Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. The Golan Heights is a region of land between Syria and Northern Israel. There is a large UN peacekeeping base there where many Irish members of the Defense Forces have served over the years, keeping the peace between Syria and Israel. In Jesus’ time, it was known as the region of Caesarea Philippi where today’s Gospel is situated. At the time of Christ, it was pagan territory, and it was here that Jesus brought his disciples to ask them the crucial question – ‘Who do you say I am?’ What they answered to this question would change everything. Our answer to this same question also changes everything. So then, what about us? Who is Jesus Christ for me?
For us Christians in modern Ireland, we find ourselves in a culture that is more secular and more plural compared to say fifty years ago. The surrounding culture is less supportive of a faith outlook of life than it used to be. God is pushed more to the side or bracketed out of life altogether. He is often missing but not missed. Yet other false gods have taken his place; other attachments, distractions, compensations and even addictions. Ireland has also become more plural – there are people of all faiths and none with Catholic Christianity being one of many options and choices on offer.
Given this changed landscape, it could be said that we as a Church have also been led away from the comfort zone of fifty years ago when it was easier to be Christian. We have been led to a place that is less supportive and where our faith is tested and questioned. Like Caesarea Philippi, it is here in this new place that Jesus asks us to take full responsibility for our faith and to respond honestly to that piercing question: ‘Who do you say I am?’
So then, who is Jesus Christ for me and for you? Is he a figure from the distant past with little relevance for today? Is he one spiritual or religious guru among many, a great moral teacher with good things to say but equal to the Buddha or Mohammed? Or is he who he said he was, the Son of the living God, unlike anyone else in history who has made extraordinary claims which are either true or expose him as a lying fraud. Again, the question presses upon us - who do we say he is? What is our response?
Today, we are invited once again to make the response of Peter our own: ‘You are the Christ the Son of the living God’. We are called once again to take responsibility for our faith and to become intentional disciples of Jesus who believe his word and live as he asked. We are called to believe in Him as both human and divine, not because others have told us so but because it’s true.
Today, all of us are invited to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ and faith in him. To us and to our world he offers the healing and forgiveness we need. He offers community to those who feel alone and he sets us free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. He offers the world justice, peace and shows us the way to understanding. In the sacraments and through his Word, he offers us an intimacy with himself that changes us to become more like himself and more perfect in love.
That is why the question ‘Who do you say I am?’ is so important and yet so scary because the answer you give will change you. Jesus brought his disciples away from home to ask them this question. Today, as the Church is pushed more to the margins of society, we too are being asked the same question: ‘Now, in this new time and in this new place, you, who do you say I am?’; ‘Do you still believe in me?’
I conclude with the words of C.S. Lewis, the former convert from atheism, who warns us and yet excites us about the implications of answering with Peter: ‘You are the Christ the Son of the living God’. Lewis writes: ‘It is not about us improving but being changed into a ‘little Christ’ - a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with energy, joy and wisdom…This process will be long and in parts painful but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said’ (Mere Christianity).