Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
May the blessings of the eternal healer Jesus Christ be upon all of you. Jesus is our God, redeemer, savior and liberator. But we need him today as our Healer.
May the hand that blessed the lame, the blind, the sick and raised the dead, be upon each one of you, bless you, heal you and protect you in these challenging times. Jesus is the healer, consoler and we need his healing hand now.
The readings today ask us to affirm our understanding of Jesus. Jesus asks his disciples: Who do you say that I am? These are the challenging times, COVID is like the evil serpent gulping down all that is sacred. As the faith seems to take a beating, Jesus asks each one of us: “Who do you say that I am?”
This question proves so difficult at this time. COVID leaves nothing intact. Every belief and every tenant of faith has come under attack. Pessimists have interpreted COVID as a punishment from Jesus. Fringe preachers are filling their coppers with fire and brimstone thundering about the “wrath of God.” The Chinese communist party went to the other extreme. Denying God, they also denied the dignity of their people and others. God’s intervention was never needed for them. Millions suffer.
There are others, seeking the intervention of God. The pope is leading the way in hoping this COVID will give way to a new world of justice and prosperity as per the Kingdom values of Jesus.
History is clear. Jesus is the maker of history. History has a cleavage with his birth, as BC and AD. Before Christ, Year of the Lord. The carpenter’s son who was born in a manger and died on a cross and buried in a borrowed grave is today nurtured in the hearts of billions. The man who died on the cross abandoned by his own followers has more than a billion followers today. The man who wrote no books gets his story written by millions, his Good news is propagated by millions of theological books.
The man who said “foxes have their holes, the birds of the air have their nests and the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” is honored in millions of churches and thousands of scintillating cathedrals. The man who had asked his disciples to put back the sword in their sheath and asked them to show the other cheek when attacked, provokes fear and anxiety in the minds of dictators and systems. The man who sadly asked his disciples “Will you also go away?” has thousands willing to die for him as martyrs.
Christ is historical, Christ is transhistorical
Jesus of History is a real wonder, the real nemesis for all the rationalistic pretenders. Even for those who consider him only as a special human person, Jesus continues to be a great wonder. His hold on the faith and belief of billions through the millennium perplexes history. Human history, spirituality, politics, faith has never been the same after the phenomenon of Jesus. History struggles to understand him and his impact.
But for a believer, Jesus is the Lord. Jesus is the confession of faith of Peter in the Gospel narration today: You are Christ, Son of the living God.
Christ is the Living God who existed before the creation of the world. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega. Christ is the savior and Christ is the Liberator. No human destiny escapes him, no human desire can be fulfilled without him.
Christ remains an enigma, even to non-Christians. Adding to the confusion there are thousands of denominations claiming to follow the same Christ. Even a great soul like Mahatma Gandhi once said: I like Christ, it is only the Christians I don’t understand. Even the rabid anti-Christian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche grudgingly acknowledged the greatness of Christ: “In truth, there was only one Christian and he died on the cross.”
History notes “Jesus is presented as homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade or occupation, a friend of outcasts and averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful.”
So the question returns to us, amidst the gloom of modern antipathy and the gripping sorrow of COVID: Who is Jesus today to every one of us?
The Bible gives us a clear understanding. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise from the beginning of creation, a promise repeated through great prophets. He is the Emmanuel, God is with us. His birth was foretold by God’s Angels.
Christ’s mission was foretold by prophets. He is both the Redeemer who comes to save us from eternal damnation and also the liberator who would stand for the dignity of human beings, proclaiming a Gospel of Justice.
a. Savior who redeems us from the yoke of Sin.
In one of the most popular Bible verses, John 3:16-17 says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. He has reconciled humanity with God.
b. A Liberator who releases us from all kinds of man-made evils
The Old Testament God was projected as the God of Justice, who cares about the “poor, orphan and the stranger.” Prophets like Isaiah had foretold the mission of Jesus. Jesus would himself proclaim his mission as Liberator of humanity from all man-made evils. In the often-quoted passage, originally seen in Isaiah, Luke would bring the scene of Jesus in Galilee proclaiming his mission as: Good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed and freeing the captives.
This reality of Jesus as the savior and liberator and the living God is often diluted by the way modern men and women look at Jesus. There are many abbreviations.
Devotees and Disciples, Fans and Followers
Jesus is a commitment. Commitment to God’s Kingdom. While history and traditional religious practices sometimes reduce Jesus to a statue worthy of adoration, Jesus demands more: Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Mathew 7:21).
This commitment implies suffering, hardship as the cost of discipleship: If you want to be my disciples, take up your cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23)"
Christ was a challenge to the powers of Rome, powers of darkness. Followers of Christ showed the intensity and vibrancy of a risen Jesus in their lives through their witness and proclamation of the Good News and their dream of the Kingdom of God. For this, they were willing to shed their blood.
Tertullian said the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Discipleship is the identity of those who believe in Jesus. He is seeking disciples for the Kingdom, not devotees who seek favors through worship.
Early Christianity started not with a plastic Jesus venerated by hundreds of docile devotees inside a secure space but it was started by disciples who believed in a living God. They set the world on fire with His message of love and equality.
A true Christian is not to be a fan of Jesus but to be a follower of Jesus. Every Christian is a missionary, a man and woman committed to the establishment of God’s Kingdom. Devotees seek something from Jesus. Disciples do great things in the name of Jesus for Kingdom God. As the German philosopher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: “Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ.”
The plastic Christianity has made many atheists and provokes the fast secularization today. One Mother Teresa without a single sermon — but only by her great witness of service — could bring the message of Jesus to millions in India and everywhere. That is discipleship. Only disciples could echo the confession of Peter: You are truly the Son of God. That comes through experiencing Jesus as the intimate God.
Speaking about Jesus and Speaking Jesus
Jesus is healer, a consoler, the image of the invisible God, the lamb of God who was sacrificed on the Cross for the salvation of the world. The disciples, like Peter, experienced his presence. Peter could exclaim in total ecstasy “You are the Son of God.”
Jesus is an experience. Many prosperity gospel people have made him a commodity to be sold in the electronic media. Many people are talking ABOUT Jesus. To those people, Jesus asks the question: Who do you say that I am? Their answer comes from theology books. They talk endlessly ABOUT Jesus. They do not talk Jesus, the exhilarating and life-changing experience of meeting the living God.
Jesus is an experience through personal encounter. Pope Benedict, before his retirement, was spearheading a vibrant movement called NEW EVANGELIZATION. He urged every evangelized to become the evangelizer. The first step, Pope Benedict insisted was a personal encounter with Jesus.
A true Christian does not EXPLAIN the dogma of Jesus from archaic theology but he shares the EXPERIENCE of a living God. Like the Samaritan woman, like Zacchaeus, like the women who encountered him at the grave after the resurrection, like the disciples on the way to Emmaus who encountered Jesus and became disciples of his Kingdom, Christ is a life-changing experience.
More than anyone Saul who metamorphosed into Paul at the encounter of Jesus would become the greatest apostle of his Gospel. Paul’s encounter would teach him to say, "He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation." (Colossians 1:15)
Jesus provides eternal hope, through God's grace, for everyone who believes He is Lord. That is Christianity. An experience that makes those who experience to go and proclaim “Jesus is the Lord” as Paul did.
Sadly such a Christianity faces the greatest challenge from inside: thousands of denominations, vying with one another for “‘stealing sheep” and “fighting for tithes” have packaged Christ into various shapes confusing the non-Christians. In various scandalous ways, Christ is presented. Someone painfully indicated five “Ps” have made Christ and his message a travesty of the true Gospel: The true image of Jesus is crucified by modern Judases with five wounds such as”
- Plastic Jesus: The Jesus who stays only in statues for devotion, not provoking discipleship. Jesus who failed to inspire the evangelization mandate.
- Prosperity Jesus: Successful repackaging of the message of the carpenter’s son into a commodity by tele-evangelists, bringing abhorrence to eastern religions. Mega-rich evangelistic Christianity is a deterrence to the spread of Christianity in the east.
- Project Jesus: Preaching, conversion and setting up churches is similar to the NGO activity with “professionalism” forgetting that the original church was built by fishermen and tent builders who believed “when I am weak, I am strong.”
- Politicians’ Jesus: In countries like the US, Jesus is fragmented by the cultural warriors for their own political ambitions. The line between faith and politics is blurred. The Bible is shamelessly used as a convenient vote bank ATM card.
- Persecuting Jesus: Attributing disasters and pandemics to the anger of Jesus and preaching a fearsome rapture and end times and a God who chooses only a few as the “chosen” one leaving others to eternal damnation.
Jesus remains betrayed by many modern Judases, who heard his word, who broke bread with him, who saw his miracles, his simple life, his love for the poor and yet selling him for piece of silver, preaching a divisive Jesus whose message increasingly contested by many.
To all Jesus once again asks the question: Who do you say that I am?
Jesus chose to build his church on Peter, the rock. The Catholic Church has an unbroken tradition of that choice. Its faith journey is long, as Pope Francis constantly exhorts “moving from an insecure, inward-looking church into a church that goes out and comes back bruised and broken with the smell of the sheep.”
The church of Jesus will mainstream three other “Ps.”
- Proclaiming Jesus and Kingdom of God: A church that lives according to the Word, proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom and Jesus as the only God. It will know the “word that became flesh and dwelt among us,” and live the values of the Bible.
- Preaching an integrated Evangelization of Salvation and Liberation: A church that would not betray Jesus by its obsession with saving “only” souls when the body is mutilated by racial hatred, poverty, starvation and inhumanity. A church that upholds the uncompromising value that every human being is created in God’s image.
- Poor Centered Church: As Pope Francis desired that the church needs to preach a Jesus who was worried about “a church of the poor, for the poor,” a church that would preach Jesus the Good Shepherd who went in search of the least and the lost. In a world of massive inequalities and abundant wealth to a few, the Jesus projected by the Church needs to reflect the sermon on the Mount: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.
COVID has forced us to be together in our generosity and some times through our fears. But it also has posed great questions to our existence, our faith and our priorities. During these challenging times, the Gospel of today throws one of the most challenging questions, Jesus asking: Who do you say that I am?
The answer to that question will determine our personal lives, our faith life and our life as human family in the most expected post-COVID era.
Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus, Heal this planet, help us to follow you more closely.
God Bless you all.
“Jesus: The Image of the Invisible God, the Liberator and the Healer of all our Maladies” is a homily delivered by Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon on Sunday, August 23, 2020.