This last week I was passing by a big downtown church that I’ve walked by a dozen times, when I noticed that, unusually, the doors were open. Not only that, there was a big sign on the sidewalk that said: “come in, we’re open”.
Now, I’ve always wanted to see the inside of that church. So why not, right? Inside there were a few people milling around looking at things and some folks in the pews just sitting. I stood there a second and then a young woman approached me: “I’m a volunteer guide,” she said cheerfully. “Do you have any questions?” Great, I thought – this gets better and better. Not only are the doors open, I get my own personal guide. So I asked her about the stained glass.
She never skipped a beat. Immediately she pointed up to the front. Do you see that panel there? I squinted. Yes. That’s a Canadian soldier, she said, with an air of great authority. And do you see that one there? I looked. Yes. That’s Saint George. And that one there? I nodded. That’s St-Iona. Then she gave me the date of the windows too.
I was so excited at having my very own guide that I almost didn’t realize at first what she’d said. Umm…. Wait a minute, I said, finally, almost apologetically, when it hit me. Did you say “Saint Iona“?
Yes, Saint Iona, she repeated. Again, that air of absolute authority. As if she’d been studying Saint Iona for years and had become the world expert on all things Saint Iona-ish.
The problem is: this is something I actually know a bit about. Iona isn’t a person. It’s an island. Last I checked, pieces of land can’t become saints. Except sometimes towns in Quebec!
Isn’t Iona an island? I asked her. I was honestly confused. Maybe I’d heard wrong. Do you mean St Columba, I said to her, you know, the saint who lived ON Iona?
For the first time her face dropped a little and her voice became just a tad less authoritative. Oh…she said….right. Then she looked away. I meant to say St Columba. I must have gotten my words mixed up. Saint Columba….you’re right. Then she looked up again at the window. But that person there? she went on. That’s a Canadian soldier. And that knight is St George. Her certainty started to come back and with it, her tendency to point.
I noticed, at this moment, that the OTHER woman at the desk, an older woman, had been watching our conversation with a worried look. She came scurrying over. “What did she tell you about the window?” the older woman asked. She was looking steadily, and a bit accusingly, at the younger person. “I just said what it was,” said the younger woman. “Well?” asked the older, looking at me. I hardly knew what to do. All I’d wanted to do was to see the church.
Who do people say that the Son of Man is? asked Jesus.
It seems like a fair enough question. Who do people say the Son of Man is? But it’s a tough question. One theologians are still trying to answer, two thousand years later.
In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus first asks this, apparently all the disciples have a go at an answer: Some say John the Baptist, says one. Others are guessing Elijah, says someone else. They think perhaps Jeremiah, shouts out a third. Or maybe one of the prophets, adds somebody from the back.
This group almost sounds like one of my classes at the university. There’s a lot of discussion because of how Jesus has framed the question: “who do people say the Son of Man is?”
So long as it’s general, it’s easy to have opinions. I have an opinion about how best to lose weight. Just don’t ask me if I’m doing it. Or if someone says to me: ‘what are people saying these days about how best to help save the environment?’ I have lots of opinions about that, too. I could show you books. But if that same person were an environmental activist, and were to turn to me and say ‘and what do YOU say? What are YOU doing?’ that’s a different thing entirely.
So long as it’s general, a question is just a topic of conversation. But if you read the Gospels, Jesus is never safe. Jesus does what Jesus ALWAYS does: he makes it personal.
Who do YOU say that I am?
On Friday a friend of mine gave me a bag full of fresh chanterelles mushrooms that he’d picked out in the woods in the Eastern Townships. At first when he gave them to me I was so happy I could hardly wipe the grin off my face. What luck! What a generous thing to do! I’ve had pfifferlingen in Germany and was lucky enough to pick some in Sweden last summer with another friend. I didn’t think I’d get a chance this year. I couldn’t wait to get home and saute this batch up with onions and start eating. As I hurried home I could taste them already.
But then while I was walking I started thinking. My friend in Sweden is a mushroom expert, who has taken courses in how and what to pick. My friend in Verdun, so far as I know, isn’t. A nice guy, and probably knows a lot about them. He and his wife had probably eaten from this batch, I was pretty sure. But the words “pretty sure” kept sticking in my mind. I put the mushrooms in the frying pan, sauted them up, and they looked beautiful. But by the time I’d put them on my plate, that bit of doubt had gotten lodged. What if my friend had made a mistake? The wrong mushrooms….well. You know.
The point is: in the end, doesn’t faith always come down to a person? Do we TRUST ourselves to this person? Opinions are cheap. But when someone asks us what we’re really willing to put on the end of our fork, then we realize, even in that little bit, what faith is.
Who do YOU say that I am? asks Jesus. And the response cannot simply be “I believe this and this and this about you.” That’s information. What trust is, is “I believe YOU.” Enough to eat the mushrooms, which I did, and they were delicious. Or in the case of Jesus, enough to follow, and to try to understand how to live under the cross. Enough to take time over years to learn from your living presence about suffering, and hope, and death, and life, and being real, even in pain, and about solidarity and justice, and peace that passes understanding, and a spirit that wants to shout out sometimes from the pure joy of living.
The question who do you say that I am? isn’t to be answered with some kind of proposition. We don’t say to the person who has just unburdened their heart in front of us and broken into tears: I believe you are a friend. Or I believe that once upon a time you must have been a friend. To someone, somewhere. We say: I am your friend. You are mine. Here I am. Here is my hand.
This week in the big church downtown, it turned out that my tour guide really didn’t know what she was talking about. The older guide had to set me straight about just about everything.
Belief isn’t something abstract and it’s not something automatic. It’s not even a thing, really. It’s about people, and what we’re willing to commit ourselves to and test and forge, and forgive, and learn from and grow into. Sometimes, as with my guide, we make mistakes. Belief is taking a chance, because in a relationship there’s always risk. Even with Jesus. But if we DO risk, if we DO trust, then we begin to build the links that can guide us in life AND in death. And Jesus says that if that happens, even “the gates of Hades will not prevail” against such a faith. Pray God it’s true, and trust God it is.