June 2004

Who do you say you are? ©

Joy is one of the most complex and difficult-to-define human emotions. Its quality is particularly elusive when we speak of spiritual joy.

It’s easy to speak of joy as the delight that we feel when we are blessed with sights and experiences that are manifestly pleasant. But it’s a lot tougher to get in touch with joy when we’re faced with suffering. Yet it’s precisely this grace – the ability to walk in the light of God’s wisdom despite the darkness that surrounds us – that is such a marvel.

To gain a deeper appreciation of how we gain spiritual joy, let’s take a closer look at Luke’s gospel.

After asking his disciples, Who do the crowds say that I am, Jesus becomes more personal and direct. He asks them, But who to you say that I am? For us, who presumably already believe and understand that Jesus is the chosen one, the Messiah of God, the question “who do you say that I am” also goes to the heart of our own personal spirituality or relationship with God. For instance, some would call him rabbi (a teacher); others King of Kings (Lord of all the created world). Yet others, the Son of Man (the revelation of the true promise of human life). Some would focus on Christ crucified while others would call him the bridegroom of the soul. Some would call him Prince of Peace; others the teacher of common sense or the poet of the spirit. And yet others, the great liberator.

Who do you say that Jesus is? None of these names are wrong. Each reveals a marvelous aspect of the Christian reality. Yet Jesus is much more than any one of these. It is a fact of human consciousness that we cannot grasp the fullness of something as vast as the divine nature of Jesus, who was both God and man. So when we close our eyes, we see a portrait of our Redeemer, which is particular in nature but also, at least to some degree, peculiar to each one of us. That is in part the work of the Holy Spirit who knows what aspect of God’s nature needs to be revealed to us at a moment in time.

All spirituality is about relationship with God, and a wholesome relationship has a loving purpose. Because spirituality is about relationship, in asking, “Who do you say that I am”, Jesus was also asking, “Who do you say is a disciple of mine?” Truly, he invites us also to reflect on what it means for us to follow in the footsteps of our master. Part of the answer is unique to each one of us and is a reflection of how we image Christ, …who we say that he is. But there are also some foundational and universal things that can be said about Christian discipleship.

Here, Jesus presents perhaps the most basic one of all: If any want to become my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. To be a disciple, in other words, a person must be prepared to set aside his or her own selfish desires, and then follow with the willingness to confront whatever obstacles might be found along the way.

Those who will not do this – those who are preoccupied by their own selfish desires – will both fall away from following the Lord who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, as well as from the achievement of their own desires. For without God, we can do nothing, not even please ourselves: We stand lifeless as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Ps.63)

We are urged to set aside our narrow perception of reality, and to rise above that in-turned part of us that must die in order that the light of God’s Truth might shine and guide our fearful steps: Those who lose their life for the sake of the kingdom will save it.

Deep down, we know this. As the psalmist continues, My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God… beholding your power and glory. At baptism and confirmation, we are given the grace to understand that by losing the life of our ego, we gain the life of Christ in union with the Father, and with their Holy Spirit. Deep down, we believe that our soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips.

The statement about losing our life in order to gain it, which only on the surface appears as a contradiction, is filled with wisdom and is the key to unlocking the mystery of all Christ’s teaching.
We all agree on where we want to go, but – in describing discipleship – Jesus confronts us to a bitter choice about the path that we must follow. It is a sometimes-wrenching choice between our way and his Way.

The prediction Jesus makes about his passion and death serves to underscore the difficulty of this choice. He says, The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

Why does this prediction occur between Jesus asking who people think he is and what it takes to be a disciple? Simply because to be a disciple is to follow the master in good times and bad. This is nothing more or less that to face reality, and to avoid escaping into the humanly constructed world of illusion when something threatens to overwhelm us but rather to say in trust with Jesus: Not my will but yours.

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to understand that Christianity is not a spectator sport. It requires that we seek the guidance of Scripture and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in order to get on the field of human and sacred reality as fit and active players of Christ’s team. This message is not easy even once you do understand it. Initially at least, Peter found it very off-putting. In Mark’s Gospel, we find Peter resisting the idea that salvation brings its share of cuts and bruises. It is a sometimes-rough contact sport: After Jesus began to teach that the Son of Man must suffer greatly, we are told that Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. This means that Peter could not accept that the road of liberation that leads through the dry and weary land is riddled with challenges and obstacles, some unpleasant and some downright dangerous. So, Jesus retorts swiftly and sternly. He sees the agent who would hold us back on this journey through the darkness into the Light. Mark tells us: At this (Jesus) turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said: Get behind me Satan. Then he delivers the line that explains it all: You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do. Indeed, Jesus invites us to die to our own understanding so that we can live according to his divine Wisdom, which he offers us freely.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t refer to this exchange, but the conclusion is the same: Christ’s Way of Truth that leads to eternal Life calls for self-denial, not denial of truth. It calls for the will to live fully and authentically in the naked Light of Truth, not by hiding behind wealth and power. It calls for the will to love by the Light of Christ’s example.

In Jesus, not only do we find help to do this, but also we find true joy. Why is that? Because to live truthfully is to be truly alive. Truth-seeking leads to increased awareness of reality and, most particularly, the reality of our total dependence on God for all that is good. And it is this new awareness, discovered as a brilliant light within the darkness itself, that fills us with joy and reveals to our heart the fullness of God’s mercy and his unfathomable love for us.

He rescues us because he loves us with passion, and shares with us his own life. In the Spirit of Christ, we have true life. Life in Christ is real and everlasting. It is neither a state of fantasy nor of self-imposed misery, as the world would have us believe. Nor is the life we gain in Christ mere existence. In the shadow of the wings of (that Dove who is Truth and Love), I sing for joy, because I know that God’s right hand, which is Christ, holds me up.

That’s why Paul would tell the Galatians, you are no longer your former selves, bound by fearful egos. You are no longer of your former nationality or gender for you were baptized into Christ and have now clothed yourself with Christ. That’s the essence of Luke’s reference to the central condition of discipleship. The message for us who aspire to be true disciples of Christ is this: We are urged, in the strongest terms possible, to shed the clothing of self-possessed sinners and to cloth ourselves simply with Christ. We were made in the image of God, as we read in the Book of Genesis, in order that we act in the image of the Christ.

The real purpose of this passage, therefore, is to dramatically oppose two states: one that Jesus tells us must die in order for the other to live. It is an invitation to let go of the small but familiar environment of our fear-ridden world so that we might freely grab hold of a huge prize of great value… a fuller life of infinite possibilities in which Christ-centred hope replaces human power and Divine Love replaces material wealth.

To understand this passage is to understand the closing words of St. Francis’ marvellous Prayer of Peace, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

This is not just the life that we are promised after our earthly lives are complete. It is also the fulfilment of the promise Jesus made when he told his followers that he came so that we might have life and have it abundantly. The cross he invites us to take up is not an instrument of punishment. It is a grace …a window onto reality. It is a golden gate that leads to Perfect Joy in the realm of true freedom.

Who do you say you are? If you answer a disciple of Christ, then his Joy is yours. Walk in the warmth of his love and come to know his perfect Joy.