It happened to us twice. Two different times, sitting in two different mud-walled churches with tin roofs, two different Maasai choirs singing worship from deep in their souls, clothed in red and blue plaid and their fanciest beadwork. It happened to us twice, in two different Maasai churches, as part of a time set aside for the formal exchange of lengthy greetings, filtered through two layers of translation. It happened to us twice, while we were sharing and learning about life in the Tanzanian bush and in suburban America.
It happened to us twice: a raised hand on the far side of the church, and a Maasai man or woman standing to ask us questions about our faith and culture. Twice, we were posed the question “Are you Christ followers?” And then follow-up question, “How does that make your life different?”
More than wanting to know what Christianity is like in a different land, more than wanting to know what the church is like across an ocean that none of them would ever see, these men and women wanted to know who Christ was to us, on a deeply personal level. They wanted to know that believing in Christ had changed our lives. They wanted to know that our faith and discipleship mattered - really mattered - in our lives.
For these communities of faith, gathered out in the dust under the shade of thorny acacia trees, following Jesus was nothing other than a life-changing commitment. Christ following meant abandoning some long-standing tribal and cultural practices and adopting a new worldview where all humans, male and female, are equal in God’s eyes. They expected nothing less from us. They wanted to know that our experience with Christ was just as personal, just as powerful, and just as life-changing as the Christ that they had come to know.
“Are you a Christ follower?” the asked. And, “How does that transform your life?” Or, in other words, “Who do you say that Christ is?”
* * *
Jesus arrived at Caesarea Philippi. This Jesus was the one who even before birth was called “Immanuel,” God-with-us, the one who will “save his people from their sins.” This Jesus has already taught, healed, and performed wonder after wonder, and yet been asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus arrived at Caesarea Philippi, a political threat and a curious figure to the villages. And so he asked his disciples about all the rumors that were flying about him, and about the Son of Man, the Messiah that the whole world was hoping for. He asked them, “Who do people think the Son of Man is?” The disciples told him, ‘Some think John the Baptist, some think it’s Elijah, there are a few who think it might be Jeremiah, or maybe one of the other prophets.”
Jesus pressed the disciples, asking more pointedly, “What about you? Who do you say I am?” And Simon Peter, always first to run off his mouth, confidently declared, “You are the Christ. The Messiah. The Son of the living God!” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you.”
* * *
A quick trip to Google is all it takes for us, in our current day and age, to answer Jesus’ first question, “Who do people say I am?”
- Author Geza Vermes says that Jesus is, “an unsurpassed master of the art of laying bare the inmost core of spiritual truth.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness.”
- Mikhail Gorbachev says, “Jesus was the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind.”
- Camille Paglia says, “Jesus was a brilliant Jewish stand-up comedian, a phenomenal improviser. His parables are great one-liners.”
- And John Lennon, in his infamous quote about the Beatles, says, “We're more popular than Jesus Christ now. I don't know which will go first; rock and roll or Christianity.”
But the question that Jesus really wants to know the answer to is the second question, the personal question: “Who do you say that I am?” It’s not good enough for us to know what other people believe about Jesus. The life of faith begun at baptism is a life of discerning the answer to the question, “What do I believe?” It’s the point of our Christian education and confirmation ministries. It’s the purpose of sharing the Word together in worship and in personal devotion. It’s the goal of meeting Christ at the table in bread and wine.
When Peter speaks up and proclaims, “Jesus, you are the Christ,” Jesus turns around and says “Blessed are you.” I don’t think he says this because Peter said the “right” answer. Jesus tells Peter that he is blessed for having proclaimed his own faith, rather than regurgitating any secondary sources. “Blessed are you,” Jesus says, “for believing in me, and not just in stories and second-hand reports about me. Blessed are you because you felt God’s grace stirring in your soul and have come to believe in me, the one whom he has sent. Blessed are you because you have seen me - really seen me! - and believed.”
* * *
Sitting on those narrow benches, kicking the dust under our feet and smelling the breeze at it blew in through the cracks where the tin roof met the mud walls of the churches, our group looked at each other quietly, trying to come up with a simple answer to a question that seemed so complicated: What does following Christ really mean to you?
Whether they knew it or not, the eager Maasai women and men who posed the questions were asking us to disregard what everybody else thinks about Jesus. They were asking us to disregard what we’ve read or studied. They were challenging us to disregard all of the good answers that we could quote other believers and other theologians. They were pushing us to resist talking about Christianity in the third-person.
I wish I could tell you that we stood up and shared with them glowing testimonies of the ways that each of us have experienced Jesus in our lives and come to be transformed by him. And I wish that I could tell you that we shared story after story about how Christ was using us to bring real change to our communities here at home. But we were quiet. Maybe it was too big of a question. Maybe it was too complicated to explain through two layers of language barriers. Maybe we were shy, or just out of practice when it comes to talking about the personal side of our faith.
All I know is that those moments of quiet and stammered half-answers about Christianity in America sparked in me a new desire to draw closer to Jesus, so that I, too, can talk in easy, concrete, faithful terms about my relationship with Jesus, just like the members of the congregations who hosted us did. I want to be able to say, confidently, things such as “God is the one who brings the rain. Jesus is the one who brings equality. My faith liberates and empowers me from the cultural hardships of being a woman. Jesus is the shepherd of my soul.” Or, in the words of Peter, “Jesus, you are the Christ, the Messiah, the one sent by God to redeem the world.”
The good news for me, for you, for our group of Tanzania travelers is that we can keep looking for the thin places in our lives where we encounter Christ in transforming ways, and we can keep practicing our lines so that we speak in a vocabulary of faith. The good news is that God opens up safe spaces where we can search our hearts to discern where God is really working in our lives. And maybe, in this moment right here and now, the best news of all is that we come together week after week and practice our faith in this community or other worshiping communities like this. We pray prayers that help us find our words. We sing songs that help us expand our imaginations and our vocabularies. And, week by week, we stand up together, our voices supporting and being supported by the whole people of God, and we practice again the words of our faith every time we begin the Creed with the words “I believe.”
I would invite you right now to reach forward and grab a red hymnal. Turn to page 229 in the front, which is part of the rite of Holy Baptism.
As I ask each question and we respond, I invite you do think about the words you are saying, perhaps more deeply that you’ve ever considered them before. Think about the words that communicate the faith of the deepest parts of your heart. Think about the words that challenge you, or the words that are hard for you to agree with. Think about what it really means to you to say the words “I believe.” And consider this your way, today, to answer the question posed to us by Jesus: “Who do you say that I am?”
Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty,Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,Amen.
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.