21st Sunday in Ordinary Time A – August 23, 2020
In the summer of 1993 – 27 years ago when I was a relatively young priest – I traveled to Denver, Colorado, with several hundred young people from throughout our diocese for World Youth Day with now Saint John Paul II. I will admit that some of my memories of that experience are less than appealing as I recall camping out in the middle of a prairie the night before the closing mass, among other events. One thing, however, that will remain with me forever were these words shared by the Holy Father at the closing Mass. Here’s what he said and that I have remembered for all these years, “Young people – do not be ashamed of the gospel. Be proud of the gospel.”
“Do not be ashamed of the gospel.” Why would he share those words to such committed young people? Why? Because the Holy Father understood that those young men and women would be challenged every day of their lives by a world that does not always appreciate, much less live out the values of the Gospel for which Jesus gave his life. … And so are we! Regardless of our age, you know every bit as well as I that we are confronted on a daily basis by a world that challenges us set aside gospel values that on the surface might appear too cumbersome, too complicated and too out of step with society and culture.
Today’s gospel speaks to directly to this struggle. Two thousand years ago, in a world that looked very different than our own, the same tension that we experience between love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong confronted Jesus and his disciples. In the midst of the city of Caesarea Philippi, which was filled with temples dedicated to all sorts of different pagan gods, Jesus indicates his plans and hopes for the Church. During the course of his reflections, Jesus asks his disciples to give him a read of the crowds who are following after him. “Who do people say that I am?” They respond, “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah.” Then Jesus turns the tables on his followers and asks, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter offers the correct answer as he unequivocally states: “You are the Messiah – the Son of the Living God.” His confession of faith in Jesus becomes a turning point in the Lord’s ministry. From the moment Peter utters those words, Jesus focuses his efforts on preparing his disciples to lead the Church that he would establish and to proclaim – in the midst of countless obstacles and competing values – the love, mercy and forgiveness of God.
Fast forward to this gathering of disciples. What about us? Have we firmly situated our lives upon the foundations established by Peter’s profession of faith? Or perhaps more fundamentally, how would we answer the question that Jesus posed to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”
This cathedral is a safe place to be asked the question. So don’t answer it too quickly. … Think about how you might answer if the question were posed to you – to me – at work – in school – at dinner with friends – in mixed company? Is it possible that we just might be a little uncomfortable or ashamed of the gospel – as out of step with society or opposed to certain perspectives that have become normative in our land and world?
In coming to terms with who Jesus is and the values of the gospel that he proclaimed, we begin to understand who we are and what our lives must be about if we claim for ourselves the name Christian. What do we mean when we assert that we have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection?
More than we might realize, if we seek to live our lives of faith with integrity, we accept the fact that the same question Jesus poses to Peter is asked of us every day. The selfless love that we embody for the lives God gives to our care – our dedication to the cause of justice and equality – our commitment to moral and ethical standards – our determination to welcome the stranger to our workplace or neighborhood – our willingness to take the first step toward reconciliation and forgiveness – our simple acts of service and care – all of these things speak to our understanding of who Jesus in our lives and our commitment to gospel of life.
Not long ago, I came upon the results of a study that addressed the type of people who live the longest in society. The study claimed that people who have faith – who live according to a religious value system and who pray – tend to live longer. The studied noted that this particular conclusion didn’t imply perfection but determination. The results of the study pointed not simply to people who occasionally occupied seats in a church building – but to those who sought to live their lives of faith with integrity and who maintained what they consistently referred to as a relationship with God. These were the individuals who lived longer and fuller lives. Interesting.
The gospel today reminds us that while we may claim for ourselves the name Christian, that name demands that we come to know Jesus in a personal way as our brother, friend and savior. And that name will only be life giving if we seek to live with integrity the values of the same gospel for which Jesus lived and died.