It seems to start out as just a casual, idle conversation. Jesus and his disciples are walking to the village of Caesarea Philippi, in the northernmost part of Israel.
His actions have been gaining notice lately – the healing of a deaf and dumb man, the feeding of 4,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and fish, the healing of a blind man. He knows that word about him is spreading throughout the region.
“So, what are people saying about me?” Jesus asks his friends. “Who do they say that I am?”
Happy to report the local gossip, several of the disciples join in. “Well, they’re saying that maybe you’re one of the great prophets who has returned,” they tell him.
“Maybe even Elijah,” the greatest of the prophets, another says.
I can see Jesus nodding, listening as the disciples chatter on. But then this seemingly idle conversation takes a serious turn.
“But who do you say that I am?” he asks.
As usual, the impulsive Peter blurts out an answer, speaking without taking time to think. But this time he gets it right.
“You are the Messiah,” he says.
The Messiah. That word is so familiar to us, such an integral part of who we say Jesus is, that it is difficult for us to understand the importance of Peter’s declaration.
This is the first time that Jesus is identified and named as who he truly is. Not just a great prophet, not just an insightful teacher, not just a gifted healer, but the Messiah, the savior, the one for whom the world has waited so long.
I have to confess that there is something about this story that makes me a little uncomfortable, just a little uneasy, and as I’ve thought about it this week I have figured out why.
If we could just leave the story where it is, a recount of a conversation during a journey almost 2,000 years ago, I would feel better.
But we really can’t do that. We are reading this story as professed followers of Jesus, and so the question he posed so many centuries ago is now asked of each and every one of us.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Not too long ago I had a conversation with a man who attends an Episcopal Church in another city. He is a faithful church goer, active in many parts of the congregation’s life.
But there is one thing that sets him apart from most of his fellow parishioners. He declares himself to be an atheist.
When I asked why he goes to church he had several answers – because his wife goes, because of the community, because of the nourishment he receives from the Eucharist (an interesting confession from an atheist).
And he said, because Jesus is important to him – not as a Messiah or savior, but as a teacher and role model. He tries to live according to Jesus’ teachings.
This conversation was in stark contrast to an online conversation I read a few days ago, shortly after Pete Buttigieg announced that he and his husband, Chasen, have adopted twins. (By the way, Buttigieg is an Episcopalian.)
It didn’t take long to find hateful comments mixed in with the congratulations. One woman called the adoption “an inversion of God’s created order,” and declared that the Buttigieges “deserve the full force of God’s wrath.”
Out of curiosity I looked at this woman’s Facebook page and it is full of references to her “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
And here’s the rub, the source of my discomfort. So many times the people who are so unhesitating in their profession of Jesus as the Messiah in their very next breath say or do something that seems so unChristlike it makes me cringe.
The truth is I’d probably be more comfortable with the church-going atheist who follows Jesus’ teachings than with many who loudly profess Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
But the atheist’s answer is not adequate for me.
Jesus is more than a teacher or role model, although he is very much those things.
I like Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan’s answer, that Jesus is “God in sandals.”
What Crossan means, I think, is that Jesus is God in flesh and blood, God come to earth to show us how to live and how to die. Jesus gives us comfort and strength, challenges us, and forgives and redeems us when we fail.
Jesus is, to paraphrase John’s gospel, my way, my truth, and my life.
But here again, I feel a need to qualify.
Religious absolutism, believing that one’s faith is the only true faith, leaves a trail of tremendous pain and suffering. It may be one of the world’s greatest evils.
At best it can mean thinking that those of other faiths are wrong, their religion less faithful. At worst, it leads to violence and death committed in the name of God.
We all know people who fervently believe that faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation, that those who do not believe, who do not confess Jesus as messiah, are doomed to eternal damnation.
I don’t believe that and my guess is that many of you don’t either.
So then, how do we answer Jesus’ question? Is it possible to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and at the same time believe that there are other paths that also lead to God? Can we affirm the truth of other faiths without compromising our own and the uniqueness of Christ?
I believe that we can.
God is not an object, so theology cannot be simply a science. Faith experiences are not grounded in objective scientific demonstrations open for all to see, to prove or disprove. Faith is an experience of the heart.
Think of faith as similar to falling in love. People fall in love in different ways, with different people. What we think of as “true love” can be expressed in many different ways.
And usually we do not criticize or persecute those whose experience of failing in love is different from our own.
In other words, I can look at a friend who has fallen in love and think that kind of relationship would never work for me, but that does not mean that her love is less valid, less worthy, less true than my own experience.
In the same way, Christians may fall into faith one way (or many ways); Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in others.
These different ways are not interchangeable. But they are all valid, and one does not have to compromise the other.
Theologian Paul Knitter puts it this way, “Jesus’ good news defines God, but it does not confine God; it reveals what Christians feel is essential to a true knowledge of the Divine, but it does not provide all that makes up such knowledge.”
Episcopal priest Elizabeth Geitz says she dreams of a day when people of different faiths “rather than viewing one another as competitors in an ultimate test of who is right and who is wrong, as has historically been the case, could view each other as fellow travelers from whom to learn something of the divine that perhaps we ourselves did not yet know.”
That sentiment is expressed in our prayer book in this prayer for the human family:
O God, you made us in your image. Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggles and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations, races, and creeds may serve you in harmony.