By Debie Thomas
A quotation that’s slowly becoming dear to me is this one from German-language poet and novelist, Rainer Maria Rilke: “Be patient,” he writes, “toward all that is unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I say, “slowly becoming dear” because unsolved questions and locked rooms still cause me a great deal of anxiety. I aspire to “love the questions themselves,” but most of the time, I ache for certainty. Just this week, I sat in my spiritual director’s living room, and cried tears of grief and exhaustion for all that remains “unsolved” in my relationship with God. “I’m tired of unmaking,” I told her. “Tired of unraveling, tired of letting go. I want to grab hold again. I want to land. I want to know.”
And yet somehow, despite my fears, Rilke’s quote calls to me powerfully, perhaps because “living the questions” is dynamic, personal, and intimate in a way that “knowing” static truth is not. To love the questions is to hold mystery and possibility close to my heart, to allow them to work on me, shape me, transform me. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai puts it this way:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus invites his disciples to live a question. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks them as they make their way through the villages of Caesarea Phillipi. Who am I? Where do I stand in this life we’re making together? What do I mean? To you?
But wait, you might say. That’s not the kind of question Rilke is talking about. That’s a creed question. A heart-of-our-faith question. It’s a question we Christians know (and must know) the definitive answer to. Jesus is our Savior. He’s Lord. Redeemer. King. Messiah. Christ. God. The only begotten Son of God. There’s nothing “unsolved” about Jesus; our Savior isn’t a locked room. He’s the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Yes. Yes, he is. And yet. If this week’s Gospel reading has anything to say about it, we are still meant to live the question of who Jesus is, day by day and hour by hour. We’re not meant to “solve” him once and for all. As hard as this might sound, we’re not meant to land. To arrive. To hang tight. We’re meant to journey.
As St. Mark tells the story, Jesus (being an excellent teacher) prefaces his zinger question with an easier one: “Who do people say that I am?” In other words, what’s the word on the street? What have you heard? What do the opinion polls reveal?
I don’t know about you, but I can just about hear the schoolboy relief and excitement in the disciples’ voices (“Ooh, ooh! This is an easy one! I know this one!) as they scramble to answer Jesus’s question: “People say you’re John the Baptist!” “No, no, they say Elijah! More people say ‘Elijah!’” “No, lots of folks say one of the prophets! I’ve heard them talking about it! They’re sure you’re one of the prophets!”
I’m guessing they go on for a while, each trying to drown the other out with the most succinct and promising answer they can come up with. After all, this is solid ground. This is reportage. Clear, fact-based, truth-telling. They can do this.
Interestingly, Jesus neither affirms nor denies any of their answers. He simply listens to them, allowing the disciples to offer up everything they think they know, based on other people’s expertise. As if to say: this is the place to begin. This is where all explorations of faith begin, in naming what we’ve heard, examining what we’ve inherited, and parroting back the certainties others have handed to us. These answers cost us little or nothing, so they’re safe and benign. But of course, they don’t offer us much in return, either. They hearken back to history and tradition, and that’s lovely. But there’s no life in them. No intimacy. No fire.
So Jesus presses on. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks next, looking at each disciple in turn. Meaning: forget about other people’s theologies and interpretations. Put aside tradition and creed, valuable as they are, and consider the life we have lived together thus far. The bread we’ve broken, the miles we’ve walked, the burdens we’ve carried, the tears we’ve shed, the laughter we’ve shared. Who am I to you?
Of course St. Mark doesn’t give us much detail about the scene, but when I imagine what happens next, I see the disciples falling into a long, awkward silence. I imagine them avoiding eye contact with Jesus. Shuffling their feet. Coughing. Casting anxious glances at each other. I imagine every single one of them desperately hoping that someone else will answer.
And I imagine Jesus, standing patiently and vulnerably in their midst through that long silence, waiting to hear what his closest friends will say about him. Do they know him? Have they learned to trust his heart and his words? Do they love him?
Cue Peter. Bold, reckless, earnest, impetuous Peter. When the silence becomes unbearable, he throws himself forward and answers the question as confidently as he can: “You are the Messiah.”
A perfect, A-plus answer. The whole gospel story in a nutshell. The Truth with a capital “T.” Right?
Wrong. Or, at least, not quite. Because this is where the story gets weird. Instead of praising Peter’s discernment, Jesus tells him to keep his mouth shut, and immediately launches into a grim description of the suffering and death that await him in Jerusalem. He paints a picture so bleak, so upsetting, and so counter-intuitive, Peter pulls him aside and tells him to knock it off. But this — Peter’s insistence that Jesus fit into his watered down comprehension of Messiah-ship — hits a nerve so raw, Jesus turns and rebukes Peter in turn. What’s more, he does so using words that shock us still, two thousand years later: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
As strange and stinging as this exchange is, I love it. I love first of all that Jesus and Peter are intimate enough friends to survive a hard fight. Only friends who are powerfully bonded can tell each other off so harshly and live to tell the tale together afterwards.
More importantly, I love that Peter’s confession of faith — “You are the Messiah” — signals the beginning of his exploration of Jesus’s identity, not its end. As soon as Peter thinks he has the answer to the question nailed down, Jesus shuts him up, challenges what he knows, and nudges him back to the starting line: Yes, I am the Messiah. No, you have no idea what “Messiah” means. In fact, you’re not even ready to know what “Messiah” means; you can barely tolerate my talking about it. There’s so much more for you to learn, Peter. So many more answers for you to grow into. Be patient. Don’t force the locked doors. Try to love what is unsolved. Keep living the question.
When I think about the whole of Peter’s story — all the biographical details that we 21st century Christians have the privilege to know and ponder — I’m stunned by the answers that Peter must have lived into as time went on. “Who do you say that I am?” You’re the one who said “Yes, come walk on the water with me.” You’re the one who caught me before I drowned. You’re the one who washed my feet while I squirmed in shame. You’re the one who told me — accurately — that I’d be a coward on the very night you needed me to be brave. You’re the one I denied to save my own skin. You’re the one who looked into my eyes when the cock crowed. You’re the one who found me on the beach and spoke love and fresh purpose into my humiliation. You’re my Messiah.
Who do you say that Jesus is? It’s a question to ponder for a lifetime. A question that has so many others folded into it: What stories of Jesus have you inherited? What “truths” about him do you need to say goodbye to? How might you be blessed by his loving rebuke? Is he merely the Messiah? Or is he yours?
What Peter learns in this encounter is that Jesus is just as powerfully present in the questions as he is in the answers. Maybe even more so. To love what is unsolved is not to deny Jesus his Lordship. It is to allow Jesus to enter more deeply into your heart than any impersonal truth about him will ever do. Live the question. That’s Jesus’s invitation, and he makes it over and over again, in love.
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