A few years ago, Pam and I had a wonderful opportunity to go to Italy for a few days with my clergy group through a grant from the Lily Foundation. It ended up being one of the best trips we’ve ever taken, but it didn’t start out that way. Pam and I were booked on a flight out of Portland, which was intended to get us to Atlanta in time for a connecting flight to Rome. Unfortunately, in Maine, even in April, you can’t count on the weather. Our flight was delayed while all the planes ahead of us in line had their wings deiced. We finally did get into the air but arrived in Atlanta fifteen minutes too late to make our connection to Rome. We ended up rebooking our flight for the following day, which is why we got a tour of the Atlanta Aquarium rather than the Sistine Chapel.
I was remembering that we missed the Vatican Tour the other day because of a book I came across. It’s called, “God is Closer than you Think,” by John Ortberg. It starts out with a description of Michelangelo’s painting of God reaching out to Adam, which adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (or so I’m told.) In the painting, he writes, “God is rushing toward Adam on a cloud, one of the ‘chariots of heaven,’ propelled by the angels…. It is as if even in the midst of the splendor of all creation, God’s entire being is wrapped up in his impatient desire to close the gap between himself and this man. He can’t wait. His hand comes within a hairsbreadth of the man’s hand.”
Adam, for his part, is reclining in a somewhat lethargic attitude, his arm lazily extended in God’s direction, as though he isn’t quite awake yet, or maybe isn’t sure he’s all that interested. Ortberg points out that traditionally, the painting is called “The Creation of Adam,” but that some scholars believe a better title would be “The Endowment of Adam.” Adam has already been created. His eyes are open. He is apparently conscious, but he hasn’t yet received that divine spark that will bring him fully alive. God has brought that spark within reach. All Adam has to do is lift a finger to receive it. And the tension, and the brilliance of the painting, at least partly, is the question that hangs in the air, “Will he do it?”
Imagine if you were able to somehow be present to witness the Big Bang, the grand explosion that set the whole universe in motion. Lay aside for the moment the hopeless impossibility of it. Just imagine the anticipation you’d feel, knowing that something incredibly momentous was about to happen and you had the unbelievable privilege of being there to witness it. I think it was something like this, that Michelangelo was hoping to capture in his painting; the very moment in which the human race became what we essentially are. The message he was trying to convey, part of the message at least, was that for that essence of who we are to be what it needed to be, God couldn’t do it all alone. God could produce the whole grand creation, God could fill Adam with the ability and the desire to make that connection, but Adam had to participate in the process. And even if all that he had to do was lift his finger, still, it was something God could not do for him.
Ortberg goes on to say that “The story of the bible isn’t primarily about the desire of people to be with God; it’s the desire of God to be with people.” That’s a great way to think about the bible as a whole. It’s the story of God’s desire to be with us. If you keep that in mind, it makes the bible a whole lot easier to understand. God puts Adam and Eve in the garden. Right from the beginning, you get a very distinct feeling that God did that out of some sense of divine loneliness. But then, of course, the first couple turn their backs on God. Just like children everywhere, Adam and Eve have their own ideas of what they want to do with their lives.
So, they turn away, and that turning away then becomes an ongoing theme as the story of the bible unfolds. Noah turns away. Moses turns away. David turns away. The judges, prophets and kings of Israel turn away. Sometimes they come back, of course. Sometimes, after turning away, people figure out what a mistake they’ve made and “re-turn.” But the point always seems to be that despite those few who return to God, the great majority are turned away. But God never gives up. Through all of history, in a whole laundry list of ways, God continues to reach out to the people, hoping against hope that someday they will just lift their little fingers and make the connection.
When the story of the bible gets around to Jesus, it’s a good idea to think of him in this larger context. Jesus, in a sense, is not some new, altogether different thing God is doing. He is simply the latest and greatest attempt to do what God’s been trying to do from the beginning. Yet, even with Jesus, the attempt can only go so far. For whatever divine reason, God does not and will not force us to be in a relationship with our creator. The invitation is always there. The reaching out is always there. But unless there is a reaching back, no connection will be made. So, try thinking of Jesus as God’s walking and talking invitation. Everything he does, all the teaching and healing, the suffering, dying and rising from the dead, it’s all about Jesus inviting us to return to the home God created for us and wants us to live in. From the perspective of the Bible, the whole drama of our human lives turns around whether or not we will choose to respond.
This morning’s reading is a perfect example. The disciples have been with Jesus for some time. They’ve heard what he’s said and watched what he’s done. It comes to their attention that people are speculating about who Jesus might be and the disciples are batting it around among themselves. Finally, Jesus breaks in with a question. “Who do people think I am?” Well, they tell him, there are a lot of opinions floating around. Some folks think you’re a reincarnation of John the Baptist. Others say Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. But then Jesus puts the question to them directly. “Who do you say I am?”
Now, if we pause the story right at that moment, we just might see it for what it is. Spiritually, it is precisely the same moment that Michelangelo was trying to capture. If we pause the story right at the moment of that question, we can just see the image of God straining across the void to within a hairsbreadth of the disciples, silently begging them to simply lift their little fingers and make a connection. And the drama of that moment turns on whether or not they will recognize it for the divine opportunity that it is.
Normally, of course, we don’t pause the story. We rush right on to Peter’s affirmation. Jesus is the messiah, the son of the living God. We talk about the play on words that Peter’s name means “rock” and that Jesus said he meant to use this rock as a foundation stone for his church. Very clever. We also talk about whether or not Jesus meant to say that Peter “the rock” would be the first Pope of Rome and the beginning of the church’s so called, “apostolic succession.” Catholics say yes and Protestants say no and that has long been one of the classic dividing lines between our two branches of the Christian faith. And there are other things we can tease out of this story as well. But, as interesting as all that is for those of us who get a kick out of bible study for its own sake, personally I think all these other threads in the story mostly miss the point. The moment, the pregnant moment of this story, is the question. Who do you say I am?
As we focus on that question, it doesn’t take long to figure out that Peter’s answer doesn’t really solve the problem for us. In a sense, it really doesn’t matter what Peter said. Well, it mattered for him, of course. It mattered for the history of the church, of course. It matters that Peter went on to struggle to be the best disciple he could be, and to establish the best most faithful church he was able to, of course. The church took Peter’s answer and turned it into a theological dogma. You are the son of the living God. Certainly, Peter’s answer matters in that sense.
But if we go back to the question and hit pause right at that pregnant moment, it suddenly becomes clear, that this is not a question anyone else can answer for us. We can’t sub-contract it out to some other saint or apostle, prophet or theologian. Peter’s answer was correct, not because it was the right answer for everybody, but because it was the right answer for him. This is who I, Peter, say that you are. He answered the question for himself, but he did not, and could not answer it for us. When Jesus says, “Who do you say I am?” he was talking to each one of us individually.
Now, as a pastor, I can tell you what I think, what I believe, what my experience has been, like Peter did. Who knows, you might find my experience interesting, maybe even useful. You might be able to relate to the history of my life as I have done what I can to work faithfully within the church. Sure, it matters how I answer Jesus’ question. But my answer doesn’t let you off the hook any more than Peter’s does. You can’t build your faith on what I believe about Jesus. As far as your faith is concerned, it really shouldn’t be about how I answer the question. Who do you say Jesus is? The whole drama of our human life on earth, seen through the eyes of your Christian faith, comes down to how you answer that question.
Who do you say Jesus is? It’s a very important question, especially if you have any interest in growing in your faith. It strikes to the heart of who we are in God. It’s not like we can’t learn from the answers that people like Peter have come up with. But beyond a certain point, the answer has to come from your own heart, your own soul. Michelangelo’s painting is not just about Adam. God is reaching out across the whole vast greatness and glory of creation, trying to get as close to you as possible, but needing you to respond in order for that connection to be made. And when the connection is made, to each of us, each in our own unique way, it becomes that authentic center around which the whole of our lives can turn.
I’d like to close this morning with another story. This one comes from a book by Parker J. Palmer called, “The Politics of the Brokenhearted.” It’s about a disciple talking with his Rabbi. The disciple is wondering,
“Why does Torah tell us to place [God’s] words “upon” our hearts. Why does it not tell us to place these words in our hearts?” The Rabbi responds, “It’s because, as we are, our hearts are closed and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So, we place them on top of our hearts, and there they stay until one day the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
Isn’t that beautiful? Even for good church people, our hearts can often be closed to God. But then something happens, our hearts break open, and we discover that God’s Word has fallen in. Who you say that I am? Who is Jesus for you? What kind of picture would you paint if you were the artist trying to capture the very moment of your human connection with God? It’s a good question. It’s an important question. At the end of the day, it’s really not about what Peter said, or what the church says, or what I say. What it’s really about is what you say. What is your authentic experience of God in Christ? What do you answer when he looks you right in the eye and says, “Who do you say I am?”