Sermon: Who are You?
Who, are, you? A few years ago, I saw a preview of a new high school theology of the body course – what we use to teach the truth of human sexuality. It started with this dramatic question: “Who are you?” Because it’s addressed to teens in 2021, I don’t think it was referencing the policeman who woke up Pete Townsend in a Soho doorway, but nevertheless, an interesting bridge seemed to be created across the generations – “Who are you?”
This is the big question that defines modern life. “Who are you?” The existential search, the meaning of one’s own life. “Not what’s your name, or what you’re good at, but who are you?” It echoes the words of the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Who are you? Only you can say.
This all-defining question, “Who are you?”, the contemporary world’s obsession, is quite different than the one asked by Christ of the Apostles today – “Who do people say that I am?” And here we have the crux of the whole problem of identity in the contemporary world – we start with the wrong question.
We could wonder why Peter gets it so wrong – just after his amazing confession of faith, he denies God’s plan in the Savior’s prediction of His passion. Peter suffers from the same illness as us – he starts with himself: his hopes, his desires, and his plans for the future, and not with the Lord.
We tend to think of religion as an essentially moral enterprise – that it’s about knowing the right thing to do and having the courage to do it. That’s not really true. Before doing, what’s most important is being – faith is existential before it’s moral. In simpler terms, it’s about who we are before what we do. Which means that it’s actually our faith that is able to answer the most important question for contemporary men and women: “Who are you?”
Faith, then, the kind of bold faith confessed by Peter today, proposes a radical reorientation not only of our behavior, but of the basic questions of life. Not “Who are you?” but Christ Himself who puts the question, “Who am I?” or, “Who is He?” with a capital “H.”
To ask Peter and the Apostles this question, Christ takes them all the way to Caesarea Philippi, 30 miles by foot out of the wayin their journey. It is a pagan region devoted to the worship of the fertility god, Pan, before whose image devotees of the idol performed lewd and obscene acts we need not describe here. And this is no throw-away moment of Christ’s public ministry. It is the absolutely critical pivotal point, turning from the teaching and miracles in Galilee to the journey to Jerusalem, where He will give His life for us.
Christ, then, picks this unlikely place to elicit Peter’s confession of faith for a serious reason. He wants the Apostles to confess faith in Him where it is most difficult and most unlikely, amidst a culture that rejects his prescriptions of self-denial and sacrifice in favor of easy gratification of the basest desires. While everyone around them asks themselves, “What do you want to be happy?” He asks them, “Who do you, say that I am?”
Ten years ago, I sat across the table from an inquisitive and extremely bright young man who came from a non-Catholic family but had attended Catholic schools. For years, he had heard his teachers expound on Catholic doctrine and claim as true the most absurd and unlikely things in the world – that a good and loving God created the world, that the same very God had become man and shared the human condition, that suffering could bring joy. And that to access that supreme joy a very different kind of life had to be adopted. So he asked his classmates, nominally Catholics – Did they actually believe this crazy stuff? Half-hearted replies, at best, were all he received.
But there we sat, talking about I really don’t remember what, when it hit him – this guy actually believes all this crazy stuff. Not just, he believes that the Catholic Church teaches it – he might actually believe it himself. And so he asked me, “Do you actually believe all this stuff?” And I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Unqualifiedly, yes. I believe every single bit of it.”
That was the moment my friend Gordon decided that he wanted to be Catholic. He was only sixteen, so it still took a while, but two years ago, finishing a master’s in philosophy at Oxford university, experiencing the absolute best of what the intellectual secular world has to offer, we were talking again about how he could commit his life to that faith that God had inspired in him through my witness and others’ years before. A few months later I was present as another priest asked him, “Do you believe all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God?” and he responded “I do believe.” I couldn’t help but see an echo of St. Peter in that moment: “But who do you say that I am.” “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.”
Perhaps it was a particular poetic justice that Gordon asked me that fateful question, “Do you really believe this stuff?” in the city hallowed by the pouring of the blood of the one who answered the most important question of all – “Who do you say that I am?” But the sad part, is that so many other Catholics could have had the chance. All the fellow students at Catholic school, teachers, professors, parents, coaches, etc. etc. etc. My brothers and sisters, the world is starving for your witness! How many coworkers, how many classmates, how many family members, how many people sitting next to you right now, are secretly asking themselves, “Does anyone really believe this stuff?” For them too, you could be the one called to courageously answer the question of Jesus Christ, really and truly present in our very midst today – “But who do you say that I am?”
These two questions, “Who are you?” and “Who do you say that I am?” – they are the great questions of today and every age. But we will never find a true answer to the former without finding an answer to the latter. We will never know who we are until we know who He is. This isn’t just abstract philosophizing. We were made by the one true God in the image of His only Son.
To boldly confess who He is, and to believe that who we are can never be understood until we first understand who we are in Him is not easy. This is why He tell us today, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” To take up a cross doesn’t just mean to put up with some slight unpleasantness from time to time. To Christ’s disciples 2000 years ago, it meant the horrible and torturous death given to the absolute worst of criminals.
But to those willing to confess Him amidst the shamefulness of Caesarea Philippi or Elkhart County, Indiana, Christ makes incredible promises, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” Whatever disgrace might be heaped upon those who confess Christ, a promise of hope prevails. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us today, “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”
Christ tells Peter, to get behind him. He’s not just pushing his out of the way. To be behind Christ is to follow Him, to go where He is going. It means that this journey is never alone. His harsh words are not a rejection of Peter’s love, devotion, and concern, but an invitation to understand himself in the light of knowing who Jesus is, to discover his own identity in the adventure of being a disciple of Jesus.
A couple months ago, I was able to visit my friend Gordon again, and he reminded me of my willingness to affirm the Catholic faith that inspired his own conversion. “Well,” I told him, “I am still crazy enough to believe all of this, and I hope you are too.” “Yeah,” he responded, “it’s contagious.”
You might not have the force of great arguments, or eloquent speech. That’s okay. Once we know Him, everything else falls into place. If you want to know the answer to that vexing question: “Who are you?”, all Christ wants from today is a simple answer to the most important question of all, “Who do you say that I am?”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXIV Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXI