Episode 3 of 5 in our new series, Knowing and Following Jesus.
A man was in a hurry to leave the supermarket with his shopping. Quickly, he looked for a till without a long queue. The first one was no good – it was for wheelchair users only. The next one? No, that was for “10 items or less” and he had 12. The third? “Cash only” – and he needed to use his debit card. Finally he spotted a checkout girl with no queue and apparently, no restrictions. But he wanted to make quite sure he could use this till before emptying his basket, so he looked straight at the girl and said: “You’re nothing special, are you?”
The indignant girl replied: “My mother thinks I am!”
God thinks you are someone special. If you have been baptised, then God looks at you and says “I know who you are! You belong to Jesus Christ! You are one of my children! If you stay where you belong, with Jesus, then you will inherit heaven!”
Today, Jesus has a question to ask each one of us, and it’s personal! “You! Who do you say that I am?”
St Luke is inviting each one of us to step into the shoes of St Peter and answer the question. He’s been building up to this moment for a while. On the previous page of the Gospel, you’ll find the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Not many religious leaders have the knack of filling twelve baskets with 5 loaves and 2 fish! If we haven’t got the message that Jesus is someone special, we must have been dozing. But if he is someone special, who is he?
Jesus approaches the question gently. “Who do the crowds say that I am?” He’s allowing his disciples to pass on hearsay and gossip – don’t we all love doing that? The stakes are low; all they need to do is parrot the remarks of others. And there’s no shortage of speculation in the crowd! Is Jesus the recently-executed John the Baptist, come back to life? Or the ancient prophet Elijah, who the Bible says was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire?
To the disciples, Jesus is the man they have spent the last few months following. They have seen him heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out evil spirits. They have seen something in him worth following, and he has accepted them as his trusted companions. Now Jesus is testing them to see if they have understood who he really is. Now it is time to put them on the spot. “You!” says Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?”
Oh Peter! So right and so confused at the same time! Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the Chosen One of God. Peter knows that the Hebrew Bible contains a message that one day, God will send such a person to rescue the Jewish people. Since God’s power is so clearly at work in Jesus, this must be the long-expected Messiah! What could that mean, if not a great leader who would rouse the people to expel their Roman oppressors and make Judah a free nation again?
Imagine Peter’s confusion, then, when Jesus immediately starts speaking not of a military victory, but of a painful death for himself and a life of daily difficulties for his followers. Jesus will not only fulfil the prophecies about being God’s Chosen One, but also the words of Zechariah in which a community pierces one of their own, only to be filled with sorrow for their actions. Jesus will be nailed to a cross, and the crowd will gaze upon him. Peter does not yet understand how this can be God’s chosen way to forgive the sins of all humankind.
St Luke expects that like St Peter, we will be confused. In the following pages of the Gospel, Jesus twice more insists that he is indeed to suffer a painful death – but not before he takes Peter, James and John up a mountain where they hear God’s voice declaring: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
You’ve probably heard this before. In fact, I’m getting rather bored telling the story myself. But that’s the trap. It’s one thing to know the story. It’s another thing to come eyeball-to-eyeball with Jesus demanding an answer to the question: “You!” says Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?”
In Llanelli, where I grew up, there is a chapel with an inscription on the wall saying “What Think Ye of Christ?” That chapel was on the road between my parents’ house and my grandmother’s, so I was driven past it quite often. As a child, the old-fashioned English caught my attention, and I always thought of it as the “What Think Ye of Christ? Building”! But did seeing the words ever cause me to ask what I, personally, thought of Christ? No.
In the Salvation Army Sunday School where I was sent as a child, every so often there were services where you could choose to go forward and make a personal act of commitment to Jesus. It was an “opt in” challenge. No-one was forced to go forward, but those who felt ready could do so. Did I ever opt in? No.
It was only when my grandmother died, and my dad suggested that I should say a prayer for her in private, that I was forced to make a personal decision: Did I believe there was any point praying? Did I believe Jesus was real? And if he is real, who is he? That, for me, was the day I came eyeball-to-eyeball with Jesus. That was the day I no longer needed to repeat what others said about Jesus, because I found the answer God was communicating directly to my heart.
Jesus came to tell us that the way to heaven is not like a supermarket with many checkouts. There is only one queue, and He is the one sitting at the till. He has already paid the bill, and to get a free pass we need only acknowledge him* as Someone Special – our Saviour, the Messiah, the Christ, the Holy One of God.
Your heavenly Father thinks that each one of you is someone special, and invites you, this day, to answer the one question on which your eternal life depends. It is a question too important to be left unanswered, or to rely on the answers given by others. At the checkout of your life, your soul will come eyeball-to-eyeball with Jesus, and your heart will need to know the answer when He asks: “You! Who do you say that I am?”
* Let the reader understand: I am not suggesting that the normal route to heaven is merely through a personal act of faith in Jesus. The ordinary way we should acknowledge him is through making use of the sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation. But when these routes are genuinely not possible, faith in Jesus will provide an extraordinary way to pass the checkout and enter our eternal home with God.
Acknowledgement: The joke at the start of the sermon is an anecdote which I first read in Readers’ Digest many years ago; I would give the author’s name if I could remember it.