Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Who Do You Say That I Am?"

Each of us reaches a time in our life when we can no longer “pass the buck”.  Sooner or later we have to learn to speak for ourselves, to be accountable for our own words and actions.  Every teenager knows the agony of making the transition from “everyone else is doing it” to risking unpopularity and staking a claim on his or her own convictions: a necessary part of the process of maturing.
Even as adults we continue to face such transitions over and over.  During traumatic times, whether with or without the aid of a counselor or a confidante, confronting ourselves and what we stand for can be like being in a crucible: a painful experience of uncovering truths about ourselves which we’d just as soon let lie, yet which, if we’re willing to walk through the discomfort and fear, can lead to a healing of deep wounds.  The word crucible comes from the Latin for a lamp kept burning before a crux or cross.  In common use, it’s a pot in which to melt metal; the hollow part at the bottom of a furnace in which molten metal collects and sits as it undergoes a hot, fiery, refining process.
Such was the experience of the disciples, especially Peter, as they gathered with Jesus at Caesarea Philippi.  They had followed this man, who had nowhere to lay his head, for nearly three years, and all they had to show for it was a lack of both money and prestige, and a growing opposition and outright hatred from the orthodox religious leaders and even from some of Jesus’ hearers.  It wouldn’t be surprising if the thought had crossed their minds: was he at all what he claimed to be?? In a sort of group reality-check, Jesus asks the disciples what other people think of him.  Probably answering with what they thought Jesus wanted to hear, they say that he’s being compared to John the Baptizer, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other great prophets.  At that point, Jesus’ “zings” them with a follow-up question, the only really important one, a very personal question, leaping suddenly out of Matthew’s story (16:13-20) to confront the disciples and us: “But who do you say that I am?
In one of his few finer moments, Peter steps forward and says: “You are God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  The experience of confronting and testing his own convictions  through the years of following Jesus had led Peter to own his faith.  Hopefully it helps us to realize that knowing Jesus the Christ has to be a personal discovery.  Jesus doesn’t dictate what he wants Peter or the others to say; he doesn’t ask them for a textbook definition or even a creedal quotation.  He challenges, even compels, them to discover the truth inside themselves, from their personal association with him.
Who do you say that I am?”  
How open are you and I to hearing that personal, direct question from Jesus? When, where, and how often, in the midst of our busy lives, do we allow ourselves the time and space to discover what Jesus really means to us? When was the last time you or I even thought about it?
Fr. John Westerhoff, in a book entitled Will Our Children Have Faith?, outlines several phases through which many people generally go in the developing of faith.  Bear in mind that what he suggests is a broad-stroke description and certainly doesn’t always unfold in such a neat manner.  None of us develops exactly the same; in fact, I believe that throughout our lives we may continue to find ourselves in and out of one or all of the phases which he describes.  First, there is given faith, which we usually receive early on and with which those who are baptized are marked, although in American society these days especially, that’s something which can no longer be taken for granted.  As we grow and become more aware we come to affirmative faith, when we begin to affirm or confirm what was given and taught to us earlier.  Traditionally, this has been a time of  “Confirmation” in the Episcopal Church, when one publicly and sacramentally witnesses to the reality of one’s faith.  But in order to keep growing, both as a human being as well as spiritually, there must come a time of questioning faith, when we experience the crucible of struggling with and testing what we hold to be true, periods of doubting and uncertainty, times, perhaps, when even the outward expression of faith is put on hold.  It would be very foolish to deny how important this stage is for a person to emerge eventually in owned faith, which likely will look much different from given faith, and which is where we can begin to tentatively answer Jesus’ question.
The living spirit of Jesus the Christ continues throughout our lives to push us and ask us: “Who do you say that I am?”  He seeks to know us and for us to know him: not as some great personage from the past, not as some egotistic deity, hungry for us to say the “right” complimentary words about him, but as a Person who truly cares for us and what happens to us, as Someone who truly loves us. Jesus asks the disciples this intensely personal question in a very public setting.  They were in Caesarea Philippi, located in the north of Israel (now Syria), between Mt. Hermon, where the River Jordan had its origin, and the Sea of Galilee -- in the midst of swirling idolatrous, political, economic, and religious forces at work at that time. Through many centuries Caesarea Philippi had been the site of Canaanite fertility idol worship of the god Baal, and later of the Greek god Pan, the god of nature, and came to be called Panías (or, today, Banías).  Herod’s son, the tetrach Philip, named it Kaisária, after the emperor.  In Jesus’ day it was called Kaisária Phlippou, to distinguish it from two other Caesarias: one on the Mediterranean Sea shore (northwest of Samaria) and another in Cappadocia (now Turkey).  Caesarea Philippi was one of the most beautiful Middle Eastern cities during Jesus’ time; it was also declared a place of asylum where fugitives could find shelter and safety.  So, it’s against that backdrop: the false gods, the physical beauty, the fugitives, and the escalating emotions of religious and political leaders against him, that Jesus asks the question: “Who do you say that I am?
The question, though intensely personal for us, too, has wider implications: no less than for the disciples of Jesus.  If we’re attuned, we can hear the question being asked of us as we read the morning newspaper, or blog online and surf YouTube, as we tune into the news media, or as we study the positions of those in power, when we participate in issues of local community interest, or as we confront challenges in our lives as Church members: moral, spiritual, and practical, including even the ecological stewardship of the parish grounds.   
Who do you and I say Jesus is in the midst of all the false gods surrounding and threatening us and the planet -- gods of oil, power, competition, partisanship, war?? in the midst of beautiful, but also deteriorating, sprawling, teeming cities?? in the midst of immigrants seeking refuge and sanctuary with us?? in the midst of the struggle for people to have the basics of food, shelter, jobs, health care, and human rights?? Who do you and I say that Jesus is in the midst of these crucibles of current life issues and debates??
As formidable as Jesus’ question is, it comes with a promise.  When we, as individuals or as the Church, are honest in confronting and answering the question for ourselves, you and I become, like Peter and the disciples, a foundation stone which enables Jesus to bring his reign, his kingdom, to reality.  By entering the crucible of his question “Who do you say that I am?”, you and I become a maturing community of people whose words and actions are guided by love of God and of one another.  Jesus uses our owned faith, in this sometimes messy and foreboding world to open to countless other children, women, and men the doorway to God’s reign of justice and love realized in the person of Jesus the Christ. We need not fear the question, formidable as it may sometimes appear, for we have Jesus’ assurance that, out of the testing and trial, God’s living Spirit of love and justice will find suitable expression in and through you and me.           

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