In the Name...
Among the fables of Aesop is one entitled “The Hunter and the Woodsman.” A hunter was out following the tracks of a lion. He asked a woodsman felling oaks in the forest if he had seen any. “Oh yes,” said the woodsman, “In fact, I can even take you to the lion's den myself.” At this, the hunter turned pale and stuttered, “No, no, thank you. It is only his tracks for which I am looking.” When it comes to God, it seems that a lot of folks are like this hunter. They profess that they stand for something, but, when the full implication of what they profess stares them in the face they rethink their priorities.
In today's Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples two questions. The first was, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" And they answered, "John the Baptist; but, others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." Now, none of these descriptions of Jesus is unflattering. On the contrary, the answers show that, unlike the religious leaders, the crowds, the people at large, were friendly to Jesus. They're interested in him, curious about him. They flock to him, to listen to him teach, to see him work miracles. And they wonder if maybe John the Baptist had not been executed, after all. Or, there was an ancient tradition that Elijah, who had been assumed into heaven, would someday return. Or, at the very least, here was a man who spoke with the authority of the prophets of old.
Their answers all tell us that the people recognized at least part of the truth about Jesus. They saw him as holy, a figure out of the Scriptures, a messenger of God. But, then, Jesus asked the second question, "Who do you say that I am?" And Peter answered, "The Messiah."
If Jesus asked us those questions today, what would we say to the first? It's a good question. What do people say about Jesus, all those people we see every day, at work, at the store, in our neighbourhoods, even at home? What do they really think about him?
Many of our friends and neighbours are active followers of Jesus. Many are not. Some are like the crowds described by the disciples. They have a basically benign view of him. They see him as a great teacher, a good and wise man, one of the outstanding religious figures of antiquity. And then there are others whose picture of Jesus is not even that developed. It's not that they're hostile, as were the scribes and Pharisees, but, they're simply not interested, one way or the other.
Oh, they've heard the name, but "Jesus Christ" is just someone who lived long ago and far away. Nothing to do with me. And they're amused or bewildered by the people who go to church and, the fact is, they're the vast majority.
It's not news to say that most Americans identify themselves as Christians, yet, only half of those say they attend worship more than six times a year. And, on a typical weekend, less than a quarter of Christian Americans are actually in a church building.
Indeed, back in Allentown, I asked the manager of a Wal-Mart if he ever staffed all his 26 checkout lanes at one time and he told me, yes, every Sunday morning.
And, here's some information from the Chief of Naval Chaplains office. Among new navy recruits - mostly teenagers, 17 to 19 years old - just about half know Jesus is called the Son of God; only a third can recite the Lord's Prayer without making a mistake; and barely one in four realize that Easter is when Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. Amazing. But, we have to keep things in perspective. Those figures were reported in 1947.
The point is that benign apathy towards Jesus is nothing new and the questions he asked the disciples have challenged every generation, including the "Greatest." But, why? Why has there been such a reluctance to respond to him? I mean, in his own time that might have been understandable, but, we know who he was, is. Well, maybe that's the problem.
Consider how the disciples reacted to what Jesus said after Peter identified him as the Messiah. He began to talk about crosses and self-denial and being killed and rising from the dead and the disciples, it says, began to draw back. In St. Matthew's telling of the story, they become so agitated that Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him flat out that this sort of talk isn't what they want to hear.
And these are the very people who have gone far above the level of the crowds. But, they find the implications of what they've discovered too much to handle. Like the Woodsman in the fable, Jesus is taking them to meet the lion when, like the Hunter, they'd rather just look at the tracks.
Perhaps, knowing who Jesus really is and what he expects of us, is the reason so many draw back. I mean, if people go to church what will they experience? A preacher telling them Jesus expects them to do something. Well? Much easier to give it a miss. Respect Jesus from a distance. Agree that he was a good man, but, for all practical purposes, join in with the crowds. Then maybe we can avoid the second question.
But, "Who do you say that I am?” doesn’t go away. Who do you say, not just when you're in church, not just in the quiet moments of prayer, not just when you are sharing with your fellow Christians. All these things are good. But, who do we say that Jesus is when we're in the presence of those who don't know him, or don’t care, or indeed, whether we know it or not, those who might just be a little curious and really want to know what we think?
The Dutch theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, wrote: "The light of Christ burns in this world only when it is fuelled with the oil of our lives". "The light of Christ burns in this world only when it is fuelled with the oil of our lives.”
In a moment, we'll recite what the Church as a community believes about Jesus in the words of the Creed. It's an official statement of corporate theology composed by scholars seventeen hundred years ago. Very academic. But, let's take a moment, to also consider what we believe as individuals and resolve that we won't draw back when the implications of that faith dawn on us.
For the time will come for us to meet the lion and, when that happens, who, indeed, will we say that he is?
In the Name...