Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A Question on the Table

(This is the first in a series of messages titled "Twenty Questions With Jesus.")

Mark 8:27-30

When I was a kid we used to play Twenty Questions on road trips. You know how the game goes—one person thinks of something, usually animal, mineral or vegetable, and the rest have twenty yes or no questions to try to figure out what the thing is. My sisters and I used to play it (in-between choruses of "You Are My Sunshine"), and now we play it with Ian.

Twenty Questions is usually a game we play to pass the time on a long journey. Today we’re going to turn that around a little and begin a long journey together. We’re going to spend the next twenty weeks looking at selected questions that Jesus asked during his ministry—there are actually hundreds of them recorded in the Bible.

We talk a lot about the sermons of Jesus, or his parables, or the conversations he had with his disciples. This is a little different from that. Jesus often used questions to help people understand what he was about—or to get people to wrestle with something he taught—or to prompt some kind of action that would show that his followers were learning how to live out what he was teaching.

Between now and Pentecost we’re going to play Twenty Questions with Jesus. But this won’t be a game we play just to kill time on a long drive. The goal is to give us some insight into who Jesus is and what Jesus wants from us…as we are each on our own journey of faith and growth and discovery.

Sometimes the questions Jesus asks are theological—they get at something we’re supposed to know about him and his purposes.

Sometimes the questions are ethical—they get at what we’re supposed to do or how we’re called to live.

Sometimes the questions Jesus asks are confrontational—they force us to see something to change or confess or leave behind.

The most important of the questions do all of the above, like the one we’re starting with today.

27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

This story appears in almost the exact same form in Matthew, Mark and Luke—the gospels that tell the story of Jesus as a story without very much interpretation. First Jesus asks the disciples who the crowds say that he is, and then he turns the question on the Twelve. Jesus asks them this question to see where they are in understanding his ministry, and then almost immediately he tells them that he’s going to have to die to make his point—to accomplish the mission that he came to do. He's not ready for this story to be spread just yet, so he asks them to keep it secret for just a little while longer.

The point of the passage rests on these questions. “Who do the people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?”

Questions are crucial to growing into mature faith. Questions are the ways we learn and struggle and come to understand things. I have all kinds of questions. They’re the same ones we all have.

Why is there so much suffering in the world?
What about other religions?
What really happens when we die?

I have all kinds of questions.

But in the end my ability to understand the responses God might offer to any of my questions—my ability to understand God’s answers is dependent on my answer to this big fat enchilada of a question that Jesus asks all of us:

“Who do you say that I am?”

Two things to notice about this question:

Part of this is theological: Who is Jesus? There are the textbook answers: Son of God; Savior of the world; prince of peace—you’ve probably heard those before. Jesus himself said “I am the way, the truth and the life—no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Lots of people don’t want to wrestle with that one—with what Jesus actually says about himself, and so they rely completely on their own feelings about who Jesus is…to them. The danger in relying only on our feelings or thoughts about Jesus is that he becomes a savior in our own image, instead of the other way around.

I have a Jesus Action Figure with me this morning. Have you seen one of these? It comes with “poseable arms and a gliding action.” I can do a lot of things with this little toy, but it doesn’t ask anything of me—it doesn’t ask me any questions—it doesn’t demand anything from my life. As a matter of fact this Jesus Action Figure is completely dependent on me for it to do anything. That’s not the Jesus of the Scriptures.

When Jesus asks us “Who do you say that I am,” he’s asking “Just how much of my teaching are you willing accept—to wrestle with and believe. And so part of this question is theological.

But I think that the biggest part of this question is missional: Notice that he doesn’t say: “Who do you think that I am…when no one’s looking—when you’re hidden away?” This is not just a question about belief—this is a question about our habits and practices as followers of Christ. Who do you say that I am? Who do you say that to? Maybe the better question is: Do you ever say anything about who I am to people? Do you say anything about me?

I’ve been reading Stan Guthrie’s new book called All That Jesus Asks. It’s the new addition to the recommended reading list in the bulletin. In one chapter he’s talking about the miracles of Jesus—the healings and battles with the spiritual realm—and he says this:

“In these events we see that Jesus, unlike the religious action figures sold at Wal-Mart, is not infinitely bendable, able to assume whatever postmodern pose we give him. He’s not the pious, otherworldly, slightly effeminate savior we see in so much religious art. No, his hands are rough, even cracked, from hard work. He’s stared evil and suffering in the face, seized them by the scruff of the neck, and lived to tell about it.”

As we celebrate Communion together today, we have the usual bread and cup, but today there’s also a question on that Table. Jesus invites us to come and share in this meal and to remember who he is and what he’s done for us. Jesus invites us to be together with him, but he also asks this question: “Who do you say that I am?”

We may have different answers to that question right now, but we can’t really get anywhere unless we’re willing to face it honestly, with all our doubts and struggles and questions.

As we come to the Table, my prayer for us is that we’ll commit ourselves to this journey of twenty questions—that we’ll enter into a time of prayer and study and reflection—that we’ll be ready when someone else asks us who we say Jesus is—that we’ll have an answer that introduces that person to the one who came and lived and loved and stared evil and suffering in the face and lived to tell the tale.

Let’s pray together.