22 September 2011

Who Do You Say that I Am? On the importance of Jesus' Questions

Tomorrow's readings focus on the promise of God's coming attached to his covenant with us and how it is that the fruit of that covenant so completely overshadows anything we expect or could have expected. When God reveals himself it is a surprise to us. In fact, God's self revelation is a surprise which shakes us to the very foundations of our being. And yet, the coming of our God can be subtle, simple, exteriorly unimposing --- even a bit disappointing when we see it with something other than the eyes of faith.

In the first reading from Haggai, the new Temple, the place where heaven and earth literally meet, though still under construction, is disappointing for those who remember the old Temple and its glory. This new Temple, despite being unfinished, "seems like nothing in their eyes." And yet, Haggai tells the people in the name of the Lord, "take courage. . .for I am with you. . .my spirit continues in your midst. . . in a [little while] I will shake the heavens and the earth. . . all the nations (will be shaken). . . and I will fill this house with Glory. . . and give you peace." In that day the new Temple will be even more imposing than that of Solomon. We are not surprised that the language of this coming in fullness is the traditional language of cosmic upheaval, nor are we surprised at the fact that the Lord must counsel his people to patience. It is hard to believe in the fruit when all we hold in our hands is the seed, for instance.

In the Gospel Jesus has been praying in solitude, and he comes out to ask his disciples, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" The response is familiar, "John the Baptist;. . . Elijah,. . . one of the ancient Prophets arisen." And so it goes. Then Jesus asks the really pivotal question, "And you, who do you say that I am?" Peter replies, "You are the Christ of God." Jesus cautions the disciples not to tell anyone and then clarifies, the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the religious leaders of the day, be crucified and raised. Then others really will have to grapple with this question finding that old answers are inadequate and terms they thought they understood have been redefined. Only then will the real meaning of "the Christ of God" be revealed. Only then will the fullness of God's faithfulness and mercy be seen. Only then he will have been revealed on and in his own terms --- surprising, disappointing, and even as offensive as that may be to many.

At some point then, for this revelation to come to fullness, every one of us must answer the question Jesus posed to his disciples. It is certainly true that an important part of coming to faith is trusting in what the tradition tells us, trusting what those we love tells us, listening attentively to the stories they share which move us to faith, listening to the Scriptures as they challenge and inspire us similarly. It is critical that we reflect on the Scriptures which are God's Word in a special way for us. In other words, we must answer Jesus' first question as well: "Who do people say that I am?" However, mature faith is not built on mere information; it is not a matter of merely acting as though what these people have said is true --- though it usually begins here, and can be assisted by doing so in times of difficulty. Mature faith means allowing ourselves to be addressed, challenged and changed by what we hear because we trust the one addressing us. And one of the most powerful, though unpretentious, ways we are addressed by the Word of God is through Jesus' questions.

But what do we ordinarily do with Jesus' questions? For Jesus' questions, deceptively simple and unpretentious though they are, are those little seeds which can eventually bear great fruit, the tiny levers which can shift the very axis of our world, the trigger for the minor tremor which can grow and, in time, shake the foundations of everything built up in our lives and allow God to build something new and more glorious than the original Temple of Solomon. They are dynamite in small, plainly-wrapped packages. But before we can answer the question in tomorrow's gospel passage, we have to entertain it, and in my experience Jesus's questions are the things we mainly ignore --- partly because we think they are addressed to someone else, partly because we remember the story instead, partly because we look for information (Jesus is the Christ, Peter answered the question this way, etc), and partly because on some level we are afraid of what would happen if we were pressed to let the question work in us and eventually be made to answer ourselves. In our own way, we tend to do as the Jews did with the new and unfinished Temple; we treat them as nothing --- insignificant and as things lacking in power or potential.

For instance, if I were to ask you how many questions Jesus asked, what would you answer? If I asked how many are recorded in the gospels what would you say? If I pressed harder and asked how many you could repeat, how would you do? And if I asked how many you had prayed with, journaled on, spoken to friends about, been transformed by, what would your answers be? In the past several years I have only written about two of Jesus' questions --- two which I had prayed with, journaled about, etc. These two alone had changed my life: "Who do you say that I am?" and "Do you want to be well?" I could think of several others: "What did you go out into the desert to see?" "Could you not watch with me for one brief hour?" "Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and not do as I command?" but I had never prayed with these, never treated them as addressed directly to me. Imagine my surprise when I found websites listing over 40 questions posed directly to those who would be his followers (not counting duplicates in other gospel accounts)!

As Rainer Marie Rilke once counselled a young poet, it is more important, in some ways, to "live the questions," than to simply be given and have the answer. Doing this uncovers unexamined assumptions and unexplored conclusions, shifts our perspective, triggers in our brains an explosion of creative and imaginative potential and power, breaks us out of psychological and cognitive ruts, reframes the way we see and feel about reality, allows us to get in touch with our deepest and truest selves and all we are and need, and can foster our capacity for empathy and attentiveness. Imagine then what Jesus' own questions can do when they are the vehicle for the Holy Spirit and the coming reign of God!! What comes from living with them is wholly incommensurate with their apparent simplicity and humbleness.

My prayer today is that we all might take a little more care with Jesus' questions and especially that we not dismiss them as the post-exilic Jews did with the new Temple beginnings. For us, these questions are precisely the place where heaven and earth meet, where judgment (harvest!) is accomplished, where God is given a chance to work in and through us so that he might, if only we are patient, be fully revealed and his creation brought to completion.

Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: On the Importance of Jesus' Questions