Sunday, August 24, 2008

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples two questions:
First, he asks them, "who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
In this question, he is asking for information;
he wants a report concerning the facts of the situation;
he wants to know what they hear people saying.
But his second question is different: "Who do you say that I am?"
With this, he is asking a different sort of question:
not a question about the facts of the situation,
but a question about their faith.

But what is "faith"?
Sometimes it is easier to say what something is not that to say what it is,
and this seems to be the case
when we are trying to understand the nature of faith.
St. Thomas Aquinas says that there are two things that faith is not.
First, he says, faith is not knowledge,
or at least not the kind of knowledge we have
when we see that something is true,
like the disciples seeing or hearing what people are saying about Jesus.
Rather, faith is holding on to something that we cannot see the truth of,
something that remains obscure and mysterious.
But, second, Aquinas also says that having faith
is not the same thing as having an opinion —
such as, "yellow is a nice color" or "isn’t that a cute baby?" —
because faith isn’t just a matter of expressing our feelings about something,
but has to do with things that we believe are true,
things that are so true that we are willing to stake our lives on them.

When Jesus asks his disciples, "who do you say that I am?"
he is not asking for their opinions about him or how they feel about him.
He is asking for their faith;
he is asking whether they believe that he really is
the one that they can stake their lives on.
And in Peter’s reply, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God"
he is not reporting something that he sees,
nor is he merely stating an opinion;
rather, he is confessing his faith;
he is saying that he has staked his life on Jesus
as the fulfillment of God’s promises,
even though he cannot yet see them fulfilled.
He is saying that Jesus is the truth in whom he trusts.

We have another example of what faith looks like
in our second reading.
So often in our Sunday readings the second reading is from Paul
and is a snippet of a much longer letter
and we need to read a bit more to get the full sense.
So for those of you who have not read
Paul’s letter to the Romans in its entirety this week,
let me give you the larger context:
Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome
to introduce himself and his understanding of the Gospel.
Our reading today is the conclusion of a lengthy section of Paul’s letter
in which he grapples with what is for him a central question of faith:
if Jesus is in fact the Messiah of Israel,
for whom the Jewish people have been waiting,
why, then, have so few recognized him as such?
Paul considered himself to the end to be a Jew,
so for him this is a very personal question:
why has the messiah been rejected
by the vast majority of his fellow Jews?
More importantly,
what is God doing through this unexpected turn of events?
How can this possibly fit into God’s plan of salvation
for the Jewish people and the whole world?

Paul wants to see what God is doing in history
and so he wrangles with these question for three long chapters
in which intellectual struggle combines
with personal anguish over the fate of his people.
In course of those three chapters of struggle
Paul gains at best a very misty view of what God is up to:
hints, analogies, metaphors —
answers that will do, perhaps, for the time being.
But the real answer to Paul’s anguish
arrives in his recognition that,
though he cannot see a clear answer to his questions,
through the gift of faith he is able to remain
absolutely confident of one thing:
God is at work in history to fulfill his promises to the Jewish people
and God is working
with a wisdom that surpasses
our human powers of comprehension
for their salvation.

This is not Paul’s opinion; this is the truth that he holds onto by faith
because, like Peter,
he has found in Jesus Christ the truth in whom he trusts.
And so Paul concludes his mighty struggle to understand God’s ways
with a confession of faith
in which he acknowledges that he cannot see
and yet still will stake his life and ministry
on the truth of God’s justice and mercy:
"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are God’s judgments
and how unsearchable God’s ways!"

Paul makes this confession of faith in the context
of his struggle to understand
how God’s ultimate plan of human salvation is working itself out
amidst the obscure and confusing events of history.
And we, too, who gather here this morning,
are invited and empowered by God’s grace
to make this confession of faith our own
as we struggle to see how God is working
in the obscure and confusing events that surround us.
How is God at work in the deaths of 153 people
in this week’s plane crash in Spain,
or the over-2000 civilians who have died
in the conflict between Russia and Georgia?
Or, what is God up to in the protracted and painful illness
of my husband, my wife, my child, my friend?
Where is God’s justice and mercy?
Or, how does this unforseen opportunity, this new friendship,
this sudden move across the country, or even across the world,
fit into God’s plan for my salvation,
and God’s salvation of the world?
These are questions to which we often cannot see the answers —
and we may for the rest of our lives
have nothing but hints, analogies and metaphors —
but because, like Peter and like Paul,
we have found in Jesus the truth in whom we trust,
we can say,
"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are God’s judgments
and how unsearchable God’s ways!"