Last Thursday we celebrated Youth day. This year was something special as it marked the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, and the long shadow that those tragic events cast on all of us today. But while it’s important to remember the past, let’s not forget our young people today, and the struggles and obstacles they have to cope with. It is no small thing to be born into today’s confused and mixed up world where we all are trying to make sense of the life gifted to us. The youth after all are the dreams and hopes of our future. The teenagers of today will very quickly have a big say in the running of South Africa tomorrow. So our youth deserve the best we can give them so that in turn they can live full, meaningful and happy lives. Then, hopefully, they too will leave this world a better place for their children.
It is natural to wish that our youth would have material prosperity. If there is not enough food on the table or a roof over one’s head, then there is not much point in thinking of anything else. Yet material things are not enough. We cannot live on bread alone and a desire for our material welfare alone will only exacerbate the egoism and individualism that is already causing so much havoc in our world. Furthermore, we also suffer from information overload with all the world’s news at our fingertips. But information is not the same as wisdom. Information exposes us to many winds and doctrines all vying for our attention but the wisdom to choose the right path is an entirely different matter. What’s called for is a spiritual dimension to our lives and for Paul it is only at a spiritual level that we can find our true home.
In the second reading Paul makes an extraordinary claim. “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This means that every person should know and rejoice in their dignity as child of God. All are equally brothers and sisters in Christ. It means that no one should be accounted as a servant, or kept at a distance or held under any such restraints as say the Jews were in Biblical times or people in this country under apartheid. Having accepted Christ Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, and relying on him alone for justification and salvation, they become the sons and daughters of God. Is not this something that every youth should know and be taught to live by?
Our great example in this is Jesus. He not only knew himself to be God’s special son but saw in all people, no matter what race of colour, the image of a loving God. But Jesus didn’t see his dignity as a matter of entitlement, of sitting back and basking in the glory of being ‘the special one’ (to quote somebody!). Rather he came to serve, not to be served and give his life for all of us. Likewise, out new found freedom in Jesus does not mean we sit back and enjoy a culture of entitlements. Rather it brings with it a host of responsibilities. Our first duty as Christians is towards our neighbour with that deep desire that Jesus had to give everyone their proper dignity as children of God. We too are called to serve and to give our lives for others. There is no room for egoism and individualism here. We are talking team. We are talking the give and take of community.
It is worth recalling that Paul’s wisdom comes, not from the teaching of some learned philosopher or Rabbi but from his encounter with the risen Lord. That meeting turned his whole world and his value system upside down. Likewise, it was Peter’s encounter with Jesus that also enabled him to answer the question of Jesus in today’s gospel, ‘who do you say that I am?’ Peter didn’t get his answer in a book. He didn’t have the 20-20 hindsight vision that we have nor the mature reflection of scholars over the last 2000 years. No, it was his daily, personal encounter with Jesus that led him to believe that Jesus was the Christ of God. Peter may well have been fascinated by the catch of fish, by the healing of his mother in law, by the raising of Jairus’ daughter to life etc. But perhaps the telling point for Peter was the beauty and humility of Jesus and the warmth and compassion in his relationship with his Master. As far as icons go, Jesus was his icon par excellence, the icon of God.
Today we are asked the same question that Jesus addressed to his disciples. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Who is Jesus for you and me? It’s the kind of question that we must answer with our lives. We may answer by simply ignoring Jesus, or by being indifferent to him or keeping him at arm’s length. In my experience that doesn’t really work. I’m left with a yawning gap. But if we really want to be free and loving people, free of our own egoism and selfishness, then we need to follow Jesus by taking up our cross on a daily basis and be willing to serve just as he did.
I began by talking about youth day. I would like to finish with a quote from St. John Paul at World Youth Day in Rome in 2000. Addressing over a million people the Pope put that same question to them. Having dwelt on the implications of “Who is Jesus for you?” he concluded with this wonderful answer. “It is Jesus whom you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”
Sunday, 19 June 2016