June 19, Who do you say I am?

In the Gospel (Luke 9:18-24) Jesus asks, “who do people say I am”, and, “who do you say I am”. There is a difference between what we hear about Jesus from others – our parents, teacher, church – and how we come to know him in our own journey and story. There is a difference between knowing about someone and knowing someone, like the difference between our looking at a map of New York City and our actually walking the streets and meeting the folks. This suggests some questions: whatever our idea of Jesus may be, do we have the right to force it on others; what if the way we come to know Jesus from our time with him in prayer and our walking with him leads us in a direction that a given religious institution might not go along with. This is what got Jesus in trouble.

Especially these days 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 point 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, and this is a pretty good thing. Earlier generations might not understand this. God gives us an intellect and expects us to use it. 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, 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 always needs to be room for honest and open dialogue where all sides can learn from each other.

Many folks today see the big disconnect between the stated and operational values of some religious traditions, and they want nothing to do with these institutions. 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 is the only way to God, and declares that certain topics cannot even be discussed because authority disapproves and punishes dissent with draconian measures, 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, indeed, 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. The role of the church is instead to live the gospel with everyone everywhere, and not demand that others live by its standards or else.

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 that these ideas, etc, are good as far as they go, but they go 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.

Then there is the question of what happens when folks are sincere in their efforts to live in a relationship of open trust in Jesus as they have come to know him, and find they are moving in a direction that is putting them at odds with religious systems and institutions. Who can say they are not truly following Jesus as they are coming to know him? Are folks in favor of marriage equality wrong because their position is not the same as a given institution’s teaching? What about folks and communities who, in the setting of their own journey with Jesus, are trying to live the gospel with folks whose sexual orientation and lifestyle are not approved by some religious institutions? Are folks who favor the ordination of women not being true to Jesus because their position does not fall in line with a given religious institution’s teaching? Are the priests who are in favor of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative (also know as the “Disobedient Priests”) untrue to Jesus as they have come to know him because a given religious institution believes otherwise? Are theologians, and others who have been silenced for their opinions, departing from Jesus because their prayer and study on their journey has led them to conclusions that a given religious institution does not approve of? Are folks whose journey leads them to work actively for optional celibacy and allowing persons whose marital status is “irregular” to share fully in the sacraments wrong because their position is not that of some religious institutions? Is a parish community who, having been shuttered by a local bishop, moves ahead and their journey with Jesus and forms their own liturgy centered and ministerial community wrong because they are not knuckling under to a bishop’s threats and intimidations?

Who among us can say with absolute certitude that someone is not journeying with Jesus? Pope Francis reminds us not to do that, but to live the gospel with everybody, whether or not they share our views on whatever. None of us has all the answers. None of us knows anyone else’s story or journey. Most of us have enough trouble with our own. Pope Francis, and Pope Benedict before him, says our main responsibility is to live in a relationship with Jesus that leads us to be open to however and in whomever he chooses to come to us, and beg the courage to do what we have to so we can truly live the gospel with them, not cram our interpretation of the gospel down their throat. Pope Francis: “All the outskirts, all the intersections of paths: go there. And there sow the seed of the Gospel by word and by witness.This is a big responsibility and we must ask the Lord for the grace of generosity and the courage and the patience to go out, to go out and proclaim the Gospel.”

Jesus aso says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”. Which is probaly what we will find from some religious institutions if one’s journey with Jesus differs from the established standards. After all, this is what happened to him.

Just sayin . . .