Jesus wants to know what folks are saying about him. And the disciples say: They think you are the ones from the past who they have heard and learned about: Elijah, Jeremiah---or maybe even that dude down at the river who folks are talking about: John the Baptist.
Then Jesus leans in---getting intimate with those who follow him and Jesus asks: But who do YOU say that I am?
When it comes to our faith, when we are asked to explain what we believe or think---we often fall back onto what we have been taught---dredging up those phrases and answers from our catechisms, our Sunday school classes or our prayers. So often that question: What do you believe? Who is Jesus to you? Kind of makes us freeze. “Oh no!” we think, “I didn’t know I was going to have to answer that question.”
Or worse yet, we think: “My faith is private; people shouldn’t ask me that question.”
But, Beloved, our faith isn’t private. Now, it may be personal, but faith—by the very living example we have in Jesus and the truth we know in the Living Word---faith is communal, collective---not private. Faith is something that is to be shared; yes, in deed and action, but sometimes folks, God desires we use our words, our stories. God desires that we answer the question: Who do you say that I am? not only from learned knowledge, but from our lived experience.
This requires that we mature from simply reading and knowing about God to actually knowing God, having God as a companion, bringing our vulnerable and authentic selves into this relationship with the divine instead of just our spankin’ clean, decked out in church clothes, spit-polished versions of ourselves.
From this real, living relationship---a relationship that is full of doubt, questions, struggles, and a range of emotions---we then have stories to share. Sharing who we know this living God to be in our very real lives.
Who do you say that I am?
Maya Angelou once wrote: “Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.” Knowing God helps me to know better---and then to do better. That’s why I follow Jesus. Jesus is the lens through which I gaze upon God, learning a better way of life, of being. Jesus is so many things for me.
Jesus is the One who catches me. Many of you have heard these tales, so indulge me: When I was 18, almost 19, I found out that Murray and I were expecting our first child. But we were not yet married, and being our younger selves, uncertain of what to do. I left college for a semester and moved back home, and Murray and I ended up taking a break in our relationship---both of us struggling. You know, I was the priest’s kid, so having your priest’s daughter come home from college, pregnant and unmarried, isn’t the ideal situation. But this faith community of St. Anskar’s in Hartland, Wisconsin rallied around me. They loved me, gave me jobs babysitting their kids, even offered to be my labor coach. Now, my oldest sister was actually my coach, but think about how beautiful this offer was: this person knowing I was young, a first-time mom, probably afraid: this person said: I have done this before, I have been in that moment---I will help you if you need me. Now, that Beloved, that’s the love of Jesus. This community was the living Body of Christ and caught me when I was stumbling and struggling and afraid. Jesus is the One who catches me.
Jesus is the One who comforts and strengthens me. When our fourth and final child, Abe, was born prematurely, he couldn’t breathe on his own. He had to have oxygen; in fact, he was blue. And we didn’t know on that day what other consequences there may be to his arriving 6 weeks early. Lots of possibilities were mentioned: cerebral palsy, blindness, brain bleeds----all overwhelming to hear in that moment. Abe was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, also known as the NICU. I didn’t even get to hold him. Later that night, Murray brought our other three children to meet their baby brother and then they all went home after what had been a long and anxious 24+ hours for all of us. Then I was in my room, alone---looking at the psalms in my Bible for….something….while the tears flowed and the fear rumbled. I was saying over and over: Help me, Jesus, help me. I was so afraid; I couldn’t even summon up the courage to ask the questions of the nurses that I had about Abe because I was afraid of the answers. And then, Beloved, then Jesus walked into my room. And warmth filled the air. Jesus sat next to me on my bed, took my hand, looked me in the eyes and said: Everything’s going to be all right, Jane. I promise. Everything will be all right. And then Jesus was gone. And so was my fear. My tears stopped. Calm and peace invaded me. And I asked to be taken to the NICU where I asked all my questions. Because I knew---whatever happened, however this played out---here was this baby blessing and we would be okay. Jesus is my comfort and my rock.
But even more than that, Jesus is the One who gives me the breath and the desire to move forward---through tough times, through slow times, through boring, everyday times and through the glorious, once-in-a-lifetime times. Because Jesus comes to me in all those times through the folks I meet, you the Beloved Community, the neighbors we have, the students I’ve known, the colleagues with whom I partner. My children, grandchildren, and sisters bring me joy, laughter, and friendship. Through humanity with whom I rub elbows, Jesus keeps giving me breath, inspiration, and the hope and desire to progress, move forward and to take the next step.
You know, Beloved, the church often says that marriage is holy, a sacrament even, because in the covenantal relationship of marriage, we see the kind of love that God feels for us---particularly in the Christ. This sacrificial love that puts the other in the forefront, that shares the last cookie or runs to the store because you forgot something. This love who listens to your complaints and your triumphs, who laughs at your ridiculousness and forgives your momentary cruelty. This love that refuses to give up, even when it gets really hard, who chooses you again and again and again. When you have morning breath and bedhead, this love that still kisses you good morning and says: I love you. And says the words you need to hear in the moment you need to hear them; this love that loves all of you—even the not so wonderful bits---this love I know in Murray, my husband. And I can say the same thing about my momma---she loves me as God loves me. Who do you say that I am? Because of our marriage and the love of Murray, because of the love my mom has given to me since even before I was born, I know Jesus to be my home---no matter the house or town or state in which I live. How blessed I am to have this love, this love that is the nest from which I can fly high and this love to which I can return home when I need rest.
And Jesus is the One who challenges me. Jesus is the neighbor who tells me the story of their life of living on the economic edge, trying to move out from prison of addiction, but finding very few lifelines being thrown to them because we don’t understand why the first chance, the second rehab hospital, the losing their home and their job wasn’t enough to make them want to change. Because, of course, they want a different life, but addiction is a demon that is relentless and strong, and more than we’d like to admit: sometimes unbeatable. This neighbor, my friend, asks me to see outside the experience I have known---to listen to a reality that is foreign to me---and challenges me to that command: Whatever you do for the least valued of these…..love your neighbor…..feed my sheep.
Who do you say that I am? All those Sunday School classes, and Vacation Bible Schools, and seminary courses taught me many things. But none of those book answers are my personal answer to who Jesus is. Those teachings focused my sight and fine-tuned my hearing and sharpened my heart and mind so that I can know the living Christ---the God right in front of me---the God who dwells in humanity. Jesus died on the cross. But the Christ still lives. And the Christ isn’t a disembodied spirit floating around and descending from time to time. The Christ is the embodied presence of God here on earth in my neighbor, in my family and friends, in this church, in the one who stands before me and the one who sits next to me. Incarnation.
These are some of my stories. What are yours? Do you know them? Have you taken the time to look back and see where God has been present? Beloved, we are called to know our stories and then to live them out again in other people’s lives. Tell your story, tell the story, this great love story of us and God, this loving, life-giving, liberating God who refuses to let any of us go.
Who do YOU say that I am?
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.