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The Ultimate Question

August 22, 2011

“The Ultimate Question” Matthew 16:13-20 © 8/21/11 Ordinary 21A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Among the many things that make us uniquely human, surely the ability and the drive to ask questions has to be near the top of the list. Almost as soon as they can speak, kids start asking “why?” Even the Alzheimer’s patient, robbed of so much, still asks questions, even if they are heart-breaking ones, like “do you know me?” It’s no accident that totalitarian governments don’t want anybody engaging in activities that implicitly or explicitly raise questions, like investigative reporting, art, jazz, and literature; that authoritarian, hierarchical churches try to silence those who ask “who says” and “why not”; and that dysfunctional families insist that everybody conform and not ask about traditions or try to open the closet and bring out skeletons. All these institutions are bent on reducing us to things, taking away our humanity, our voice, our wills, our imaginations, so they may impose their warped visions on us.

Jesus spent a good bit of his ministry asking questions. In doing that, he affirmed our humanity and expressed his own. We become conversation partners with God himself, here with us in flesh in our Lord.

So we hear Jesus inquiring “what do you think?” and “which of you?” “Whose inscription is this and whose image?” “By whose authority did John act?” Sometimes his questions were out of frustration: “Do you not yet understand?” “Have I been so long among you, and yet you don’t know me?” And he had a habit of answering a question with a question or throwing the matter back to the audience by telling a parable, which is a kind of question disguised as a story. Even on the cross, he asked a question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But the ultimate question our Lord asked was to his disciples and to us at a town called Caesarea Philippi. He’d become well known for miracles like feeding a crowd or healing the sick. People were following him everywhere. As we would say, there was a lot of “buzz” about Jesus.

So he was interested in what folks were saying. The basic answer was “one of the prophets” like Elijah or Jeremiah. A great man, a teacher, a wonder worker, somebody you’d pay to hear if you had to. A guy who’s autograph you’d like to have or whose page you would like on Facebook to keep up with his next book or appearance or podcast.

Pretty sweet. But not quite enough, not really all Jesus was. He may have been going out on a limb, he may have expected their response, he may have simply hoped that they were finally getting it when he asked “But who do you say I am?”

The answer had to be gratifying. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” An insight that could only have come to Peter and the others by revelation, by the prompting of God’s Spirit. And it was the foundation of everything that was to come.

Still today Jesus asks the same questions, starting with “Who do people say I am?”

“Well,” we might offer, “some scholars say you were a wandering wise man. Or a faith healer. You broke with the tradition of your faith and turned common sense on its ear. You confronted people with parables and witticisms. You left them puzzled and upset and angry. And you remain a ‘stranger and an enigma,’ the one who ‘trouble[s] our theological dreams’’’ as someone puts it (Dale Allison, http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2010-01/historical-christ-and-theological-jesus ). “Yes, yes, yes; but who do you say I am?”

We try again. “OK. Others claim you were a prophet of the end times. You preached revolution and liberation and said things that got you in a lot of trouble. You came to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. You said God would one day usher in a reign of peace and justice and love, and in fact, for those with eyes to see, that kingdom was here already.” “Yeah, yeah, yada, yada, yada; but who do you say I am?”

We’re digging deep now. “Hmm. You’re God with a little humanity in there somewhere? You’re the patron of our politics of whatever stripe? You’re a cosmic lover? You’re the one young people like even when they don’t like the church. You need to be rescued from the church that has abandoned your teachings. And maybe you were just a good man, a peasant who gained a following, but ran afoul of the authorities and ended up like everybody else who tries to fight the Powers That Be. And maybe a lot of people don’t really know, care or think about it. They’re too busy trying to put food on the table and avoid foreclosure or keep their kids off drugs or take care of an elderly parent.”

“But who do you say I am?”

“I was taught growing up…” “What do you say?” “The Apostles’ Creed teaches…” “Who do you say?”

“I don’t really know. I mean I want to believe something about you, but everything is so confusing. People give you all those titles and names that I’ve rattled off. Why can’t the answer be ‘All of the above?’ Maybe if I could have a picture of you to focus on. I mean a real picture, not like all those portraits that have graced the halls of churches for decades and not something Mel Gibson or some other movie director dreamed up. I think I saw a reconstruction from the Shroud of Turin on some Discovery Channel show. Maybe something like that. I would love to have video of you or an interview from a talk show. Oh, well. Of course, that’s impossible.

“And all the jargon from the church. What do all those words mean? Messiah. Christ. Son of Man. Human One. Savior. Lord. Holy Child. Son of God. Lamb of God. Lion of Judah. Alpha and Omega. I Am. Bread of Life. True Vine. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. Too many words, too much to process. I just want somebody I can talk to and trust, especially when times get tough. A friend in my need. Just keep it simple. Not so complicated.”

Whatever our dialogue with Jesus might sound like, we cannot avoid personal engagement with Jesus. We can’t depend on the answers of yesterday. Or those we find in a book, no matter if it was written by the finest and most respected scholar. Or even on what our parents or the preacher or the elder taught us. Jesus has to be encountered and confessed by each of us every day. Our lives are constantly changing, and because of that who Jesus was yesterday is not who he will be for us tomorrow. His question is posed every time we confront a new issue in our lives or in our culture, every time we mark a passing year or come to some big milestone on our journeys. When technology or medicine opens up new possibilities, who do you say I am? When disaster strikes, who do you say I am? When life is joyous and full and wondrous, who do you say I am? When we hurt so badly we could wish like Job that we were never born, who do you say I am? When you get in the car to go somewhere or sit watching TV or wash dishes or play a game or post on Facebook, who do you say I am?

Maybe even more important than the specific content of our answers is the fact that we are constantly open to the question and that we respond for ourselves, out of our own hearts and experiences. Nobody else can answer for you. Nobody can answer for me. Because each of us is unique, and our Lord comes to us and calls us and challenges us as and where and when we are.

Presbyterians don’t talk much about a personal relationship with Jesus. We know how much that kind of language can be distorted and used to manipulate people or to make the mission of the church the saving of souls instead of the making of disciples and the transformation of society. We know how easily “personal” can be twisted to mean “private,” so my faith in Jesus has nothing much to do with how I treat you or spend my money or how I vote or eat or run my business. We see it every day, compartmentalized Christians who routinely practice injustice toward their neighbors six days a week, but sing the praise of Jesus on Sunday and pump the preacher’s hand as they compliment the sermon. We know that faith places us in community, and the confession of Jesus as the Christ is something we do together. Indeed, that’s the very meaning of the word: “confessio,” to “say together.”

But until we stake our lives personally on Jesus, we are merely observers. We have not moved to true faith, the kind of trust that follows him anywhere, the surrender that allows our Lord to shape our lives, to nudge and push us out of our comfort zones into undiscovered countries of action and thought.

There are some oft-quoted lines from Albert Schweitzer that seem a fitting way to end our reflection this morning. Near the end of the first quest for the historical Jesus, he said: “He comes to us as one unknown…as he came to those…who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words: ‘Follow…me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill in our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is” (The Quest for the Historical Jesus: 403).

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