It is just not very challenging.
I remember the surprise and delight I felt the first time I saw the image of “Jesus enjoying a good cigar.” The humanity of Jesus is emphasized in this image, and makes Jesus truly one of us, not so stuffy and foreign and other-worldly, but human, approachable, someone you could even enjoy being with and have a good time with. That is whole other way of understanding who is Jesus.
And for many of us I think Jesus is still someone convenient to have around in case of an emergency or tragedy, kind of ignored most of time, but trotted out when we experience some great difficulty or illness, to plead with and hopefully receive relief from. Jesus is kind of like a fire-extinguisher in a building: not something we pay a lot of attention to normally but we very much want there in time of need.
And there are many other answers to the question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ You may want to spend some time this week reflecting on this question, and how you answer it in different situations in your life.
In the Gospel today Jesus gives us a rather disturbing, disquieting, certainly challenging answer to this question. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
That certainly does not sound like fun. It is, in fact, quite off-putting. But Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush. Jesus does not soft-peddle this understanding of who He is. The Gospel says “He spoke this openly.”
I suspect He not only said this openly, but forcefully and insistently as well. Jesus is clearly being confrontational. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
Jesus does not make us comfortable. Does not tell us we are OK or precious. Jesus does not calm our fears. Instead He challenges us quite severely: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
I wish it were otherwise, I wish it were easier, but there it is.
The Good News in all this is that we don’t have to do this alone. He has already gone there. He has already shown the way. We follow Him. We are not alone in this journey, we are not wandering around aimlessly, but rather we follow in the path that He marked out, that Jesus has trod before us. He has done it, and Jesus assists and guides us as we follow Him. We know it can be done, and Jesus helps us to do it.
Jesus, when we meet Him, challenges us to go beyond ourselves and to become something more. Whatever your image of Jesus, do not keep Him at arms-length, but allow the Lord to draw close and to challenge you to do more, to be more: more honest, more compassionate, more chaste, more generous, more prayerful, more merciful, more loving.
In his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”, Pope Francis right away in the third paragraph challenges us: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them;
I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.”
“A personal encounter with Christ” sounds somehow mildly Protestant. But that is what the Pope is calling us to every day. Every day deepening our personal encounter with Jesus Christ. In the Gospel Jesus is asking that of us as well. “Who do you say that I am?” Who am I for you?
Open your heart to be invited and challenged by the Lord to go deeper, to grow closer to Him, to follow Him more closely, to know Him better. Go beyond your present image of Jesus, to allow Jesus to guide you to deeper, fuller, better images of Him: in short to come to know Jesus more deeply and completely.
That is the real challenge of the Gospel today. “Who do you say that I am?”