Our Bible reading today from the Gospel of Matthew suggests that Jesus was taking a step-back moment in his life and ministry. A pause. A time of evaluation.
He had been traveling with the disciples. Teaching. Listening. Reaching out to people. A divine energy was being released into the world through him. An energy that included passion for justice. Healing and compassion for all people. Acceptance for the unacceptable. Yes, something special was happening in the life of Jesus. Yet even when good things are happening, it's important, if not essential, to step back every now and then ask: What is really happening? Where have I been? Where do I want to go? What is my life all about?
In a similar way, Jesus begins asking the disciples step-back questions. He asks: "What are people saying about me?" It's a good question. The disciples begin rattling off the results of the most recent public opinion poll: "A certain percentage of people say that you are John the Baptist, or at least like John the Baptist. And some think you're the second coming of the great prophet Elijah. And still others believe you're stern and austere like Jeremiah or one of the great prophets from our tradition. In other words, Jesus, people are beginning to put you on the Mount Rushmore of Jewish prophets! You're really making a name for yourself. You're really going places, Jesus. Isn't that fantastic?"
How easy it would have been to stop there. Jesus was trending and going viral and lighting up social media in his first-century world. It all looked so positive. What more could he have wanted?
Yet, Jesus wasn't taking a poll. Jesus was trying to take the disciples to a deeper place. And that's why he turned to them and asked a more penetrating question. He said: "But who do you say that I am?"
That's when Peter, always impetuous, always ready with a quick answer, that's when Peter said: "You are the Messiah / the Christ / the Son of the living God."
And in a way he was right. The words were right. But then Jesus asks him to tell no one. Why? Why does Jesus silence a perfectly good answer?
Well, it's a puzzle, to be sure, but I think it suggests that you can say the right theological words, but that doesn't guarantee you have the right theological content, because after you say the words, you then have to understand the meaning of them. When it comes to faith, meaning is everything.
What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Christ?
More and more what makes sense to me is this: Christ is not just a person. And it's not just a title. And it's certainly not the last name of Jesus. No. Christ is a word that names the divine energy that was released into the world through the life of Jesus. Just as stars explode and new planets are formed, so in the life of Jesus a certain kind of Christ energy was constellated and released into the world, and this energy is still changing the people. This is nothing less than the energy or presence of God. Compassion exploded into the world through the life of Jesus. Unconditional love and inexhaustible grace was released into the world through the life of Jesus. Creative, transforming and inspiring goodness was released into the world through the life of Jesus. So much so that I like to think of Jesus as a Christ-Burst--a burst of God energy that continues to shape the world one heart, one person, and one community at a time.
Anyone can say Jesus is the Christ. That's easy. The words are easy. But can you find the energy? It's the energy of Christ that matters most. I thought about this not too long ago when I read a story about a woman who was alone. Very ill. And she was at home dying of AIDS. It would be hard to overstate how depressed and discouraged she was feeling. A friend was so concerned that she called a priest to come by and visit the woman. I can tell you from personal experience that it doesn't always work so well when somebody calls a minister to visit someone else, but in this case it actually did work.
The woman candidly told the priest: "Look, I've made such a mess of my life. I've made so many mistakes. How could God ever forgive me?"
The priest listened. He said to her, "God can forgive anyone. Anytime. We just have to trust it. Receive it. Let it come close to us."
The woman said, "I think I'm beyond believing it."
At that very moment the priest happened to notice that on the woman's bedroom dresser was a beautiful picture of a young girl. She looked to be, maybe, 12 years old. He asked the woman, "Who is that little girl in the picture?"
And for the first time in the conversation the woman smiled. She said, "Oh, that's my daughter. She's the only beautiful thing I have left in my life."
The priest said, "And if your daughter made some mistakes and did some things that were wrong and was hurting and broken, wouldn't you forgive her, wouldn't you come close to her and still love her? Wouldn't you still want her to be in your life?"
The woman, whispering now, the woman said: "Yes. Yes. Yes, of course."
And then that priest made a wonderfully astute theological connection. He said, "I want you to know that God has a picture of you on God's dresser. And God still loves you. And you are not alone."
That is Christ energy. Every time we treat another person with dignity and respect and every time we bring a little compassion to another human being, especially a human being that is hurting and broken, and every time we offer love as a way of life, we bring Christ to others, and the great Christ-burst that started centuries ago continues in our time and in our place.
The Italian writer Ignazio Silone has a line in one of his books that goes like this: "If we treat one another, in the same way that Jesus treated people, it will be as if Jesus never left this world." I think it is so true.
Thinking about Christ as creative, transforming, inspiring energy cuts in two different directions for those of us who profess Christian faith. On the one hand, it is a gift we receive, and I might also add that it's a gift that all of us need. Because we are all broken by the challenges of life. We're lonely. Or we're insecure. Or we're anxious. We're hurt or we're angry or we're bitter. Yet, to believe in the great bursting energy of Christ is to believe that love is at the heart of life. And so is grace. And so is forgiveness. And so is kindness. And we are all desperate for it. Every one of us.
Yes, we receive Christ energy, but we are also called to share that energy with others. And while I know some people like to equate "sharing Christ" with talking about Christ or quoting the Bible or trying to convert someone to Christianity, I'm more and more of the persuasion that we share Christ by doing Christ things in this world. That is to say, we find ways that are right for us to release Christ into the universe.
There's an often-told Jewish tale about a rabbi asking his students how they can tell a new day has dawned upon the earth. One crafty student said, "Well, you can tell it is a new day when there is enough light to see the difference between an apple tree and a pear tree." It was a good answer but not the right answer. Another student said, "Rabbi, you can tell it's a new day when you can look down the road and tell whether or not the animal up ahead is a fox or a dog." Again, a good answer but not the right answer. The rabbi then looked at his students, paused for a long time, and finally he said: "It's a new day when there is enough light that allows you to see the face of another human being, and looking upon that face, you see your brother or sister. Until that happens . . . it is still night."
And for the purposes of today's message I might tweak it just a bit and simply offer: "It's a new day every time I can see the face of Christ in another human being." In the homeless man I pass each morning in Los Angeles. In the troubled church member I see every Sunday. In the perplexing family member I don't really understand. The day we see Christ in others is the day a new day has dawned.
To say Jesus is the Christ the Son of God is so easy. But to discover the energy--to receive it and share it--that's really what it's all about.
I think the writer Thomas Merton was onto something years ago when he said that Jesus was a like a great magnifying glass, and through him the light of God came to the world in a concentrated and beautiful way; and when we place our dry and brittle lives under that light, the spirit of each person comes ablaze with newness. To me that is the power of Jesus Christ--divine light, divine energy and divine love that still combusts within the complexity of the human heart. To know that energy and to share it with others is everything. Amen.
Let us pray. Everlasting God, we believe that the energy of Jesus is still radiating in our world and that a Christ burst happens every time we love our neighbor, every time we bring compassion to another human being, every time we offer forgiveness and hope to a fellow traveler. May Christ become more than a person of the past. May he become our living reality--ever-fresh, ever-real, ever-shining in your world. Amen.