Who Do You Say That I Am

May 14, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Exodus 3:13-15; Matthew 16: 13-18


A young woman brought her fiancé home to meet her parents. After dinner, her mother told her father to find out about the young man. The father invited the fiancé to the den for a talk.
“So what are your plans?” the father asked the young man.
“I am a biblical scholar,” he replied.
“A biblical scholar, hmmm?” the father said. “Admirable, but what will you do to provide a nice house for my daughter?”
“I will study,” the young man replied, “and God will provide for us.”
“And how will you buy her a beautiful engagement ring, such as she deserves?” asked the father.
“I will concentrate on my studies,” the young man replied, “God will provide for us.”
“And children?” asked the father. “How will you support children?”
“Don’t worry, sir, God will provide,” replied the fiancé.
The conversation proceeded like this, and each time the father questioned, the young idealist insisted that God would provide.
Later, the mother asked, “How did it go, honey?”
The father answered, “He has no job and no plans, and he thinks I’m God.”

There are probably as many views of who God is and what God is like as there are individuals. God is beyond anyone’s imagining and so God is only understood in part by any one of us, and even all of us put together. In the Evolution of God, Robert Wright suggests that the gods speak through their followers.  So, for example, when someone writes about their experience of God, it is this God we come to know.  When the prevailing interpretation of God changes, the very character of God as we understand God also changes.

In primitive cultures when most of the workings of our world were a mystery the gods were seen as mysterious, powerful beings that needed to be placated and cajoled through sacrifices to  bring the rain, lengthen the sun’s visit, have plants grow, have successful hunting, etc. As scientific understanding developed, God as creator and sustainer came to be understood by many as a prime mover, an architect, or computer programmer who set a designed creation as evolutionary towards good and fulfillment.

Images of God do not describe God but express experiences, ways of relating to God. We use what is familiar to talk about the unfamiliar; so we turn to events, objects, relationships from ordinary, contemporary life in order to say something about what we do not know how to talk about; the love of God. This is what biblical language about God is as well: It was contemporary to its time, relevant and secular — God as shepherd, vine keeper, land owner, father, king, judge and so forth.

If we read  carefully the various books in the Bible, written over time as human civilization itself was evolving, we discover that the God of scripture shows repeated bursts of moral growth: From a jealous God to a tolerant one, exclusive to inclusive, harsh judge to one who is loving and easily forgives.

Complicating our understanding of God is the semantic flexibility of scripture. Within limits, people can look at their holy texts and see what they want to see – what meets their psychological, social and political needs and find support for their beliefs. One reason is the sheer ambiguity and multiple meanings of words which lead to making choices when translating into the vernacular; especially when we are dealing with ancient texts written in cultures very different than our own. An example of this was shown very dramatically years ago in one episode of the Twilight Zone: Humans discovered only too late that the Holy Book brought by the extraterrestrial visitors titled  To Serve Man,  was not, as they had initially assumed a philanthropic manifesto, but rather a cook book; To Serve Man!

One such ambiguity in Scripture is found in the Lord’s Prayer. The last part of one verse can be translated correctly in one of two ways, “deliver us from evil” or “deliver us from the evil one”. You can see how the version you are taught could influence your understanding and belief.

Our personal god, the god that exists in our heads has likely changed over the years as well. And it’s helpful to remember that the God of our present understanding isn’t God. To believe so, is idolatry. Our image of God is hopefully comforting and supportive yet only a dim and partial reflection of the divine.

In our second reading, Jesus took his first and only trip outside of Palestine,  venturing with his disciples into the District of Caesarea Philippi, an area about twenty-five miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. The region had tremendous religious implications. The place was littered with the temples of the Syrian gods and the influence of the Greek gods. There was also an elaborate marble temple that had been erected by Herod the Great, father of the then ruling Herod Antipas. In addition people here worshiped Caesar as a God. It was as if the religions of much of the then-known world were on display in this one town. And it was with this scene in the background that Jesus chose to ask the most crucial questions of his ministry.

This was a significant time in the life of Jesus. He was at the end of his ministry and he needed be alone with his disciples far from the watchful eyes of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious authorities and assess the last three years of ministry. Did they now understand who he was? Were all his efforts fruitful or had it all been in vain? His first question to his disciples was, “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples began sharing with Jesus what they had heard from the people who had been following him.  Like various ways of seeing God, Jesus was also understood in many different ways.

The same is true today. Some view Jesus as prophet, holy man, teacher, or spiritual leader. Others speak of Him as Son of God. There are those who believe that Jesus is divine, of the same nature as God.

Years after the death of Jesus, Gospel writers also attempted to answer the question posed by Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?”  They bestowed upon Jesus numerous titles and claims: Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God, Divine Physician, king, prophet, bridegroom, Light of the world, the door, the vine, high priest, the firstborn of creation, the bright and morning star, and Alpha and the Omega.

In today’s story, though Jesus was at first curious about how he is seen by others, at that moment he was most concerned about what his closest followers believed. He turned to his disciples and he asked his most personal friends, his inner circle, his trusted students the critical question: Who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Bingo!  Jesus is very pleased by Peter’s answer. “Blessed are you,” he said and also, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”  Is this because Peter gave the right answer?  What did Peter understand by “You are the Christ?” When Peter said, “You are the Son of the living God”, was Peter saying that he believed that Jesus was divine or that he was a son of God as we all are God’s sons and daughters?  I really don’t think that it matters. Because what I believe is important here is not so much Peter’s response, but rather that he had clearly given the question much thought. He had spent time trying to know and understand Jesus. This bold, brash fisherman cared.  Jesus really mattered to him.

And it is the same for us. What we’ve been told by others is less important than the images of God that are meaningful to us right now. And our answer, our present understanding, is less important than that we are open to the question.
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem which includes these words:

“Yet, in the maddening maze of things,

And tossed by storm and flood;

To one fixed trust my spirit clings;

I know that God is good.”

Whittier probably got that faith from his own Quaker background—ultimately from Jesus Christ.  He was taught that God was good, but his poem betrays that he had made this teaching his own.

Sometimes the words that we use related to God narrow our perception.  For example, we are stuck with the fact that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father.” Of course God is not masculine.  God is beyond masculinity or femininity.  But our language choices are limited.  God is not merely an impersonal “It.” God is personal.  And because of the historical situation in Biblical times, the personal pronoun of choice was masculine.  However, the Bible does have a number of feminine images for God, the most obvious one being that given by Jesus when he likened God to a mother hen, brooding over her chicks.

The ancient writers of the Creed stated confidently, I BELIEVE IN GOD THE FATHER ALMIGHTY…and so many of us grew up believing in an almighty, all powerful, probably distant being and most likely had and may still have a male image as an initial picture when hearing the word God.

And yet, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the ground of the entire Abrahamic family, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, the God to whom Moses says, “Who shall I say sent me?” does not say, “I am he who am.” God replies to Moses “I am who am.” God is Being; the essence of all life, the spirit that breathes in everyone: the source that inspires every soul. God is the one in whose image all human beings, male and female, are made.  “I am who am” invites us to claim, honor, own and celebrate our own experiences of the divine – Images of God that hold meaning for us.

Joan Chittister warns us, “Actually, lest we be fooled by our own patriarchal inclinations to make God in our own small, puny, partial male images, the Hebrew scriptures are full of the female attributes of God. In Isaiah (42:14) the Godhead, “cries out as a woman in labor.” To the psalmist (131:1-2) God is a nursing woman on whose breast the psalmist leans “content as a child that has been weaned.” In Hosea (11:3-4) God claims to be a cuddling mother who takes Israel in her arms. In Genesis (3:21) God is a seamstress who makes clothes out of skins for both Adam and Eve. And in Proverbs, God — she, wisdom, Sophia, “raises her voice in the streets,” “is there with God ‘in the beginning,’” (8:22-31) “is the homemaker who welcomes the world to her table” (9: 5) shouting as she does, “Enter here! Eat my food, drink my wine.”

Today, as we celebrate Mother’s Day we can look at good mothers, female mentors, holy women to expand our image of God –  Mothers, who are or who have been a continuous presence and stability, encouragers, supporters, forgivers, givers of unconditional love; who work hard behind the scenes doing whatever  is needed  so that we can succeed.

And then there is Mother Earth. Theologian Sally McFague has written extensively on this image.  She says, “Theology has special responsibility for the symbols, images and language used for expressing the relationship between God and the world in every age.” And she asks, “Can we continue to talk about God and ourselves as we have in the past? Do we not need to look at the traditional language to see whether it is helpful . . . in our time’?”

She states that divine sovereignty may have been the appropriate image for some ages, but now, when the interdependence of all life and our special responsibility for it needs to be emphasized, is it helpful for our time? McFague suggest that different imagery is needed in order to express Christian transformation in an ecological and nuclear age.  Though no metaphor or set of metaphors can exhaust the varied experiences of relating to God, recognizing the world as God’s “body”, creation as the incarnation of God, may be meaningful imagery for us now.

While that notion may at first seem a bit shocking it may help to remember that a metaphor is not a description. To say that the world is God’s body is to use the same kind of language we use in saying the world is the realm of our Lord and King. Both phrases are pictures, both are imaginative constructions, both offer ways of thinking about God and the world. To use the metaphor of God’s body brings us close to God. God is not far off in another place, a king looking down, as it were, on his realm, but here, as a visible presence. The world is the bodily presence. . .of the invisible God.

“Needless to say,” McFague continues, “were this metaphor to enter our consciousness as thoroughly as the Lord and King one has, we would live differently. We could no longer see God as worldless or the world as godless. Nor could we expect God to take care of everything, either through domination or through benevolence.”

We see through pictures not directly; and all pictures are false in some respect.  McFague challenges us to consider what attitudes various pictures of God encourage and suggests that we think differently about what the saving love of God means in our time.  She offers a beautiful statement and I invite you to take in her words. She says, “Sheep on the English hillside in the morning mist, a child’s first steps, the smell of crisp air on the first fall day. We should dwell upon the specialness, the distinctiveness, the value of these things until the pain of contemplating their permanent loss, not just to one individual but to all for all time, becomes unbearable. This is a form of prayer for the world as the body of God, which we, as lovers and friends of the world, are summoned to practice. This prayer, while not the only one in an ecological, nuclear age, is a necessary . . . one. It is a form of meditation to help us think differently about the world and to work together with God to save our beleaguered planet, our beautiful, vulnerable Earth.” Mother Earth.

Perhaps feminine images of God or the earth as an incarnation of God are meaningful concepts that move you to gratitude, appreciation and greater intimacy with the divine.  On the other hand these metaphors may not have value for you. You may even find them troubling.  Our minds and senses are tools to help us gain greater awareness of and closeness to Spirit.  If one image is helpful in that process wonderful, if not, letting go of the image is not a rejection of God.  What is important is that we take time with the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  The answer that surfaces is far less significant than the period spent contemplating the question. The answer will change as we change; hopefully as we grow.  The question, on the other hand, causes us to seek. We are invited to pursue God. We are beckoned to come close, spend time with the divine. And it is in this seeking that we are blessed.