I’d like you to imagine for a moment that you are a member of a small tribal village living in the depths of the Amazon. Your people have had little contact with the outside world for generations. However, your village has recently been stricken with a plague. People are sick and dying.
Following the ancient traditions handed down by your parents and grandparents, you believe that there is a sacred order to the universe. When things go wrong, there is a reason. A local shaman informs the village elders that one of the gods has become angry and is punishing the people. This god must be appeased by way of a sacrifice or ritual, then the plague will end. So, the elders begin soliciting offerings from you and your neighbors for the sacrifice: animals, crops, etc. Your ancestors have always trusted people like this shaman; there’s no reason to doubt.
Now, imagine that during this very time, a group of strangers appears in the village. You don’t know them. Their skin may be a different color from yours. They dress strangely. They carry lots of strange objects that you’ve never seen before. They say they’ve come from far away, but are here to help stop the plague.
“Wonderful,” you say, “what have you brought for the sacrifice?”
“Nothing,” they say, “we’ve come with another way to fight the disease.”
“Another way? What other way?”
“Well, you see: this plague isn’t happening because the gods are angry with you.”
“That’s not what our ancestors taught us.”
“Your ancestors were backward and ignorant.”
“Who cares? We’re here to tell you the real reason why you’re all getting sick.”
“Okay, I’ll humor you (in spite of your disrespect for our ancestors and their traditions). Go ahead and enlighten me.”
“Okay, here goes: the plague is being caused by little bugs.”
“What little bugs? Where?”
“They’re everywhere: on your skin, in the water. Millions of them. Sometimes they get inside you and make you sick.”
“I don’t see any bugs.”
“You can’t see them.”
“Then how do you know about them?”
“I have special lenses that let me see them.”
“Invisible bugs, magic glasses. Got it (but I’m beginning to think you’re crazy).”
“I’m not crazy, I’m enlightened. Now, hold still.” At this point, the stranger unpacks something that looks like a small knife with water in the handle. It looks like he’s getting ready to stab you with it.
“What are you doing?! What is that?!”
“I want to stick you with this. It’s got more of those little bugs inside of it.”
“You just said that’s what made us sick!”
“Don’t worry, these ones are fine. Now, hold still and trust me.”
“NO WAY! You come here disrespecting our ancestors and ranting like a crazy person about invisible bugs and magic glasses, and now you want to stab me with your little knife! You can just turn around and go right back to where you came from!”
What I have just acted out for you is the unsuccessful presentation of germ theory to someone who is not familiar with modern, western medicine. What was the problem?
Part of it is that the medical person communicated in a way that was very disrespectful of the person he was talking to. The other part is not that the person from the village is unintelligent, but that this person’s worldview was open to certain interpretations of reality and not others.
For a person who grew up apart from the modern world, the idea that spirits interact with the world (and sometimes cause diseases) makes sense. Germ theory, on the other hand, seems ludicrous.
For most North Americans these days, germ theory seems perfectly plausible. Belief in gods or spirits, on the other hand, seems crazy (because you can’t observe or measure God with scientific instruments). This kind of modern, materialistic worldview is limited, just as limited, in fact, as the worldview of the Amazonian villager who rejects modern medicine and depends instead on sacrifices to angry spirits.
In the one case, our friend the villager has been cut off from the benefits of science and medicine that have been proven to heal disease. When it comes to us, I wonder: what are we cutting ourselves off from as we embrace a worldview that leaves no room for faith, God, or anything that cannot be observed or measured?
In a materialistic world, selfishness would be the highest moral standard (some philosophers, like Ayn Rand, have explicitly argued in favor of this idea). Money, sex, and power would be the only real measures of goodness. According to this modern, secular, materialistic standard, those who grace the covers of magazines should be the “winners” at the game of life. However, one need only read the articles in those same magazines to see that this does not seem to be the case. Who hasn’t occasionally marveled at some young star whose fame (or life) has been cut short by scandal, addiction, or death? It’s become so common that we’ve stopped asking why; we just accept that it happens. Do we even think to ask whether money, sex, and power might not be all they’re cracked up to be? Those who have those things in abundance don’t seem to be any happier than the rest of us who wish we could have more.
It seems to me that our materialistic worldview is limited. It seems to me that there might be some other, higher dimensions of reality to which our secular reasoning cannot give us access. And if we truly want to find happiness in life (and I believe most people do), then we must find some other way to access these dimensions of reality.
Those of us who are Christians believe that we have found just such an access point in the person of Jesus Christ. We believe that Christ reveals to us the heart of God, which is the heart of reality itself.
The Christian Church has taught for thousands of years that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, which literally means God “in the flesh.” What makes Christianity unique among the religions of the world is that we believe that the nature of God is revealed, not just by Christ, but in Christ. Christians know God through a person and it is this person, Jesus, who invites us into an ever-deepening, personal relationship with reality through prayer and meditation, through the reading and preaching of Scripture, and through the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.
The great truth that Jesus reveals is that “God is love” (as it says in the New Testament), therefore self-giving love (not selfishness) is what lies at the heart of reality (Ayn Rand was wrong).
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus puts before Peter some very poignant questions about himself and the nature of reality.
Jesus begins with a more general question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This first question initially keeps the conversation in the realm of the abstract. In response, Peter rattles off a few of the prevailing theories, based in Jewish theology: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
But then Jesus brings it home with his usual directness: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer in this moment has the capacity to open for him those higher dimensions of reality we were talking about a moment ago. And Peter gives the answer that we, in subsequent centuries, have come to embrace as the definitive Christian answer to Jesus’ question: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
He gets it. And suddenly this who new dimension of reality is open to him: Jesus tells Peter that he has received divine revelation, that he is the “rock” on which the Church will be built, and that he holds “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
But here’s the thing: Peter gets it, but he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get what he gets. For Peter, this big idea about Jesus (that he is the Messiah) is bound up with his own cultural ideas about what the Messiah was supposed to be. According to Peter (and most Jews of his time), the Messiah was supposed to be a divinely anointed leader who would liberate the Jewish people from oppression, and in a way they’re right, but there’s more to it than they thought to ask. Jesus is the Messiah and he will set people free, but the reality of that truth is far deeper and wider than Peter ever could have imagined. Peter “gets it,” but there’s more to Jesus than what Peter “gets.”
I think the same thing is true for all of us. Each and every one of us comes to the table with our own ideas about who Jesus is and what that means for our lives. Some people see Jesus as a wise teacher, a radical activist, a compassionate healer, a merciful judge, or a forgiver of sins. Many of us also come with the answers we learned in Church or Sunday School: Jesus is Lord, Savior, Messiah, Son of God.
All of these answers are correct and each of them is incomplete by itself. Whatever our experience of Jesus is, we are right… and there is more.
The task of faith is not to guess the correct answer to Jesus’ question (“Who do you say that I am?”), but to stay open to the “more”; to let Jesus keep on asking us that question again and again for the rest of our lives: “Who do you say that I am?” There is always more.
The promise is that, as we continue to let Jesus ask us this question, and as we continue to grow deeper into this personal relationship with Jesus, he will open up to us those higher dimensions of reality in which we are able to find true meaning, happiness, infinite love, and eternal life, both now and forever. Amen.