Jesus and his disciples left for the villages round Caesarea Philippi. On the way he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say I am?’ And they told him. ‘John the Baptist,’ they said ‘others Elijah; others again, one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he asked ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter spoke up and said to him, ‘You are the Christ.’ (Mark 8:27-35 Sunday 24)
Today, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows I celebrated the funeral Mass and burial of Nora, a 77 year old parishioner whom I had never met. Before coming to the parish all my funerals were people I knew well but now it's different and I have to go looking for information, not for me to eulogize but to get a sense of who is this person who has been created in the image of God; the person who has lived this particular life.
I didn't get much information in the normal sense because every time someone began to speak of Nora they cried. Coming away after two hours with her husband and eldest grandson I knew little except that we had made a strong connection. During the funeral Mass her teenage grand-daughter stood up to read and cried; a grandson brought up the gifts with tears streaming down his face. And I became aware that I was receiving information about this woman at a deep emotional level, information that is not about words but about feeling. She inspired great love and would seem to have been very, very loveable.
When Jesus asks the question in the gospel - "who do people say I am?" - he is looking for information at one level but when he asks the disciples "who do YOU say I am?" he's looking for something else, something more intimate, more profound. He is not looking for an intellectual or a theological statement and he doesn't get one from Peter.
Peter feels very strongly about Jesus and when he gives a divinely inspired answer he does so with great feeling. Jesus is someone Peter loves and he is also much more than any person can understand or imagine. Peter also has to learn to allow Jesus to be who He is and not what Peter wants Him to be or not be.
When we are asked the question by Jesus - "who do you say I am?" - we often do two things. One is that we reduce him to our own manageable size and lose sense of His immense divinity. The other is that we tend not to have strong feeling for Him as a person. Our faith tends to be about a way of living, a creed, justice, morality and what is lacking in our Christianity is an intense, heart-felt love for the Person of Jesus. That is the real weakness in modern Christianity.
One day I spent 10 hours in Paris airport waiting for a connection to Cameroon and I went several times to the prayer area. Paris has probably the best praying facility of all the airports I have seen. There are places of worship for Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims and maybe others. In the course of the day I saw only one other person in the Catholic chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. There were always several Muslims at prayer and when it came to evening their place of prayer was packed to overflowing while ours was empty.
If there is a battle between Islam and Christianity it is at this level - not the fundamentalism of either religion but a good life-giving feeling for the person of the founder. Muslims would seem to love Mohammed much more than Christians love Jesus.
The deeply held questions that are being expressed in modern Catholicism - ordination of women, celibacy, structural reform and many others - all these issues can be tackled and even resolved but they will do nothing to save the Church if we lack Passionate love for the person of Jesus.
And the follow-on question that Jesus asks much later of Peter, a question that comes after Peter's failure, cowardice and tears - the question is "do you love me?"
These questions are worth probing and probing them makes an incredible difference to the quality of our life. During one of my periods of crisis, convinced that I was an empty, hypocritical priest, I was watching television and had my first experience of Charlie Landsborough singing "My Forever Friend". I had a very strong gut reaction and even cried because I connected with the words he was singing and realized how deeply I love Jesus, despite all my failure. It's not so much our sin that cuts us off from loving Jesus, it's more our indifference and complacency that does it.
Who do you say I am? Do you love me?
At Nora's graveside when the prayers were said, her husband sang a song that he often sang for her - it can only be described as blues-soul. What feeling! What love!