Learning to love the questioner

  • September 5, 2013

Late afternoon sunshine brought gold and charcoal shadings. I felt dusty and worn. We’d started early, when it was relatively cool, but the heat grew quickly and we’d wandered through several hot places in the north of Galilee this July day.

We came into the place known as Banyas, and it met us graciously. A rocky cliff arose ahead; coming down to us from it was flowing water, wide and peaceful, cool and clear. Green trees and foliage lavished and softened the landscape. In such dry countryside, where you get used to brown and grey, dust and hardness, water is a gift of astonishing proportions, practical, lovely, filling body and soul.

How delightful to explore at the foot of the escarpment, with the water rippling over coloured stones. And sitting together, to hear this question: “Who do you say I am?” as spoken to Jesus’ disciples here in this area of Caesarea Philippi (we read aloud from Matthew 16). Especially in our context of studying the Torah (first five books of the Bible), learning about the land and people into which Jesus was born.

For His disciples it was a watershed question, as for us disciples. I wonder how Simon and his companions reacted. If they’d wished to avoid it, or let somebody else answer for them, that time abruptly ended. The question is personal. It’s a face-to-face sort of question, drawing on relationship, “you” and “I.” Not the sort of thing you look up on the Internet. It calls for a declaration.

Here we were immersed in the land Jesus lived in. We swam in the Lake of Galilee, alive with His joyous, sparkling spirit. How much of His life was spent on its shores, on or in its waters. Didn’t He delight in it? We visited a Roman amphitheatre near Nazareth which, perhaps, He and Joseph helped build; walked on the floors of synagogues He might have prayed in. Did He like working outdoors in the fresh mornings? Did He enjoy singing the Sabbath prayers? We ate fresh refreshing figs on hot afternoons, and understood why He might curse a fig tree that offered Him no fruit.

We visited places where His name has been a source of strife, a reason for drawing the sword, justification of violent, sinful actions — in big ways and in the small, daily ways we His disciples often do. Do I make Him just like me, a projection of my own ideas and thoughts, my fears and ignorance? Do I use Him to excuse my little meannesses? Do I keep Him in a tiny box, docketed and labelled, harmless? Do I even know much about Him, in His earthly life, and now? Am I prepared to have Him wrench open my smallness and draw me out of my little places to meet others as they are?

In September, we elevate the cross on which Christ suffered and died. We encounter Him in suffering, perplexity, abandonment and betrayal; we discover how God infuses life and glory even, above all, in such places.

“Who do you say I am?” After Simon spoke aloud in response, Jesus named him: “blessed are you... I tell you that you are Peter...” Our answer to the question about Jesus includes a question about ourselves: who are we? In our face-to-face encounter with Him, in our naming of Him, we discover our true selves. We may be judged by our response, but by it, too, we are called to life.

Many Christians wrestle with day-to-day decisions about how to name Him before others, by word and action. What does the way I dress say about Christ? What I do with my money? Where I get my children educated, how I speak to their other parent? What I keep on my desk? What do I say to my friends engaging in activities that, for me, would harm Christ? How do I respond to poverty, my own or someone else’s?

These days, we can (must) speak with people of different faiths and no faith, and hear what they’ve learned of His name. And, like the disciples, answer in every action: Who do we say He is?

We have so many ways to learn about His life on Earth, His time and place, His presence among us now, how our fellow faithful through the centuries have prayed and listened and spoken with Him. Many Christians I’ve met want to learn more, though they don’t always know how. We need each other for this; we need all humanity.

As we learn, we’ll be blessed, broken, changed, poured out. We’ll discover — like Peter — how our strongest beliefs and ideas may be mistaken, how our actions in His name may actually harm Him. We’ll understand more deeply our faith, and other faiths; come closer to doubt, to the earth, our thirsts, our intellects. We’ll encounter His total humanness, and therefore our own; His unbreakable connection with God, and therefore our own.

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca.)