Jesus Christ, True God and True Man
(Readings: Acts 6:1-7; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel passage this Sunday Jesus claims the close unity with God the Father which eventually led his followers to conclude that he was more than just another inspired preacher or holy man: he was God’s Word made flesh, the revelation of God in human form. Saint Peter, in the second reading, also emphasises Christ’s unique role in bringing humanity into union with God and enabling us to share God’s life.
At the start of Mass today, let’s think of the ways we may have reduced Christ to a purely human figure in our minds instead of seeing him as the Way the Truth and the Life, as the New Testament reveals him to be. We ask God to forgive us and strengthen our faith.
These few lines of St. John’s gospel give expression to the belief which is at the centre of the Christian religion: that the man Jesus is identical with God.
Like all the other people who belonged to the Jewish faith the disciples were convinced that God had communicated himself to the Chosen People over the course of several centuries, through the events of their history, through the preaching of the prophets and so on. Now one of them, Philip, asks to see God more fully and directly than that: “Let us see the Father,” he says, “and then we’ll be satisfied.”
We don’t have to believe that the exchange of words between Jesus and Philip took place in exactly the way it’s described here. But the answer which St. John reports Jesus as giving can only be understood as a claim to be the fullest and most direct revelation that God has given of himself in human history. “To have seen me is to have seen the Father” he says, and, earlier, “If you know me, you know the Father”.
Of course neither the disciples nor anyone else discerned Jesus’ divine identity straight away. If Philip’s request is anything to go by, even at this late stage, shortly before Jesus’ death, the penny hadn’t completely dropped.
But later, by the end of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection, the close circle of his first followers had come to realise that he was more than just an inspired prophet, a wise teacher or a miracle-worker. They had reached the conclusion that the only accurate way to understand Jesus was to see him as someone who was uniquely united to God, someone who in some sense was God. And the conclusion reached by those first witnesses of Christ became the central belief of the Christian faith.
Jesus’ present-day disciples – ourselves in other words - live against a very different background. Many people today, insofar as they reflect about Jesus at all, reach the completely opposite conclusion to that of Jesus’ first followers.
The disciples started out by seeing Jesus as a man and finished up seeing him as God. The modern mentality, reluctant to believe in God or spiritual reality in any meaningful way, starts out with the traditional Christian belief that Jesus is divine and works its way back to the idea that he was only a human being - a supremely good man, perhaps, who dedicated himself to other people and died for his beliefs.
This is reflected in various books and films produced in recent years, where the secularised outlook on life naturally enough draws a secularised picture of Christ. Often we get a picture of a Jesus who is hardly anything more than a collection of the current attitudes and prejudices of society. That can range from Jesus the tolerant, inclusive “non-judgemental” moral philosopher to Jesus the secret lover of Mary Magdalene and father of her children.
It’s as if today’s men and women, asked to conjure up their picture of what God might be like, can only produce a mirror image of themselves and a mirror image of the undemanding, unaspiring and frankly self-centred morality which marks so much of our behaviour now that Christianity has been rejected by the majority.
A picture of Jesus which makes him out to be a well-intentioned and “caring” person but also weak, self-indulgent, incapable of exercising self-control - “a real human being” - simply confirms and excuses the values of our secular, consumer society. Or to put it another way: where Christ’s divinity is denied modern people can feel reassured in their own lazy morality, their low ideals and goals, the justifications they give for their selfishness and disregard of others.
St. Peter, in the passage from his letter in the second reading, is having none of that as far as the Christian community is concerned. “Set yourself close to Christ,” he says, “so that you may be living stones making a spiritual house”.
Jesus’ real identity as the Son of God, his real significance for the human race, can only be known in close acquaintance with him. Men and women who pray to Christ, read the gospels and reflect regularly on the whole mystery of Christ, will gradually grow and deepen in their knowledge of Christ and his Father. Like the disciples they will come to know Jesus of Nazareth as the revelation of God: the way to God, the truth about God, the path to sharing the life of God. And the opposite is also true: if we don’t do those things we’ll never progress beyond a fairly superficial knowledge of Christ or the Father.
St. Peter then addresses the whole community of Christ’s followers, the Church. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing God’s praises”. He wants to emphasise the distinctiveness, the “specialness” of the Christian community, the fact that it has a distinct identity and vocation as the body of people who recognise Jesus for who and what he is as opposed to those who don’t.
So my reflection on these three readings is that they encourage us to reject any tendency to reduce Christ or deny his divinity, and to concentrate instead on getting to know him as the fullest possible revelation of God and the person who has opened the way for us to share in God’s life as God always has intended us to do.