Live the Question

Live the Question
August 23, 2020 (Proper 16A)

Lessons for Proper 16A: 

In one of his famous “Letters to a Young Poet,” Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke encouraged his protégé, 

You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language…Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet” #4

“Who do you say that I am?,” Jesus asks. Let us not answer the question too quickly. Let us take our time. I think that we are tempted as Chrisitans to assume the question has already been resolved for us; so, we are tempted to jump to an answer that uses an inherited religious language or that has been formed in us by creed and tradition. Or, on the other hand, we are tempted to not answer the question at all, evading the question out of shame or fear or false humility. So, maybe it is best to wait a while and to let the question simmer. 

Who do you say Jesus is? Jesus is making his way with the disciples through the city of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was erected in 3 BCE by King Philip II, tetrarch of Batanae, at the base of Mount Hermon on an older, Alexandrian site called Paneas. Paneas itself arose as a tribute to the Greek god Pan because of its proximity to the spring that fed the Huela marshes which in turn fed the upper Jordan River. So, upon his ascension to the tetrarchy, Philip II greatly expanded and lavishly made over the city, renaming it in honor of Caesar Augustus and himself. It is in this geographical context that Jesus invites his disciples with the question. 

“Who do you say that I am?” Perhaps, as a Christian, there is objection to waiting to answer the question. After all, isn’t there already an answer? Don’t we profess the answer in creed and liturgy and tradition. Isn’t this a question that demands absolutism and the sure conviction of faith? Jesus is God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary. Jesus was crucified for our sake, was buried, and on the third day rose again. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. 

“Who do you say that I am?” It seems to me and I think the gospel of Matthew agrees, we are still meant to live the question of who Jesus is day after day. The question, you see, is a product of the journey that we are on, a journey that doesn’t end. We are simply not meant to “solve” God once and for all.

So Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Who am I to you? What do I mean to you in this life we’re making together?

In Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus prefaces the tough question with an easier one: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). In other words, what are people saying about me? What have you heard in the villages and towns? Putting myself in the scene, I can hear the audible relief of the disciples, like school children eager to please the teacher. “Certainly, John the Baptist!  Others say Elijah! And still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” This was an easier question for the disciples because it required no reaching deep into their emotional souls. Not coincidentally, the answers the disciples come up with were entirely from their tradition, from their inherited religious language. 

It is interesting that Jesus does not affirm nor deny the disciples’ answers. Jesus simply listens and allows his friends to offer up everything they think they know. It’s as if Jesus is saying that this is an okay place to begin. Spiritual and religious exploration begins, after all, with naming and examining the traditions that have been handed down by others. These answers don’t cost us much; they are safe as they hearken to the language and the story of someone else. Now, to be sure, the sharing of and adherence to the story of others is lovely and sacred and holy. It is, however, not an intimate experience. There is no personal stake, investment, or risk. Naming and sharing the story only that we’ve received from others, from pastor, parent, or peer, is useful, maybe even vital, as a beginning to our spiritual explorations. It should not, however, be the end. At some point, in other words, the question of who Jesus is should be personal.  

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus presses on with his questions for the disciples by digging deep. Forget about what other people say, what do you say? Who am I to you?  How have you experienced me? The schoolchild exuberance, I now imagine, turns to reluctance. I imagine the disciples falling into an awkward silence, avoiding eye contact, and shuffling about as they avoid the difficult question. And there is Jesus, waiting patiently and vulnerably to hear what his closest friends will say about him. After the bread they’ve broken, the miles they’ve walked, the burdens they’ve carried, and the tears they’ve shed, will they know him? Have the disciples learned to trust? Do they understand the missio? Are they willing to confess out loud, to make a claim, and take a risk, even if it might cost them?

Then, as if on cue, Peter chimes in. Bold, earnest, impulsive Peter breaks the silence, throwing himself into the breach as he answers with confidence, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Indeed, the whole gospel story is succinctly wrapped in a pretty little confession. Yes, Peter gets it, right?

Yes, Peter gets it. At least as the narrative concluded in today’s lectionary selection from Matthew 16:13-20. Indeed, Jesus blesses Peter for his answer and declares that Jesus will build the church upon “the rock” of Peter and his bold testimony. 

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.

Matthew 16:19

And all of this is true and powerful

But that is not the end of the story. As Peter demonstrates in the very next episode – an episode intimately connected to today’s – we learn that as Jesus begins to describe the suffering and humiliation that he will undergo as Messiah, Peter is quick to rebuke him. Peter insists that such talk is not worthy of the Messiah; Peter wants Jesus to fit his image. And for this, Jesus in turn rebukes Peter with those quite shocking words,

Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Matthew 16:23

It is a haunting exchange, especially considering how often I get it wrong. But, as unnerving as it is, I do like what it demonstrates about “living the question” of who Jesus is. I really like how Peter’s confession, “ You are the Messiah!,” is just the beginning of Peter’s exploration. It is not the end. Peter thinks he has the answer and he did to an extent. But Peter seems to have thought that he had the answer nailed down, that there wasn’t anything else to the question. But Jesus challenges Peter. Peter doesn’t have it all figured out. He still needs to live the question. 

I was drawn to think about the whole of the Peter story told in the gospels and Acts. We are privileged with a great deal of biographical data (much more than any other disciple) and I am struck by the answers to the question, “Who do you say that I am?,” that Peter must have lived into as time went on.

“Who do you say that I am?”  

  • You are the one who found me in a fishing boat and called me to a new life.
  • You are the one who healed my mother-in-law.
  • You are the one who invited me to walk on the water; and, you are the one who took my hand before I drowned.
  • You are the one who was radiant on the mountain top as I babbled nonsense.
  • You are the one who washed my feet while I squirmed in shame.
  • You are the one who told me that I would cower on the night you needed me most, betraying not once but three times; and, you are the one who looked deep in my eyes as with pain and pity as the cock crowed.
  • You are the one who fed me fish on the shore after I swam from the boat and spoke new and fresh purpose into my humiliation. 
  • You are the one who sent the Spirit that gave me the courage to preach to three thousand people.
  • You are the one who taught me that I must not call unclean what you have pronounced clean.  
  • You are the one who stayed by my side through insults, beatings, and imprisonments – the one I followed into martyrdom. 
  • “Yes, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) 

Who do you say that Jesus is?  Who has he been in your past?  Who is Jesus now?  Who do you hope Jesus will be in your future? These are questions to ponder for a lifetime. What religious language have you inherited and what traditions have been passed down? What “truths” and assumptions are we clinging to simply because they’re familiar and safe? Are we afraid to live the question because it might change us? 

Peter, I think, ultimately understands that Jesus is just as powerfully present in the questions as in the answer. To love what is unsolved is not to deny Jesus his Lordship. It is to allow Jesus to enter more deeply into your heart than any impersonal claim about him will ever do.  Jesus Invites us today to live the question, and he asks it over and over again to each one of us, every day, in love.

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