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If ever you want to feel your perspiration coming on, you don't really need a hot day. All you need is the sudden flash of a memory that brings back some anxious moment or embarrassing time. The more embarrassing that experience was, the more profuse the sweat. Chances are good that you'll also feel some body tremors, just recalling how awful that original experience felt. Whether it leveled your self-confidence or momentarily damaged your self-esteem, it did not feel good.
I can recall a high school embarrassment that takes little effort to remember. And it didn't just happen once, unfortunately. It happened numbers of times. I am going to guess that you experienced exactly the same thing. And I think you'll know what I am talking about.
There were days in high school history class when the teacher would fire off a question out of the blue, and most of the class was not prepared to answer it. Or, at least, I wasn't prepared. You remember that experience? It was an awful feeling. To this day, I do not know if it was a thoughtful teaching technique that was being deployed or the power play of certain young teachers eager to exert their authority over some sleepy teenagers. Either way, nobody seemed exempt from the possibility of being called upon.
I remember the section of history on the American Revolution. We had particular chapters to read about the details of the Revolutionary War. If you skipped the homework assignment, there was no way to respond adequately when the teacher asked how a detail of the Revolutionary War affected your thinking about America. The room grew quiet. If no one raised his or her hand to answer, the teacher would pick someone. In the silence of it all, my own palms would grow sweaty, my mouth would dry out, and in that instant, it seemed as if my whole life was suddenly reduced to two very confining options. Either I could sit entirely motionless, hoping that the teacher might mistake me for a statue and call on a kid in the next row ... OR I could look down at my desk, shuffle my papers deliberately, click my pen meaningfully (as if I were somehow in command of the subject matter), and again hope that the teacher would spring the question on someone who looked less "with it" and more ignorant than me.
Essentially those were the two options. It was a tough choice and both involved high stakes. Regardless of which of the two I picked, the teacher usually seemed to pick me!! You remember that horror of the teacher usually seeming to pick you? I would turn all red in the face. My perspiration would begin to flow, and I had approximately two one hundredths of a second to decide how on earth I was going to speak to a subject that I knew absolutely nothing about. It's hard to pretend in front of a class when your peers are ready to burst into laughter the minute they hear how ridiculously "off" your answer will be. Sometimes it was possible to use a big word or some cumbersome phrase quickly stolen from the book's dust jacket. That way I could try and make it sound as if I actually had read the assignment and knew something. But that strategy usually failed.
I am thinking today about the agony of being called on by a teacher all because of a little exchange that happened between Jesus and his disciples one day. He asked those disciples for their sense of what the scuttlebutt on the street was regarding his own identity. "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Now, to answer this question, all that the disciples had to do was regurgitate what other people had been saying. There is not a lot of controversy or risk involved when you speak using the third person. "Well, some say you are John the Baptist, but others say you are Elijah, and still others speak of you as Jeremiah or one of the other prophets." Even if these sorts of claims were the "street talk," they didn't really reveal very much. At best, they were mere snippets of information shared.
So, Jesus altered the question. Evidently, he wanted more than impressions from people eating down the street at the coffee shop. So he changed one word and now he repeated the question. Now the word "YOU" was inserted. "Who do you say that I am?" Can't you see the red faces on the disciples? ... their sweaty palms? ... their dry mouths? The question of Jesus must have evoked the same terror, or something like it, that I knew in high school history class on those days when I didn't have the answer and the teacher called on me without warning. All I remember was total panic.
That little word "YOU" can make all the difference in the world when asking a question or giving direction. It implicates a person. In fact, it's the first word God ever spoke to a human being. To Adam and Eve, God said, "You may freely eat of any tree in the garden [except for, of course, that one over there]." Suddenly, the first couple realized they had a stake in creation and a personal place in the heart of God.
Insert that little word YOU--as in "Who do YOU say that I am?"--and it's a bit like the high school teacher suddenly catching you unaware. One little word can make all the difference in the world. Talking about Jesus as an idea is a far cry from trusting your life to Jesus. Believing in the concept of God does not begin to compare with you actually knowing God.
It's the difference between talking about love and telling someone that you actually love him or her. I'll take a kiss any day from someone whom I care about, over that same person just reading to me from a textbook about love.
Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem to a distant and unexpressive lover of hers. It began with this line: "To love me is one thing; to tell me you love me is another." That's the kind of difference Jesus seems to be hinting at. Something in his question--"Who do you say that I am?"--was searching for a read on the disciples' love. How would the disciples respond to their teacher's unannounced question? Some of them probably tried the "statue option," hoping that Jesus would mistake them for Plaster of Paris and call on someone else. Others likely stuffed their panic inside, cupping their chin in their hand and looking down as if studious and reflective on the whole situation. Whatever happened, Peter was the first to speak up. And without any equivocation, he said: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." Something in those words struck Jesus as completely genuine ... full of love and personal passion. It wasn't anything like the textbook responses that the other disciples were thinking up. No, this was Peter through and through, heart and soul, all Peter. It felt to Jesus like Peter was saying directly to him, "I love you." And all Jesus could say in astonishing reply was, "Blessed are you."
You know, there are a lot of panic-stricken believers in the Christian Church today. Perhaps you think of yourself as one of them. Now, when I say "panic-stricken," I'm thinking of that state of being when you are called on to answer a question for which you really don't know the answer. Have you ever had any trouble expressing your faith? Ever had any difficulty finding adequate words to say what you believe? Have you ever found that when you finally got those words out, they didn't exactly say very much or contain much of the passion or true insight that is truly YOU? It's possible that you even realized that virtually anyone could have said them as well as you or better. In other words, they were not distinctive to your life. They sounded more text-bookish than anything else, almost as if you sort-of-believed them, but not quite. You believed those words of yours to be nice ideas or holy-sounding concepts, but certainly not anything requiring your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, once spoke of the paltriness that infiltrates too many Christian lives. He wrote of the flimsy thoughts of our hearts. He called his fellow Christians "shopkeeping souls," people are busier engaging dull religious duty instead of some bone-rattling passion.
For a moment, never mind what you are accomplishing with your life or achieving in your vocation. That's all well and good and important. The question I want to ask you today is, "Are you in love with Jesus?" Is there a fire in your soul or a twinkle in your eye or a radiance to your smile? These might be clues that other people will pick up, believe it or not, as to whether or not God really matters to you. Are you merely getting through your days in emotionless fashion, void of the depth and texture of passion? Or is there more to your faith? It's worth asking yourself these sorts of questions, because Jesus would like to know from you exactly who you think he is with respect to the way you are living your life.
There is a word for the shopkeeping kind of faith that Kierkegaard observed, the dullness in too many believers who lose their capacity for astonishment and amazement. That word is Laodicean. Laodicean is not a reference to that person who lived in an ancient town by the same name mentioned here and there in scripture, but to a state of being that the writer in the Book of Revelation notes. That's where an angel of the Lord described certain believers as "lukewarm, neither hot nor cold ... just mostly indifferent." By the way, Laodicean also happens to have been the winning word in the 2009 National Spelling Bee Championship.
Who wants a Laodicean variety of faith?! You don't want such a faith and neither do I. We need one that's hungry for God, and in love with Jesus. I'm talking about a faith that is comprised of something other than textbook responses. If there are a lot of people in this world who do not believe in Jesus--and you and I know that to be the case--their disinterest and unbelief may be due, in part, to the fact that they consider Jesus irrelevant or maybe even a fraud. But I doubt that's the prevailing opinion. More likely, they just see too little passion in those of us who profess the goodness of Jesus. They see a joylessness, a smugness, a complacency, a dullness.
So why not ask yourself today: If Jesus should call on you when your hand is not raised, and ask you the question, "Who do you say that I am?" are you ready to answer him with your life, your money, your decisions, your kindness, your humility? Are you ready to display your capacity to express love rather than just some talk about love? Are you prepared not to play the statue trick or to fake an answer? You may start sweating the second you realize that you're going to want to answer with something more than just your lips.
But, guess what? Whatever you say, and however you say it, you will not only be saying something powerful about Jesus, you will also be conveying to the world something that is deeply personal. You will be communicating why your relationship with the Lord is so dear to you.
Let us pray. O Lord of questions, especially penetrating questions, give us as much passion to our lives of faith as your Spirit can manage. Fill us with a radiance, steep us in love, and help us to be wholly yours. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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