Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from Jesus, who brings life. Amen.
“What do I want to be when I grow up?”
That was the question. That’s what I was wondering. I was 21 years old and it was fall of my senior year at Gustavus Adolphus College and I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to happen next for me after graduation. I wasn’t really all that stressed about it…not nearly as stressed as my Father thought I should be. But I did know that at some point, I was going to need to figure out a plan.
Throughout my life, the question of what I would do “when I grew up” had been largely answered by the most recent TV show that I’d been watching. I’d wanted to be a police officer, a helicopter pilot, a paramedic, a starship captain, a private detective, a superhero…you get the idea.
But now, I was almost a grown up. And I figured that I needed some real advice. So I went to talk to Dr. Kevin Byrne, who was my advisor in the History Department at Gustavus
By that time, my options had really narrowed down to two paths. One was to go to grad school, and to pursue advanced degrees in history, and then to teach. I love history, and I was kind of excited about this possibility.
My other option was to move down a path towards ministry. Working in a congregation, then seminary, then probably become a pastor. I’d kind of grown up in the church, so this felt very natural to me too.
Dr. Byrne, my advisor for my history major, had a pretty clear bias. So I expected a bit of a sales pitch.
But, when I sat down with him, he did something unexpected. He started asking me questions:
- Todd, what do you love doing?
- Todd, what gives you energy?
- Do you have a sense of being ‘tugged’ towards one or the other?
- Do you like being centered in your office, or do you like being out and about?
- And many more questions
It took a few conversations with him, and others, but through that process of just asking me questions, I began to realize that the path that lay in front of me, was the one that led me towards seminary, and ministry. Dr. Byrne, through his great questions, drew out the answers that I’d already known in my heart.
Questions. I love questions. I do. I love asking questions, and I love answering questions.
Deep, important questions can change our lives. We’ve all experienced these kind of questions. Questions like:
- “will you marry me?”
- “is it a boy or a girl?”
- “Will you accept our offer?”
- “What is the diagnosis?”
- “Did you really mean to say that?”
There is power in good questions.
In fact, I believe that the best questions inspire action. Chic Thompson, in his book, What a Great Idea tells a story of a question that the president of Corning Glass Works once asked. He was talking to their head of research. He said in a kind of a matter-of-fact way, “Glass breaks.” “Well, duh…” “Why don’t you do something about that?” This simple question led the lab to devote itself to a single task: “We’re going to prevent glass from breaking.” The end result was Corning’s now-famous line of dinnerware that doesn’t break. Great questions, often inspire action.
I love questions because they open doors into people’s lives. I love questions because a really good one triggers conversation that lets relationships develop.
I love it when, in the process of answering a really good question, a half-dozen more questions might begin to take shape.
In the church we talk about the importance of faith practices that shape our behavior; that help us to follow Jesus. We talk about worship, prayer, giving, serving, reading scripture, encouraging and inviting. I love all of these things. But I’d add another. I believe that a faith practice, a spiritual discipline if you will, is questioning.
Because to ask faith questions is to invite someone into the journey to deepen their own understanding of how God works within the world. I have questions. I have a lot of questions:
- I’ve done too many funerals for people who have died too young. Why does this happen?
- I am aware of too many people who are suffering with illnesses that are physical, or emotional. Why does God allow this?
- I was in Biloxi, Mississippi just 10 days after Hurricane Katrina hit. I’ve seen the incredible devastation. Why? Why are there natural disasters like this?
I have thoughts and ideas about each of these questions…but I don’t have definitive answers. And I’d like to know…I’d like to understand.
As people of faith, we live in the questions. And that sometimes can be uncomfortable. We’d much rather just have the answers. But it is in the questions that we learn and grow. It is in the questions that we are challenged to deepen our relationship with God. In fact, even the word “education” is based on the latin “Educatio,” which means to “to draw out that which lies within.” It doesn’t mean to “cram in.”
Certainly Jesus knew this. That’s why so much of his teaching was based on questions, and on parables. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus asked questions. And often, when someone (usually a Pharisee) would ask him a question, he would turn it around and ask them a question back.
Sometimes we are afraid of our questions. Sometimes if we wonder…if we even doubt…we feel like our faith must not be strong enough, or that something is wrong. And so we walk away. But I believe that God celebrates our questions; that God knows that it is when we ask that we are seeking to grow in our faith. The freedom to ask questions, to wonder and even to doubt is a part of the grace God gives you.
So I have a favor to ask you: I’d like to know your questions. I’d like to know what you wonder about. Questions of life…of faith…I’ve only been in this congregation for 3 weeks now. So for me, to know your questions is a way for me to get to know you as a congregation. So here’s what I’m going to ask. If you look back in those Friendship Pads, in each one there is a small slip of paper. If you have a question…if there is something that you wonder about…life, faith…I’d like you to write it down. You don’t need to sign it. But please share it there. And when you leave today, I’d like you to drop it in one of the baskets by the office window. I’d like to know what you wonder. And I’d like to address some of your questions. I write an occasional blog that you can get to by going to Trinity’s web site. I’d like to tackle some of your questions there in upcoming weeks. I may not be able to give answers to many of your questions. But I can share some ideas and thoughts, and hopefully open up a conversation.
You see, one of our primary tasks as a church is faith formation. We don’t actually do this work, only God gives and forms faith. However, I believe that often it is through our questions and our conversations that God works.
Our Gospel story today is a perfect example of this. Jesus and his disciples were in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus turned to his disciples and asked a question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” His disciples replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Then Jesus zeroes in on the heart of his question. He turned to his disciple Peter and asks: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” That is the question that matters, isn’t it? The faith forming question? Who is Jesus to you?
Now, Peter had a bit of a reputation of being impulsive…of speaking before he thought things through. But this time, he was exactly on target. He said: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Ding ding ding ding ding!!! That, is the correct answer. And Jesus said to Peter “Blessed are you, Peter…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
What’s interesting is to compare this encounter to the two that our disciples had in our last two week’s gospel lessons.
Two weeks ago we looked at the story of this same Peter stepping out of the boat. After that miracle, when Jesus saved Peter, the disciples worshipped Jesus and said “Truly you are the Son of God.” Then, last week, the Canaanite woman said “Lord, Son of David, help me.” In both cases, Jesus was correctly identified, but neither time did Jesus give any special recognition because of their answer, much less say that it was on Peter or the Canaanite woman that the whole of the church would be built. So what’s different about this time?
To get at that, we have to understand the context where Jesus was doing his teaching.
You see, the Gospel of Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience. Matthew was trying to help them understand that Jesus was the Messiah that they had been awaiting for thousands of years. In fact, I think we can understand the whole Gospel of Matthew as a slow unveiling of Jesus…like a curtain gradually going up, the identity of Jesus was being revealed. And while the Jewish people had been expecting a political Messiah, one who was going to come to drive the Romans out and restore the nation of Israel, Matthew was saying “no, the Messiah is one who is here to restore not our nation, but our hearts.”
Secondly, we need to remember that Jesus and his disciples were in Cesaria Phillipi. This is an ancient city. It still exists, but is now uninhabited. It is an archeological site that sits in the midst of the Golan Heights. However, 2000 years ago, when it was a bustling town, it was filled with shrines to the Greek God, Pan and other ancient deities. In fact, the city was also known by the name Cesaria Panaeus, after this Greek God. So Jesus and his disciples had this conversation while literally surrounded by shrines to other Gods.
The key word in Peter’s response is the word “Living.” He said “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The living God…as compared to these false Gods that we are surrounded by. And Jesus said “Yes!” Yes, God is the living God…the real God…the one true God. Yes, Peter had correctly identified who Jesus was, but even more, he had confessed his belief in the nature of God…that God lives; that God is active!
So then, based on Peter’s answer, the church was built. And Peter became the first leader of the church. 2000 years and billions of believers later, we are here today. All because of Peter’s confession that “You are the Son of the Living God.”
Today, it is you and I who are Jesus’ disciples. And today, through our Gospel, Jesus turns to us and asks us the same question: “Who do you say that I am?” This is one of those defining questions for us, isn’t it? A faith forming question? But this question is not a test. Like with Peter, Jesus knows that through God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, the answer is already written in our hearts. As disciples, we already know.
We may still have questions about the details of how God works; let’s tackle those questions together. But when Jesus asks you: “who do you say that I am” you can boldly proclaim what the Holy Spirit has already written within your hearts:
“Jesus, truly you are the Son of the living God.”