Who do you say that I am

In The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde, Lord Henry famously remarked that the thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. It is better to be criticized than to be ignored.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus appears to be concerned about what people are saying about him, and he conducts a short survey among his disciples. But the question he is really interested in, is who they say that he is.  How long, I wonder, was the pause, before Peter spoke. Was it prolonged as they floundered in search of an answer, or was Peter straight in with the reply?

Peter was praised by Jesus because he spoke directly.  Later, after Peter experienced the risen Christ he could not stop talking about him. After the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter addressed the crowd with a passionate exposition of who Jesus was, and as a result, Luke remarked casually, ‘about three thousand were added to their number’ that day. Not an average day in the life of this parish I regret to say. 

Who do you say that Jesus is? Are you ever questioned about your faith? Why you are a Christian? Why you go to church? When we are asked these questions how long do we have to answer, do you think before the questioner switches off? It may be a very short time, no more than a minute or two, for us to declare why we are disciples of Jesus Christ. In his First Letter, Peter says we must always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have, but we must do this with gentleness and respect. 

Are we ready and prepared to give that answer with the directness of Peter, or will we fumble and struggle for the right words? Were we to be interviewed for a job, we might well rehearse answers to possible questions. Should we not also think through answers to possible questions of faith?

In the same passage from The Picture of Dorian Grey, Lord Henry went on to lament the detrimental effect of too much thinking on a person’s looks. ‘Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are! Except, of course, in the Church. But then in the Church they don't think. A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what he was told to say when he was a boy of eighteen, and as a natural consequence he always looks absolutely delightful.

The subject of Christ should be an endlessly fascinating subject for exposition, because to speak of Christ is to speak of God.  Those on the outside might be under the impression that the church has more to say about issues such of gender and sexuality than it has to say about Christ. Jesus must never be pushed to the sidelines.

What does a church say about Christ? What sense of Christ does a visitor pick up from this church and from us I wonder?  The other week I was at the church of St Mary Magdalene in Norwich, and their food bank collection was taken up at the offertory. You could barely see the altar for groceries! That spoke to me most clearly: Christ in this church cares about the poor.

In this church, Christ is at the centre in the tabernacle and the Mass. The priority that we attach to our Mass–attendance, regardless of what else we have going on, will perhaps say more about the importance of Christ than 100 sermons. If we make the effort to attend Mass, no matter what else is going on, and no matter where we find ourselves, that will speak loudly to others of the value we attach to Jesus.

It is a daunting thought but the whole of the Christian faith may well be judged on our own words and behaviour. We are being judged all the time, and rightly so,  ‘I don’t want to go to that church’, someone once said, ‘I’ve heard how they talk about each other.’ 

In this country there is mostly indifference to the Christian faith, but there is also increasing hostility.If we follow Lord Henry’s dictum, then hostility is better than apathy. There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about it. With regard to Christ, for us that is not an option.  There is much that each of us can say about Jesus Christ not just in what we say but in how we live out our Christian lives and relate to the world.