Are you Offended?
On a very hot afternoon, our little company of Jews and Christians traveling through Israel stopped at a place in the North called Caesarea Philippi, known also by its ancient Roman name as Baines. In many ways it seemed an odd place for a group like ours to be visiting, after all this site is known mostly for the well-preserved archaeological ruins of Roman temples where pagan sexual rituals foreign to both our traditions regularly occurred. You might wonder what’s a nice group of Christians and Jews doing in a place like this? Well, it’s because something else occurred here, some might say as equally odd and scandalous as the Roman rites; an event recorded in 16th chapter of Matthew’s gospel that has echoed down the centuries.
While traveling in this region teaching and preaching, Jesus decides to stop with his disciples for some close and very personal conversation. Who do you say that I am? He asks his disciples. Oddly enough this Jew from Nazareth chooses this spot, known for its pagan rituals and polytheism, to define as sharply as possible the nature of his mission. Why not Jerusalem or Galilee? By posing the question so personally, with no wiggle room, did Jesus intend to make clear that not all gods are equal nor all religions the same? Why did he place himself at the epicenter of the universe?
These are questions I asked that hot summer afternoon standing in the shade of the Roman temple ruins recalling this pivotal event in the company of Jews and Christians. We discovered again that the heart of the Christian faith centers on the identity of Jesus, and the call for each of us to respond personally to the same question Jesus asked the disciples, who do you say that I am? It is not enough to repeat what others report: some say John the Baptist and some say Elijah returned from the dead, others believe this way and that, and so on and so forth. I suppose you can live a lifetime relying solely on the convictions of others without ever deciding what you believe and where you will stand. Jesus doesn’t really allow for that option, at least he didn’t with Peter. Having heard all the possible answers of others, blah, blah, blah, life became very quiet in Caesarea Philippi when Jesus posed the only question that really matters. What about you? Who do you say that I am?
Our discussion under the trees in Caesarea Philippi was congenial and well mannered. Nevertheless, I felt the awkwardness of the moment, realizing that this is the offense that divides even today. Is the better path to side step the offense, to ignore Jesus question in polite discourse in order to save us all the embarrassment of having to offer an answer? The effort to say nothing that will offend anyone is to say nothing that will benefit anyone. Likewise, a culture that values above all else not offending anyone, is a culture whose only purpose is to maintain superficiality and polite dishonesty among its citizens.
It may be the same for the Church. If we fail to acknowledge boldly, even joyfully, that Jesus himself is the offense that heals the world, then we have very little to say other than safe superficial platitudes and self-help techniques dressed in religious garb. Dishonesty and superficiality are the downsides to the otherwise sound moral advice, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
Not only is Jesus himself the offense that heals the world, his way of life – loving enemies, embracing outcasts, welcoming all people, forgiving sinners, lifting up and defending the poor –is the offense heals the world. If we take away the offense of Jesus along with the gospel he proclaims, than we have nothing to offer to a world held captive by patterns of self-destruction. The same patterns that afflict the world afflict me. They hold me captive to my own prejudices, petty grievances, and desires for revenge and so on. If Jesus doesn’t offend those destructive patterns within in me, then what’s the point? What is a Gospel that never offends the status quo, within or without?
You have to work very hard to hear the gospel in way that is never offensive to you or anyone else.
In John’s gospel, Jesus acknowledges that what he has said may be offensive. Even his disciples are balking at the radical notion that in him is God’s life and in him all who believe will find life eternal. “This teaching is difficult,” they complain, “who can accept it?” Another translation say, “this teaching is harsh.” Someone recently said in the Christain Century, “that the miracle is not that there were 5000 at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but that there were 12 left at the end.” Perhaps they were expecting Jesus to tone down his teaching or somehow make it palatable. If they were, they were disappointed. Jesus pushes the point further, “Does this offend you?” Wait until you see what’s coming. He refuses to make the reality of his message of eternal life palatable as if that would make a difference. In the end, it will be an act of personal faith – a gift from God that goes beyond what one can fully understand – that will make the difference.
Jesus makes himself the pivot around which all else turns. It was true then and it is true today. In our day, the question of who Jesus is has generated a cottage industry of writers and scholars providing answers for the rest of us. Some of their answers are intriguing and well worth hearing, others give you the sense the authors have found a way to make a lot of money providing sophisticated answers to a public hungry for anything novel.
In the end, the heart of the Christian life is about a relationship with God that is sustained by faith. Jesus is at the center of that relationship. Jesus, once again, turns to Peter – who of course is the stand-in for the rest of us in the Gospels – with a personal question, this time poignant nearly to the point of tears, his own and perhaps our own, too.
Do you wish to turn away, too? Jesus asks, knowing that the truth he has spoken has caused nearly everyone to abandon him. The tone of the question suggests that Jesus accepts that even his closest followers will walk away. This is crucial juncture that makes a relationship truly true – when the cards are on the table and each is free to go or stay.
Do you wish to turn away, too? It is the question that Jesus asks of each of us. So here is what I might say.
Where could I go, God, wandering the wide world, sampling this and sampling that, dabbling here and dabbling there? Where could I go but into the arms of this One who breaks the bread for the hungry and becomes bread himself; who pours the water for the thirsty and becomes living water himself? Where could I go but into the arms of this One, whose words are life giving and who becomes the Word that is life eternal?
Where could I go but into the arms of this One who has graciously sheltered me from the beginning and will mercifully receive me in the end?
What might you say?