A few weeks ago, on Trinity Sunday, in my sermon I used a comparison of multiple identities of myself to illustrate that aspect of our faith: one God in three Persons. When I was delivering that sermon at Masses, I realised that some people might have read that as my stance regarding the referendum on Scottish independence – which was absolutely not the case. So strong was my feeling that I decided not to publish my sermon on the parish website. This was in order to avoid making any political declaration in the piece, which by definition has to be apolitical. It doesn’t mean that I hold no personal political views; but as my job is to be there for each and every one, regardless their own affiliations, I feel obliged to keep them extremely private.
In today’s gospel Jesus asks his disciples about the common perception of himself among the people: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ Somehow we could compare that to modern political advisors, helping politicians to understand the general mood of the public. Similarly the disciples present what they have heard: ‘Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’. I suppose the discussion was much wider than this concise description, perhaps even going beyond simple reporting, with the disciples leaning towards one opinion or another. The names recalled by the disciples were of massive cultural, religious and political significance in the Israel of the time, with emotions running high. It was like referring to Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair in the UK 2014. Somehow connecting Jesus with Elijah, or Jeremiah, or John the Baptist would be a political statement.
The disciples are abruptly surprised by another question: ‘Who do you say I am? Jesus completely changes the character of their discussion, firstly by abandoning that official title ‘the Son of Man’ used in the previous question in favour of a personal one, and – secondly – asking about their own private opinions. All of a sudden their political discussion, which we can assume to have been feverish, turns into silence. I think they realise that Jesus isn’t there for any political game and gain, and that he’s gathered them together for completely different reasons. Simon Peter’s answer: ‘You are the Son of the living God’ is a dramatic shift from their current political reality to their soul-searching.
Over the last week I was asking myself that very question about Jesus, of his significance in my everyday life, and of his influence over my decisions, choices and lifestyle. I have realised (not for the first time in my life) that it’s easy to give positive answers to theoretical, imaginary situations. But it’s much harder when reality checks in, and either available option is difficult. My illusory high spiritual standards were put to the test when a Polish-speaking priest was required for a service scheduled on my day-off. Desperate to go to the hills after missing out on so many days-off this year, I was mentally wringing my hands for a while. That was a real-life question about Jesus’ presence and influence in my life, and my response would massively affect other people.
Christianity is about making personal choices because of my beliefs, not about imposing them forcibly upon others. If a god needs to be defended by guns, swords or laws, it is indeed a powerless idol, created by its worshippers. Yes, faith can and should change society, but in an apolitical way. The decisions and choices each one of us makes, the attitudes and approaches we hone, the lifestyles we hold – all those change our society from within. To see Christian values in our society we don’t need Christian militants, imposing them on others, but we need Christians living out their faith.