04 July 2014
The most important question
I really feel sorry for guys these days. Despite all society has done to challenge the inequalities of gender, it still seems the responsibility of the man in a relationship to ask the big question.
When Ann and I were dating the pressure was not the same (I have to confess mine was a very unromantic proposal of marriage). But these days it's almost an Olympic sport where men are judged to see who can find the most romantic setting to get down on one knee; Swiss mountains, Eiffel tower, live TV – the options are endless.
Although Jesus never asked the marriage question, his ministry was littered with questions that he asked those surrounding him, provoking them to a deeper understanding, challenging presuppositions, often providing a stepping stone to further teaching. At the heart of Mark's gospel (chapter 8) Jesus is alone with his disciples and asks them two questions. The first is relatively easy: "Who do people say that I am?" This is a safe question, it's academic, it allows them to stand back, requires no commitment – 'John the Baptist', 'Elijah', 'one of the prophets' they reply. Over the years, so many answers to that question have emerged. In 21st century Britain he is a wise teacher who has shaped so much of Western culture. He is the baby in the nativity scene, the distant figure on a piece of jewellery, a useful swear word when making a point.
Jesus refuses to allow his disciples to stick with the academic question. He makes it personal and asks perhaps what is the most important question any of us will have to answer and one with profound eternal implications: "Who do you say that I am?"
Mark's gospel tracks so many of Peter's ups and downs as a follower of Jesus. This is definitely a high point although it is followed very quickly by a low as he argues with Jesus about his coming suffering and death. But the answer to Jesus's question is absolutely clear - Peter has seen the miracles, has listened to the teaching, and he has recognised the authority. So it is, he blurts it out "you are the messiah" – the anointed, the chosen one; you are the one we have been waiting for.Peter was right of course, Jesus was all of this and more, but he was not the Messiah they had been expecting - not the army general to defeat the Romans and restore David's kingdom on earth. No, it's another kind of Messiah that Jesus had in mind and this accounts for the argument as Jesus has to correct Peter's misunderstanding.
So what about us today? Most of us in reading this article will look back at a decision made perhaps a number of years ago. We recognised Jesus as our Messiah, our Saviour, our Lord. Many of us can look back at a moment when we submitted to a call to 'follow him'.
Over the years, I have come to recognise both for myself personally and for us as a Church, how easy it is in the busyness and pressure of life and the complexity of church, to lose sight of Jesus. How easy it is for him to simply become the one who meets my needs, my wise teacher, my prophet of old, and, God forbid, almost my lucky charm. And so Jesus has drifted to a place of convenience. Yes I read his story, I still sing songs about him, occasionally have a conversation on the assumption he is listening, but he has lost his central place.
So let's allow the challenge of the question "Who do you say that I am?" to impact us today. Let's discover afresh Jesus in all his wonder. Jesus who comes to us as the Christ and so much more. Jesus the son of God, the Lord of history, the beginning and the end. Jesus the centre piece of God's rescue plan for humanity, the one who lived the life humans were designed to live, Jesus who gave himself over to death and rose again to defeat death, making possible forgiveness and eternal life, Jesus who now sits at the right hand of the Father and speaks on our behalf and sends the Holy Spirit to us, Jesus who will return, establishing a new heaven and a new earth. As we respond afresh to this Jesus, let's ask God's help to make him known to those that surround us for this is what we are called to be - His witnesses to our generation.