mural at the Hagia Sophia
17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 16th, 2018
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Jesus is so very good at asking the right questions. Did you ever notice this? Especially in Mark’s gospel, which we’ve been reading all this year, Jesus seems to ask more question than give answers. And these questions, at times, seem more illuminating than any right answer he could give.
Have you ever had a teacher like this? Or, not just a teacher, but someone in your life who was just so good at listening, and so quiet, so that when they did speak, you opened up immediately and listened? These sorts of people, at least in my experience, often asked questions rather than gave answers.
Once, while I was discerning my call to the priesthood, I was at a particularly confusing time. I had done a lot of thinking (and probably not enough praying) alone, and my thoughts had turned into a jumble. I couldn’t discern God’s voice from my own needs or wants or desires. I felt like a tangle of Christmas lights pulled from the attic: all wound about myself with no idea of how to begin.
And so I sought out a friend and laid it all before him. And how I laid it out! All my worry and anxiety came spilling out in one great mess, and the more I spoke, the more I worried that there was no way my friend could help. It was too tangled, too complicated, too interconnected for anyone (I feared) to see the end of it. And my friend listened calmly, nodding here or there, but never taking his eyes off me. And when I finally stopped to breathe, and of course really just sighed, knowing there was so much more to explain, my friend finally spoke, and all he asked was, “Tim, where do you see God in this?”
It seems an obvious question, and of course it is. But in that moment, that simple question cleared my confusion away, it made my skies clear again. With that question, my friend had shown me the beginning, where to start.
This is a “Jesus question”. Not that it’s a question about Jesus or that he quoted a question Jesus asked. But my friend’s question was a “Jesus question” because it pulled me down to the heart of what was going on and the heart of my confusion. This is the sort of question Jesus himself asks the disciples in our gospel reading this morning.
At first, though, he begins with a rather simple question: who do people say that I am? And the flood-gates open! Apparently this has been quite the topic of conversation! People say that Jesus is John the Baptist, or maybe Elijah, or maybe even one of the prophets. And I imagine that they gave all of these answers, and probably others, all at once, in one great jumble of sound. And this is pretty natural. For Jesus has been all over the place, casting out demons, healing the sick and the injured, raising the dead, and teaching with this strange authority he seems to get from no earthly source. People are wondering who this guy is. They know something big’s coming, but they don’t know what it’ll be, and just like us they’re snatching at guesses of what the future might hold. Like those Christmas lights, they know there’s light here, but they can’t figure out how to untangle it and figure it out.
And this is when Jesus asks his “Jesus question.” For he listens to all these guesses, takes it all in and ponders it, but then he asks, “But who do you say I am.” And this question, it shifts everything, it turns everything on its head. It says, sure, that’s the gossip about me, but who do you – you who’ve been walking with me and listening to me and talking with me, you who’ve broken bread with me, who I called to be with me day in and day out, through hardship and joy – who do you say I am?”
This is, I think, pretty much the climax of St. Mark’s gospel. This is the question, I think, that Mark not only wants us to Jesus asked but to hear Jesus asking us even now: who do you say that I am? For when we read the gospel and, really, the entire Bible, we’re not just reading a record of things that happened two thousand or more years ago. Mark didn’t write his gospel just so that we could have a chronicle of events in a man’s life. No, I think Mark wrote his gospel because he wanted to show us both Jesus’s life in the past and his continued life, in our lives even right now, and how Jesus is still asking us this question: who do you say that am I? And this question brings us to the ground floor of our relationship with Jesus and with God the Trinity.
For some of us, this question may come as a comfort, a small reminder that God is with us, even in the confusion. For others, it may come with a bit of a nudge, a reminder that we need to continue walking in the Way of Christ, to continue to nurture that relationship we have with Jesus. And it might come, like it came to St. Peter, as a reminder that we’ve grown a bit stagnant. For sometimes, like Peter, we have the right answer, but we don’t know the full meaning of that answer. For Peter’s right, Jesus is the Messiah, but Peter thinks that being the Messiah means quite a bit more (or quite a bit less) than undergoing great suffering, being rejected by all the church leaders, and killed. The right answer doesn’t always mean being correct.
But here is the grace of God, and to see it we have to take a peak beyond our readings. St. Peter’s right, but in the end he’s wrong, and is rebuked for it. Jesus even calls him “Satan.” And Peter might be forgiven for feeling a bit crushed and even falling into despair. But even if he does, he sticks with Jesus and he keeps listening. Perhaps he realizes through this that he’s not quite there, not quite sure just yet who this Jesus is. And so he keeps on with the man, continues to follow his teacher. And in the next chapter, just a few short verses beyond our gospel reading today, it is Peter, along with James and John, who are brought to the mountaintop, and it is to them, who struggle and are lost and give the right wrong answers, it is to these wayward people who see Christ transfigured before them. And so we must remember that, just because we are lost, we are never without God.