The Abiding Question

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A rock singer, Joan Osborne, had a song out this past year called "One of Us" that was nominated for a Grammy Award. It immediately gets the attention of the Christian community because it raises the question, "What if God was one of us?... Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home."

Many sincere believers were offended by the song, taking it as a cynical put­down of the faith. The idea of meeting God as a stranger on the bus seemed to these folks to be on or across the borderline of blasphemy.

But on the other hand, isn't that exactly the central affirmation of our Christian gospel that God has met us in a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. Our problem is that we do not initially meet Jesus as a human being. We encounter Jesus in the lofty doctrines of the church, in the grandeur of a stained glass window, or in a piece of classic art with a halo hovering over his head. We have never seen a stranger on the bus with a halo over his head.

So it is hard for us to put ourselves in the shoes of the first followers of Jesus, Peter, Bartholomew, Mary Magdalene, James, John, Salome, who met Him first of all as a human being. And yet from the very beginning of their relationship with him there was wonder, there was awe, there was more than they could explain with the usual answers. Where did He get this extraordinary authority to speak with such boldness and conviction, words which were such a breath of fresh air? How was it that His prayer, His touch could bring healing to people who had no hope. What kind of compassion could provide a community of acceptance for all kinds of people, so many of whom were excluded at all other places in that society?

Some who were outraged by Jesus' lifestyle and ministry said, "He gets it from the Devil." But others saw Him in the tradition of the great prophets, "another Jeremiah or Elijah," they said. Still others found the spirit of the recently executed John the Baptist reborn in Jesus. So there was speculation everywhere. Finally, according to the Gospel, there came a time in the experience of his closest followers, when He asked them point blank, "how about you, what do you think?" And Peter said the biggest thing he could, "you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

Peter's answer does not connect easily to our time. We are not a part of a society that is eagerly awaiting a Messiah, nor do we live in a world that is filled with gods like the Greco-­Roman world. Many Biblical scholars suggest that Peter's answer reflects the times that Matthew's Gospel addresses, when the church toward the end of the first century is proclaiming Jesus as Messiah to the Jewish community, and as the Son of God to the Gentiles.

But if Peter's answer connects more readily to that time than this time, what does come to us with clear and present import is Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" After all of these years we have not exhausted the meaning, the power the beauty that the life of Jesus expresses, and so the question comes across the years to address each generation, "Who do you say that I am?"

As we consider our response, it seems to me that the Biblical study of the life of Jesus over the past two centuries can serve us, because it has helped us to recover the reality that the disciples first met Jesus as a human being, and were brought to the point of trying to express their extraordinary developing conviction that God was somehow present, active, speaking, giving, healing through this human life. As someone has suggested our faith is not so much resting on the hope that Jesus is like God, as if we were experts on what God is like, but our faith is resting on the hope God is like Jesus, that is compassionate, forgiving, accepting, welcoming.

If Jesus is not fully human, if he is of different stuff than ourselves, then Christian faith becomes ancient history. We go back 2000 years to an event in a far away time and place, and the faith becomes a kind of hero worship. But if Jesus is human as we are human, then the faith becomes absolutely current, pertinent, and awaiting our response. What Peter and the other disciples confronted was the central Biblical miracle, the incarnation, the presence of God in the human, God as one of us. The challenge and the invitation that Jesus holds before us is the possibility that we too as human beings can be the temples of God's presence, the vehicles of God's action. We can enter into the realm of God in the world. We can become the body of Christ. If we affirm God in Jesus, we are opening to the possibility of God in ourselves.

If that sounds too lofty and theological, think of it in terms of the incident that arises out of the lore surrounding the Polish pianist, Paderewski. A mother wanted to encourage the progress of her young son at the piano and so she bought two tickets to a Paderewski performance. When the night arrived she found their seats near the front of the concert hall and they eyed the large Steinway parked by itself on the stage. Soon the mother found a friend to talk with and she did not notice the boy slip away. When 8:00 p.m. arrived the house light dimmed, the spotlights came on, the Steinway was bathed in light, and only then did this mother notice that her son was seated at the piano bench, where he began innocently to plunk the keys in a rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The audience roared, his mother gasped, but before she could retrieve her son, Paderewski himself appeared and moved quickly towards the keyboard. "No, don't quit, keep on playing," he whispered to the boy. And reaching past him with his left hand the Master began improvising a bass part, and then with his right hand, he reached around on the other side of the boy to add a running obbligato. The crowd was spell bound and the piece concluded in thunderous applause as the boy announced, "I didn't know I could do that."

That's incarnation. We are only human; we do not feel worthy or able, but by some miracle of grace, it is the human that God uses. God whispers in our ear, "don't quit, keep on playing," and as we continue, we are lovingly enfolded, graciously inspired, and from our feeble efforts something wonderful can emerge.

Jesus comes to us across the years, yet still vividly, powerfully, beautifully, and the question remains, "Who do you say that I am?" If we meet Him like Peter as a human being, if we affirm Him as one in whom God is present and active, we are not only saying something about Jesus. We are opening ourselves to a possibility. We are standing at the threshold of Life's most exciting adventure.

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