It is human nature to reject that which we fear or do not understand. We want to protect ourselves and those we love from pain, illness, suffering, and, really, all forms of distress. We desire life to be clear and easy, preferably with assurances of getting to heaven. While these desires are understandable, they can be dangerous. Our need to be on a safe and right path can lead us to reshape God in our image. Who we say Jesus is matters today as much as it did when Jesus walked the earth.
When Jesus asked his disciples who people thought he was, it wasn’t a simple question. They were in the heavily Roman-occupied Caesarea-Philippi and the answers given could be treasonous. What did the disciples know? How much were they willing to risk? They answered in predictable ways, repeating the talk they had heard. Jesus was seemingly unimpressed. Okay, so most people had no idea. Did the disciples? Surprisingly, they did, or Peter did. Peter said that Jesus was the Messiah. Maybe Jesus was surprised by this and maybe not. I’ll bet Peter was expecting a different sort of Messiah, the kind that would literally liberate the Jewish people from Roman oppression. This proclamation was definitely treasonous even if Peter didn’t quite understand the liberation Jesus would bring about.
After this, Jesus has a few challenging words for the crowd. Being a follower of Jesus is no easy path and ought not to be undertaken lightly. And it isn’t about individual salvation. If we live too much for ourselves, we lose our way, lose the very essence of life. We can’t follow Jesus if we are too worried about our own personal safety and our own seat on the bus to heaven.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month and National Suicide Prevention Week will end on September 15. As we contemplate our answer to Jesus question, “Who do you say that I am?” we would do well to remember our surroundings. Our answers might not put our lives at risk and they might not be treasonous, but they might not be welcome, either. Before we utter our response, think for a moment about the church, the body of Christ.
There are branches of the church who will say that suicidality is a result of demon possession or it is a punishment from God. These branches of church will also blame the individual who struggles with thoughts of suicide for not having enough faith or not praying enough or not pleasing God enough. They will want to put distance between the body of Christ and those who suffer with suicidality. At the same time, they will affirm that Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Suicidality and other symptoms of mental illness know no boundaries. Faith does not keep one safe from depression, PTSD, bullying, grief, or other mental health challenges. Depression is not likely to dissipate from prayer alone. Having thoughts of suicide is not indicative of lack of faith, or demon possession, or displeasing God. Suicidality has many contributing factors (untreated or ineffectively treated mental illness is a significant one), though insufficient faith isn’t one of them. In fact, faith can help heal those who suffer from suicidality and other symptoms of mental illness.
Who is Jesus? My Lord and Savior or the one who came to teach us how to Love, to show us how to be one Body, and to lead us in creating God’s Realm here on earth? The first response is the traditional response. However, it might too narrowly define who Jesus is and have the result of leaving a few people out, not overly different from Peter’s response. If the answer is something like the second, then Jesus demonstrated the path to salvation for all of us. A path that insists on Love and errs on the side of mercy. A path that requires we journey together, supporting those who are vulnerable, helping to bear the suffering of those who struggle in body, mind, or spirit, and making room for all.
Suicidality is a symptom of a mental health challenge and there is hope for those who suffer. Hope lies in medical, psychological, and spiritual treatment. Being the church, the body of Christ, means embodying Christ’s love in a way that leads to life. It means offering radical hospitality and unconditional inclusion to all.
Who is Jesus? For practical purposes, Jesus is you and me and everyone who claims to be Christian. Let’s be the body of Christ that brings hope, healing, and life to those who suffer.
For more information on responding to suicide or suicidality with faith, my latest book The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention, Chalice Press (2018) is available at Chalice Press and Amazon.
RCL – Year B – Seventeetn Sunday after Pentecost – September 16, 2018
Psalm 19 or Wisdom 7:26-8:1