The following is the text of Deacon Pat Hessel’s homily, preached the weekend of August 22-23, 2020 at Holy Trinity Parish in Spruce Grove, AB Canada:
Jesus begins today’s Gospel asking: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” He was asking them how people viewed him. Was he worried about his image? Was he afraid that people didn’t like him? Of course not. Think about the times Jesus healed someone and then instructed them not to tell anyone. Recall the time the crowd wanted make him their king. He went off alone into the desert to pray. In today’s Gospel, after Peter’s profession of faith: “Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.” These are not the actions of someone worried about winning a popularity contest.
So why did he ask who the people said he was? Jesus is the Son of God. He is God, existing in perfect unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit for all eternity. But for a short period of time, God took on our human nature and walked the earth with us. He did that to re-establish the unity between God and humanity that existed before the fall of Adam and Eve. He did that to teach us how we were meant to live on this earth in union with God, each other, and the created world. He did that so we could share eternity in his loving embrace.
Jesus would eventually proclaim that he is the Son of God; that led directly to his death. On the night he was arrested, Caiaphas asked him if he was the Son of God. Jesus responded: “You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his robes and said: “He has uttered blasphemy. He deserves death.” Jesus wasn’t condemned to death for saying that he was the Messiah. The Messiah was expected to be a human person who would lead the Jews out of captivity. The religious authorities would probably have mocked him for claiming to be the Messiah, but they killed him for claiming to be God.
The head of no other major religion has ever claimed to be God. There are 535 million Buddhists in the world. Buddha claimed to have achieved a state of “enlightenment,” but never claimed to be God. There are 1.8 billion Muslims. Islam teaches that their founder, Muhammed, is a messenger of God, but not God. So, do you see how remarkable it was for Jesus to say that he was God.
C.S. Lewis was a Christian theologian and a popular writer. He wrote the Chronicles of Narnia. In his book Mere Christianity, he questioned how to respond to Jesus’ claim that he was God. He posed three options: (1) Jesus was a lunatic, and his claim to be God was a delusion; (2) he was a liar and a con man – trying to gain power and prestige by deceit; or (3) he truly was God. He noted that Jesus certainly didn’t act like a lunatic. He was loving, caring, and sensible. Some of his teachings were contrary to the way people lived, but neither those teachings nor the way they were presented suggest he was mentally unstable. And he was not a liar – he always spoke the truth. So, the only conclusion left was that Jesus is, as he said, God. I’ll read a brief quote from Lewis: “You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to…Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
Jesus wanted the world to know that he was God, but he had to wait for the right time and place. He avoided adulation early in his ministry, but now was the time to let his disciples know that he was God. After Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he asked: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” I think Jesus must have breathed a sigh of relief: “Yes, I think they’re getting it!”
Jesus’ divinity became even more clear when he was transfigured before Peter, James, and John (the Transfiguration occurred shortly after the incident we heard in today’s Gospel). So, was the issue resolved? Did all Christian believers understand that Jesus was truly God and truly human? Unfortunately, no. In the years following the Ascension, Christians continued to debate the question: “Who is Jesus?”
A heresy is a teaching or belief that is contrary to theological doctrine. Some of the most destructive heresies in the history of our Church arose around that very question. One such heresy was Docetism, a belief that Christ did not have a real body during his life on earth – only an apparent or phantom body. This arose from the mistaken belief that all matter was evil and only the spirit was good. So, Jesus was only spiritual – not human. This is false. Jesus has two natures – human and divine – that exist in the single person of Jesus. Adoptionism – another heresy – taught that Christ did not exist before Jesus was born. At the time Jesus was born, he was adopted by God and became divine. We know that this is not the case. A similar heresy called Arianism held that God the Father created Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world. According to the Arians, Jesus was God, but was distinct from the Father and subordinate to the Father. This heresy was condemned at the Council of Nicaea. Recall that in the Nicene Creed we say that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father. That means that, like the Father, he had no beginning. Arianism is called a non-trinitarian heresy because it denies that Christ was consubstantial with and equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit for all eternity. Versions of the Arian heresy persisted for centuries and especially in the fourth century, threatened the unity of the Church. In many places, Arian and non-Arian churches existed side-by-side.
Who is Jesus? It’s interesting to explore these heresies about the nature and person of Jesus. But does it really matter to us? Well, it should. It mattered to Jesus – that’s why he asked his disciples: “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” should have resolved the question. But I think you can understand how difficult it is to believe that God – the creator of the universe – took on our human nature, and came to live with us.
It’s important for us to know that Jesus is God, consubstantial with the Father. And that he is fully human – one person (Jesus) with two natures (human and divine). It helps us understand how he alone could repair the damaged relationship caused by sin. It puts all of his words and actions into a more powerful and urgent perspective. When we hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel, we are hearing the words of God, who created us. How could we NOT be compelled to study those words, and to live by those words? When we see Jesus’ actions, we are seeing how God lived in this world – how God interacted with people. How could we NOT be compelled to imitate those actions? How could we NOT reach out to those in need? How could we NOT turn the other cheek? How could we NOT love all people – even our enemies? Who is Jesus? I think most of us spend very little time thinking about that question. I hope you’ve been able to see that it’s a very difficult question, and that it’s been a very difficult question from the time Jesus asked Peter and the others: “But who do you say that I am?” Still it is a question that each of us who call ourselves Christians must be able to answer. And our answer should lead us to follow him ever more closely.