Day Five: Questions and Sources
Posted January 31, 2012on:
Today has left me feeling overwhelmed—not just with the Spirit, which has been spilling over in me every day, but with new information and insights about this place and its people, both ancient and modern. In the spirit of this blog as my place for pondering rather than reporting, I will not try to recount everything I saw and learned today. Instead, I’ll focus on a few questions and ideas that I want to process more deeply. I will throw in a few extra pictures to share more of our day.
Our focus scripture for the day came from Mark 8:27-30. Jesus and his disciples had ventured into the territory of Caesarea Philippi, which is the same territory we ventured into for the day. In that region, Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds with the first confession of Jesus as Messiah: “You are the Christ.” We were invited to ponder: Who is Jesus? Who do you say that Jesus is, to you and for you and in your ministry?
That question took on new meaning when we laid eyes on the ruins of Caesarea Philippi, which housed more than 20 temples to Roman gods. Many of the ruins we saw were built in the decades after Jesus, but the spirit of the first century city came clear. Palestine in the Roman era was not a monotheistic culture, and Caesarea Philippi was an amalgam of Roman, Hellenistic and Jewish worship. When Jesus posed the question to his disciples, it was not a question about where he stood in relationship to the One True God, or about how his ministry related to Temple Judaism. That question from Jesus invited the disciples to contemplate how his teaching and his path might be unique among all the multitude of competing cults in their world. With all this diverse religious worship, where did Jesus fit in?
Rather than contemplate the answer to the question, I have been more interested in the source of the question. Why did Jesus ask the question in the first place? Was he setting them up for a test of faith? I doubt it. Was he in need of an ego boost, someone to tell him he was great and his ministry was important? I doubt that even more. Was he taking the temperature of his followers, to assess their level of understanding and commitment? Maybe a little bit, but probably that wasn’t all.
All of us, from time to time, ask our friends and family and even strangers to tell us who they think we are. We all do it, but why? We have an image about ourselves, who we are and what matters most to us and how we present ourselves. Yet we wonder if the world sees us the same way that we see ourselves. We need those around us to reflect back to us what they see, to correct our misperceptions, our blind spots, our sins. Honest feedback is the source of truth about our identity, not just as we perceive ourselves but as the world perceives us.
I did it myself this afternoon. I didn’t connect it to Jesus’ question until I started this writing, but the two belong together. My roommate is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a pastor, and this afternoon during a break we started talking about the Enneagram. She uses it frequently in her work, and we began together to figure out my type. She made a guess, and I probed her with questions about what that type said about who I am. Because I was resisting her characterization, she produced an application on her Ipad to let me take the official test. In the end, the test proved her right, and I spent the rest of the afternoon peppering her with questions about what that type said about who I am.
Who do you say that I am? I asked over and over again, in different ways and with various nuances, to her and to the test. What did I want to know? I wanted to know if their perceptions matched up to my self-perceptions. I wanted (especially from the Enneagram) to gain insights into my strengths and challenges. I wanted to hear affirmation of the deep longings of my heart. I wanted appreciation for how I think and how my heart moves. I wanted confirmation that the faults I wrestle with are indeed the faults I need to wrestle with. I wanted to be seen and known rightly.
Perhaps that is all that Jesus longed for as well—to be seen and known aright.
According to scripture, Peter is the only one who answers the question, and I always imagine his answer arriving in an outburst that surprises everyone, including himself: “You are the Christ!” It is a confessional moment, when he calls out the truth as he sees it. As with all true confession, it startles everyone with its boldness, even as everyone who hears it knows its power.
We continued to process the question as a group tonight: who do you say that Jesus is? One member of the group responded like Peter, with a confessional outpouring: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior!” He spoke with confidence and assurance. Others spoke with hesitation and doubt. Theirs too was a confession, an admission of their struggles to know who Jesus is in their lives. It was more like the confession of a father whose son received healing: “I believe, O Lord! Help my unbelief!” Many in our group spoke about how their understandings of Jesus had changed throughout their lives, with some ideas and identities taking on prominence as others receded or were even rejected. Things got a little tense, as Christologies tangled with one another, with doubters doubting and proclaimers proclaiming.
For me, right now, the confession comes easily. Not quite as easily as Peter’s, and I might meddle with the exact word choices, but I can confess my faith with joy. At other times in my life, doubt held greater sway, and I might not have been able to confess faith, only questions. Even though I can confess easily now, questions remain.
Why did it matter so much? Why such passion and tension in our amiable group? Because who we confess Christ to be is who we confess ourselves striving to be. At the cornerstone of all orthodox theology is the belief that our identity as human beings is dependent upon God. Several members of the group referred to their catechism: “I profess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” The Heidelberg Catechism (from our UCC tradition, although held loosely) begins with the absolute connection between our identity and Jesus’:
What is thy only comfort in life and death?
That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
Who Jesus is determines who we are. Confession—You are the Christ! My Lord and Savior!—is only the beginning. From that moment on, our answer to the question of who Jesus is becomes the answer to who we are. When we confess ourselves as followers of him, we vow to be “sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.” If Jesus is a teacher, we are learners and teachers ourselves. If Jesus is a friend, we are friends to others. If Jesus is an advocate for social justice, we too are builders of peace and justice for all. If Jesus is a healer, we are healed and healers too. The source of our identity is found in Jesus.
For me, faith is far more about living with the question than knowing the answer. Who do you say that I am? I want to leave that question open, both about me and about Jesus. I follow a God of mystery and surprise, who is always revealing to me new understandings of Jesus and of myself. As I practice my faith and grow into the person God has created me to be, I will need to revisit the question over and over again. What does it mean for Jesus to be my Lord today? What is Jesus saving me from right now? What is Jesus saving me for in this moment, or the next? Who is Jesus to me today? What is Jesus asking of me today? How can I “live unto him?”
Praise be to God, for questions and confessions, for doubts and decisions, for tensions and resolutions, for growth and change, for the source of our life and who we are.