We live in a strange world, where in a little over fifty years we have experienced more profound and rapid social change than any other generation in history. Such a thing is hard to come to terms with, but there is a vocal group here in the West whose aim is to make the Church conform itself to the world around us. I for one am unable in all conscience to accept their revisionist agenda for a simple reason. In the twelfth chapter Paul’s Letter to the Romans the apostle writes ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds’ (Rom 12:2). Paul tells the Church in Rome, and he tells us not to be like the world around us, not to bow to secular pressure, or follow their lead. Instead, the Church exists to call the world to repentance, to turn its back on the false ways of the world and to be conformed to Christ, and ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (Rom 12:1). It isn’t easy, it is challenging and demanding and costly. The Christian Faith does after all make demands on those who follow it, especially regarding what we do and how we live our lives.
One of the most important questions in the entire Bible is found in this morning’s Gospel: who do you say that Jesus is? How we answer this question can tell us a lot about our faith. It matters, in fact it is central to who and what we are as Christians.
Jesus and his disciples ventured into the District of Caesarea Philippi, an area about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. The region had tremendous religious implications. The place was littered with the temples of the Syrian gods. Here was the elaborate marble temple that had been erected by Herod the Great, father of the then-ruling Herod Antipas. Here you could worship the Roman Emperor as a God himself. You might say that the world religions were on display in this town. It was with this scene in the background that Jesus chose to ask the most crucial questions of his ministry.
Jesus looked at his disciples and in a moment of reflection said: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples begin sharing with Jesus what they have heard from the people who have been following Jesus: Some say that you are Elijah; others say John the Baptist, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. It’s always been this way. Jesus has been seen by the masses in so many different ways. But Jesus asks then asks his disciples, ‘But who do YOU say that am?’ (Mt 16:15) Peter answers ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’ (Mt 16:16) This is a big claim to make. Saying that Jesus is divine was problematic, it undermined what Jews thought about religion, and the claims made by Romans about the Emperor. It is a radical thing to say, that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Hope of Israel, who fulfils the promises in the Prophets.
Nowadays you can speak of Jesus as prophet, holy man, teacher, or spiritual leader, and few will object. But speak of Him as Son of God, Divine, of the same nature as the Father, and people will line up to express their disapproval. This is not a new phenomenon, indeed in the fourth century A.D. it looked as though the church has been taken over by Arians followers of Arius, who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. And yet, in the end, Orthodoxy won the day. But still nowadays Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and others deny Jesus’ divinity. They are WRONG: He is God, consubstantial, and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
The reason why the church repeats the words of the Nicene Creed week by week is to remind ourselves of what we believe. As Christians in worship we stand up and make a public declaration of faith, something which would once have led to our death at the hands of the state, and nowadays in some states still does.
As Christians we should not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. But as well as making this public declaration, we need to live lives which show this faith being lived out in practice.
If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God, the Messiah – the anointed one who delivers us from our sins, and who died, rose again, and sends us His Holy Spirit; then this faith should affect who we are and how we live our lives. Only if we take our faith seriously, if we take the time and make the effort to pray regularly and to read the Scriptures, to come to Mass, not because they’re nice things to do, or to be seen to do them, but because they keep as close to Jesus, can we hope to grow in faith. Only then can we become living stones, built as a temple to God’s glory, on the foundation of the church which comes to us from the apostles, believing what the church has always believed, doing what the church has always done, or continuing in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers, as St Luke puts it at the end of the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. This is how we live a Christian life, as well as living out our faith in our lives, sharing that faith with others, without being frightened or afraid, rude or triumphalist, but simply, humbly, and patiently. If it were not true, we would be the most pitiable of fools; but as it is true we have to live lives which embody that truth, in our words and in our deeds, so that we may proclaim God’s love and truth to the world, so that they may believe and may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.