In today’s Gospel Story (Mt 16:13-20) Jesus asked his disciples two questions: “who do people say I am?”, and “who do you say I am?”. The answers are noticeably different. The first one is about Jesus in terms of tradition, titles, etc. The second is about them knowing Jesus through their personal experience spending time with him.
When we are open to the possibility of the Spirit “speaking” to us, gospel stories can have different meanings for everybody who reads or hears them. There is a difference between what we learn studying about Jesus from other people — our parents, school, church, etc, and how we know him in our own daily living, like the difference between looking at a map of New York City and actually walking the streets and meeting the folks. We come to know Jesus by spending time with him, experiencing him in our every day living. The spending time part is very important. We need to develop some sort of prayer practice that we are faithful to every day no matter what is going on in our life at any given time. As we keep doing it we find it becomes a very important part of our every day living, keeping the rest of our day connected and focused. This isn’t a theoretical issue, but a very personal choice and experience. There are many such practices.
Many of us are content with just knowing about Jesus, and that’s okay. But for some, there is a desire for more. When we stay with just believing the right things about Jesus, he is pretty remote from our daily living, perhaps a nice idea, but not much more. The dogmas and titles don’t have much of an impact on what we do every day. There isn’t much of a real personal connection. But as we come to believe there is more, we begin a journey of growing and surprise. We begin to ask who Jesus is for us, always a worthwhile question, and we might choose to go wherever this takes us, which in itself could be a surprise.
Something worth considering is that often parents are concerned and upset when their children do not have the same religious values as they do. What they often forget is that every one of us at some points on our journey has to make our own choices on many things, one of which is religion. We live in an age when just about everything is open to being questioned. Earlier generations might not understand this. God gives us an intellect to use. God does not tell us mindlessly to accept everything a given religious tradition has to say. Many religious institutions are, to say the least, self-serving and self-protecting, saying something to the effect that “we alone are right, and everybody else is wrong”, or, “everybody else’s story is a myth, and only ours is true and accurate”. However, rather than hand-ringing or judgmental labeling, there needs to be room for honest and open dialogue where all sides can learn from each other.
Many folks see the big disconnect between the stated and operational values of some religious traditions, and they want nothing to do with these. Who is to say they are wrong? If an institution proclaims that it alone has all the answers and therefore cannot possibly learn from anybody else, that it is the only way to God, and declares that certain topics cannot even be discussed because authority disapproves and punishes dissent or questioning, why would any intelligent person want to be part of it? When a religious institution is perceived to consider formal obedience to its laws and belief in its dogmas as more important than following Jesus on a deeply personal level, folks will look elsewhere, as is happening on our days. As Pope Francis has said, the church cannot continue to be “self-referential”, judging folks as to whether or not they meet the church’s standards. He says the role of the church is instead to be open to the Spirit and live the gospel with everyone everywhere, and not demand that others live by its standards or else, and for this he is roundly criticized.
A major issue for many these days is the way some churches treat our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Vacuous comments such as, “the church hates the sin and love the sinner”, and “intrinsically disordered”, are hollow and many see this. Many us have LGBTQ friends and have come to realize that these churches are just plain wrong. Each of us as we are reflects God in a way that no one else does. As we are open to accepting this, we come to a new awareness of the richness of God happening. When our every day life as we experience it is not as some institutions tell us it should be, we may have to do some serious thinking and choosing. Nobody has all the answers for everybody all the time. God does not seem to be done offering us more insight into who God is. We are always learning — if we want to. We find ourselves asking new and interesting, perhaps unexpected or even disturbing, questions. Not many answers perhaps, but a lot of questioning and wondering.
A legitimate question is do I have the right to say my experience of Jesus is the only right one? Can I just accept that the experience each of us has of Jesus in our life is unique to us? Jesus got into trouble because his experience of his Father was not what the institution said it had to be. We might get into similar trouble, because as we try to live our experience of Jesus, we are sure to run afoul of somebody else’s experience.
At some point on our journey we have to let go of what others have told us and move ahead on our journey with Jesus. It might just happen that we return to the ideas we have learned from others, and come to see them not just as dogmas, but as matters of our own experience. We come to know these ideas, etc, are good as far as they go, but they are nowhere near to the reality that we call God. There is always the danger that for some, believing the “right things” about Jesus might become more important than believing and trusting in him. Is that where we want to go? Just sayin . . .