Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

What a challenge Jesus gave Peter in this gospel reading. "What are they saying?" asks Jesus. "What's that talk? Who do people say I am?" And then he goes on to say, "And you. Who do you say I am?" And Peter responds. Almost as though the words are dragged out of him, dragged out of the depths, Peter responds on behalf of all the disciples.

It was a tremendous moment because it was a huge leap of faith. Until that time, Jesus had been regarded as a brilliant leader and teacher, but no more. By his response, Peter acknowledged that Jesus was divine, the human face of God himself, the promised Messiah. And Jesus acknowledged that God was working through Peter to enable him to respond in such a way.

Perhaps we all have moments of challenge, which come in different ways, and to which we respond differently. I suppose one of my moments of challenge came at a time when I didn't believe in God at all.

I'd been brought up in a Christian family and had always been a willing churchgoer from my childhood onwards. Although I'd always asked quite difficult questions, I'd never had any insurmountable doubts. Then many years ago, at a Lent meeting in the Church I attended, the Vicar handed everyone a sheet of paper and a pencil and said, "Write down at everything you know about God. Not what you believe. Not what you've been told. Not what you think you ought to know. But what you actually know from your own experience."

I found myself with a blank sheet of paper. After all those years of church-going, there was nothing I really knew for myself about God. There were lots of things I believed and lots of things I'd learned, but nothing I actually knew. And that shook me.

So I began to ponder about Christianity. It seemed to me that what I ought to believe, what I felt was central to Christianity, was that God loved me as an individual. I decided that all the rest, all the many facets of Christianity rested on that one fact. If that was untrue, if God did not love me, then I felt the whole edifice fell down.

So I began to think about love, about human love. If people loved me, then they cared deeply about what I thought, about how I was feeling, about my future, about my interests, about my welfare and so on. So surely God, being God, ought to love me more than that? I looked for real concrete evidence of God's love in my life, and I couldn't find any.

To be sure, life had had a reasonably smooth pattern. Things had worked out well for me. I seemed to have found the right job and the right wife. I had a good family, lovely children, and life was good to me. But that could all be coincidence, for plenty of friends who apparently had nothing to do with God had equally good lifestyles. I couldn't see that God was necessarily responsible for any of it.

And I certainly couldn't feel him near me. Any conversations with him were one way. I prayed, and that was that. Sometimes things seemed to work out after prayer, but who was to say they wouldn't have worked out anyway? Surely if God loved me, they would be more to it than that? Surely somehow or other I'd feel him there?

So after a lot of thought and a lot of agonising, I came to the conclusion that there wasn't a God. It was some gigantic con trick, designed over the ages to keep people in their place, to keep them behaving as those in power would have them behave. To stop people rocking the boat. To stop them challenging those in authority.

After a year or so of enjoying not believing in God - for I no longer had to bother with going to Church or praying or reading my Bible - a Christian friend said to me, "So you don't believe in God. What do you believe in?"

And that was my moment of challenge. And like Peter, it felt like the answer was dragged out of me, from somewhere deep within, because I then realised I believed in a huge, vast potential within myself. I realised I had within me the potential to do anything, to move mountains, if only I could learn how to tap into that potential, how to use it to its full capacity. And it was only a short step from that to realising that if I wanted to give that potential a name, I might well call it "God".

Once I'd realised God wasn't some remote being "out there", but was part of me - was a sort of contained energy waiting and ready to blossom and develop and spring into action - then the most important thing in my life came to be to learn how to contact that God within. How to tap into that energy. How to communicate with the God within so that I could use all that latent power.

Lot of things began to become much clearer. I looked with fresh eyes as Jesus. And I saw a human being who, from the moment he was born, had learnt to tap into the God within him to such a degree that he'd become one with that God. That his desires had become identical to the desires of God. That his thoughts were completely akin to God's thoughts. That his deeds and actions were God's deeds and actions. That he had allowed the God within him to fully develop, and by so doing had reached his own full human potential.

So I began to see how Jesus could be both fully human and fully divine. And I began to see the importance of Christmas. Because Christmas is the fantastic news that God himself was within this particular human being who was born, and ever since then, God himself has been within every human being to be born.

I looked at the life of Jesus with new eyes. I saw he constantly withdrew to a quiet place to pray. I discovered the way to connect with the God within is to withdraw to a quiet place and learn to go inwards. Learn to wait upon God. Learn just to sit in silence and keep my thoughts gently at bay so that God can come through. I learned to expect a response to prayer. And I learned that response was never what I expected. It was often very demanding although it always left me free to choose, and was a response which often led me into some very difficult places.

I saw the life of Jesus was all about relationships with people, sometimes quite awkward, difficult people - the prostitute, the rich young ruler, the Pharisees, the woman at the well.

I noticed what a good communicator Jesus was. How he talked through stories. How he was able to touch people's inner being. How he spoke in such a way that people didn't immediately switch off but could really hear, could absorb and accept what he said and were riveted by it.

I noticed Jesus turned the accepted religion of the day on its head. He refused to obey religious rules he thought were petty. He taught that the most important rule of all is love. And that if you really love, everything else follows. I noticed how he loved so much he was able to heal, through that love.

Moments of challenge are turning points. After Caesarea Philippi Peter's life was never the same again. It lost its humdrum smoothness and became turbulent and scary and risky, but full of excitement and insight.

The same is on offer to all of us. So if you want to live life to the full, if you're prepared to give up the humdrum smoothness for danger and excitement and risk, then look out for those challenges and respond to them. But if you don't fancy pain and suffering and crucifixion, then close your ears and turn your back, for you'd best settle for what you already have - but it means you won't experience God.

Your choice. What do you want to do?

A prayer

Challenging God,

Life without much acknowledgement of you is so simple. It's often pleasant and comfortable, and you're always around when needed, so I can turn to you if things get hairy. Why should I even consider your challenges? You offer pain and suffering and crucifixion when I'm looking for ease and gentleness and a quiet life.

Challenging God, becoming fully human is such a scary process. It hurts when you delve into the innermost depths of my being. I'm afraid of those dark, hidden corners inside myself. Why can't you leave me alone in peace?

Challenging God, give me strength and give me endurance and give me courage. Help me to learn about the toughness of love - and share with me when I discover the excitements and delights of life with you.

I ask this through Jesus, who dared to reach his full potential despite the agony, for my sake.

Amen.

Reverend Canon Stuart Ansell

You are the Messiah!

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