Who are you? ask the Jews at the Temple, gathered around Jesus. He has described himself as the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. He has told a healed blind man that he, Jesus, is the Son of Man – a term used to describe God’s messenger before the coming of the Kingdom. He said, before Abraham was, I am – language that refers to the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3. But Jesus has not said the magic words the Jews want to hear. He’s not drawn them a picture. Who are you? they ask.
That’s what we all want, don’t we? We want someone who will speak plainly, who will lay it out for us in no uncertain terms. Just tell us what to believe, tell us what to do, tell us whom to follow, and then everything will be clear. And, all around us, there are characters who rise to that occasion, promising us a rigidly-enforced no-spin zone. Apparently, it doesn’t make any difference what they’re saying, so long as they say it with absolute certitude and unquestionable authority. No waffling, no doubt, here’s the truth. Take it or leave it.
How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly, the people declare. The problem with talking plainly about the things of God, writes Gary Jones, is that the things of God are anything but plain. . . We can speak with unequivocal certainty about things our minds can grasp, but God is not one of those things. God grasps us; we do not grasp God.
I have told you, Jesus responds, but you don’t believe it. Every now and then I get in a discussion with someone who is absolutely convinced that if I would just understand what they’re saying, I’ll agree with them. If I don’t believe them, it’s only because I don’t understand them. Their argument is so brilliant, so clear, so irrefutable, that the only reason anyone, myself included, doesn’t agree with them is because we haven’t grasped the infallible genius of their position. That’s pretty much the argument of a whole spate of recent books trying to counter the arguments of modern atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Both the new atheists and the defenders of God argue from pretty much the same perspective – from a scientific, rationalist viewpoint. Belief in God rests, both sides claim, on whether it passes the test of empirical or philosophical truth. One side claims belief fails those tests. The other side, I believe, skews the data and the argument to claim belief in God is rational and scientifically supportable. Frankly, I’m more on the side of the atheists: I think they’re right when they say that believing in God is not valid scientifically or rationally. Hang on for the next sentence: Where I disagree with them is their claim – and the similar claim by Christian rationalist and scientific apologists – that scientific and philosophical truths are the only, or even the highest forms of truth. I love the line in the movie A Clear and Present Danger when Harrison Ford’s character is asked to name one thing in the world that’s certain, and he answers, My daughter’s love. There are greater things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy – or in your science. There is philosophical truth, there is scientific truth, and then there are eternal verities that answer to neither of the other two, love being the foremost.
I have told you who I am, and you do not believe Jesus says. Where? Where did you tell us, plainly, who you were? Say the magic words, give us the secret sign, show us the secret handshake that says you are the Messiah, and then we will believe.
This is far from the only time Jesus is asked to show who he is. It happens in the desert: turn stones into bread; throw yourself off the temple. It happens at the cross: save yourself, come down from the cross, and we will believe in you.
I have told you, and you do not believe, says Jesus. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
St. Anselm was an 11th Century theologian who was made Archbishop of Canterbury by William II. Anselm struggled to understand who God was through his formidable powers of reason and intellect. The more Anselm tried to begin from a starting point of reason to prove the existence of God, the more frustrated he became. Finally, Anselm realized he had the wrong starting point – there was something inside him that was drawing him to belief – a deeply rooted yearning for something greater than which nothing could exist. Reason and science were not the starting point for faith, Anselm realized – faith begins with faith: Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.
Jesus’ sheep hear his voice, understand the works that he does, and know who he is because they follow him. As Anselm said, first they believe, and then they understand. The people asking Jesus to tell them plainly who he is will never understand, because they want proof before they believe. All the evidence is there before them – the blind now see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the poor have hope, the dead are raised. They can’t see because they won’t surrender themselves to faith.
The ongoing mistake I believe we make as Jesus’ followers is to spend our energies talking about God instead of experiencing, and helping others experience, God. Yes, we need to know what’s in our Bibles, but not because knowing what’s in our Bibles is the goal. We learn the story of God’s encounter with human beings so we can recognize it happening all around us. The early church grew not because people were convinced intellectually of the rational and scientific truths of Christian theology: it grew like wildfire because people were experiencing personally the presence of a living Lord, and were living out a new life that was foolishness to the wise. Churches in our day that grow in number and power suffer from the same disease: a living encounter with a living God.
In a parable entitled “The Explorer,” Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello tells of a person who leaves his home village to explore the Amazon jungle. He comes home to his village with tales of a place of incredible beauty. Unable to put into words the sights and wonders he has experienced, he tells the villagers they simply must go to the Amazon to see it for themselves. To help them, the explorer draws a detailed map, showing where all the waterfalls, plants, animals, and other wonders can be found. The villagers copy the map so everyone can have one for themselves; they frame it for their walls, study and discuss the map without ceasing, and become experts on the Amazon, knowing every curve of the river, every plant and animal, every cataract. But none of them ever goes.
Who are you? Tell us plainly, so we can believe. The evidence is all around us. We’ve studied it to death. We advance all the arguments for its veracity. We’re all experts on the irrefutably rational and scientific truth of who Jesus is.
The question is . . . do any of us follow?