Monday, January 14, 2008

Whom Do You Seek?

RCL Epiphany A
6 January 2008

St Andrew’s Anglican Church
Langley BC

You, Lord, are both lamb and shepherd. You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
You, peacemaker and sword-bringer of the way you took and gave.
You, the everlasting instant; you, whom we both scorn and crave.

You, who walk each day beside us, sit in power at God’s side.
You, who preach a way that’s narrow, have a love that reaches wide.
You, the everlasting instant; you, who are our pilgrim guide.[1]

Doug Todd recently gathered four persons to respond to the question, “Who is Jesus?” As might be expected of a conversation between a Jew, a Muslim and two Christians, one a ‘liberal’ Protestant, the other a Roman Catholic, four different answers were given. Following the publication of this conversation, the Vancouver Sun received, no doubt, an avalanche of letters and, to the credit of the editors, a number of these letters were printed. Some of the letters voiced predictable religious and non-religious opinions, while some were more thoughtful. But the story itself and the letters that followed remind us that the question that Doug Todd asked will not go away.

But in some ways, “Who is Jesus?” is not the right question with which to begin. Rather, the answer one gives to the question, “Who is Jesus?”, depends very much on an earlier question, “Whom do you seek when you turn to Jesus of Nazareth?” Anselm of Canterbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and theologian in the eleventh and early twelfth century, described theology as ‘faith seeking understanding’. In other words, one cannot even begin to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?”, unless one has already made a decision that the question is worth asking, that the person of Jesus merits looking into, that Jesus, in some fashion or another, matters to human history.

When the magi set out to follow the star and to seek “the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2.2), they had already made the decision that the journey was worthwhile, that the child was going to be an important factor in human history. There is no suggestion in Matthew’s gospel that they fully understood who this child was, only that seeking him mattered, regardless of what they were to find. Let us imagine, for a moment, the scene as Matthew paints it in the second chapter of his Gospel: A party of scholars and scientists --- for that was who the magi were for their times --- who can expect to be and who are entertained by royalty, are led to a Palestinian village. In the village they find a child, perhaps an infant, perhaps a toddler, who is living in humble circumstances, surrounded by peasants, shepherds and the lower classes of Palestinian society. This child cannot answer for himself the question the magi might have wanted to ask him, “Who are you?”. How the magi respond to the evidence of their eyes is, in great part, determined by their expectations of what they will find.

Their expectations are unveiled to us by the nature of the gifts that Matthew records as having been brought to the child. One of the magi brought incense, a gift generally used to honour divinities, perhaps a sign that he was seeking a divine being or a manifestation of the divine. Another of the magi brought gold, a gift associated with the economic realities of power, perhaps a sign that he was seeking someone whom he thought would need to exercise conventional power. The final gift of the magi was myrrh, a gift generally used to embalm bodies, perhaps a sign that he was seeking someone whose life would be sacrificed for the common good. In all this I say ‘perhaps’, for we cannot know indisputably the motives of the magi. We can know that their gifts speak eloquently of the power of expectations to influence what one finds at the end of a search.

So, from the magi back to Doug Todd’s article for a moment. Whenever a gathering is held to ask the question, “Who is Jesus?”, we must first ask, “Whom do you seek?” What are the needs, the hopes, the expectations, the sorrows, the disappointments, the intellectual commitments that shape the attitudes we bring to the search? It should be no surprise that a Jewish scholar would bring with him the wealth of Jewish reflection on the Messiah. It should be no surprise that a Muslim scholar would bring with her the Muslim tradition of seeing Moses and Jesus as prophets whose message is finally embodied in Muhammad. It should be no surprise that a so-called ‘liberal’ Protestant leader would bring with him more than two centuries of critical reflection on the biblical texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. It should be no surprise that a Roman Catholic bishop would bring with him his responsibility to uphold the magisterium, the tradition of authoritative teaching that marks the Roman Catholic tradition.

Some readers of Doug Todd’s article and, perhaps, some of us want to know who among these commentators are ‘right’, which understanding of the person of Jesus of Nazareth is ‘true’. On this holy day when we celebrate the coming of the magi, each of whom brought with him on the journey his own understanding of who this child might be, let us avoid narrowing the parameters too much in our own search to understand who this child is and what that means for us in the living of our lives. Orthodoxy is not always found in the ‘right’ answer, but in holding before us a diversity of views, an approach that lies behind the word ‘catholic’, meaning ‘according to the whole’. Let us honour the quest that many make to understand who this child is and trust that the quest will result in a life-changing understanding.

There are those who seek an authoritative teacher, one who will show us the right path to walk on this journey we call life. If that is whom you seek, then come and learn from him whose burden is light and whose yoke is easy.

There are those who seek a prophet, one who speaks the word of God clearly amidst the clamour of voices that claim our attention. If that is whom you seek, then come and listen to him who said, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and the great commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

There are those who seek a saviour, one who redeems us from the weight of sin that burdens us and blinds us to God’s presence in our lives and in our world. If that is whom you seek, then come and accept him who is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

There are those who seek a model, one who shows us what it means to be fully alive as a human being created in the image and likeness of God. If that is whom you seek, then come and follow him who gives us power to become children of God, “born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God”.

On their way home, after they had managed to elude the grasp of Herod, I cannot help but wonder whether the magi compared their perceptions of the child. I can hear the question, “So, who do you think he is?” “A divine being,” one said. “A king,” said another. “One destined to die for all,” said the other. Perhaps in a moment of insight, one of the magi said to others, “Yes, all three --- and more!”

The person of Jesus of Nazareth remains a mystery, not a mystery in the sense of something to be fathomed out, but a mystery in the sense of a deep truth that never exhausts the quest for understanding. As we bring our questions and our preconceptions to the quest, God does not chastise us but welcomes us. God is not, I believe, as concerned about whether we have the right opinion or understanding as God is concerned about whether we act rightly on the basis of the understanding we have reached as we plumb the depths of God’s activity in time and space.

You and I have already made a commitment: We believe that Jesus of Nazareth matters and that the whole of human history is intimately linked with this Jewish rabbi whose life and teaching continues to shape the actions of men, women and children throughout time and space. But, like the magi and Anselm, our commitment is an act of faith that is seeking understanding not a claim to have worked out in a final and definitive form who this rabbi is. We only know that he has changed our world and our lives. He is our teacher who shows us the way to be faithful to God. He is our prophet who speaks God’s word to us above the clamour of competing voices. He is our saviour who embodies God’s forgiveness of us so that we might embody that forgiveness for others. He is our model who manifests to us what it means to be fully alive, to be truly made in the image and likeness of God.

Jesus is all these and, I am sure, more. So, my brothers and sisters, whom do you seek? Come then and seek. Do not be afraid to bring your own questions. Do not worry about which answer is the right one. God calls us to search and to learn and to act on the understanding that we are given. No more --- but no less.

Let us pray.

Radiant Morning Star, you are both guide and mystery. Visit our rest with disturbing dreams and our journeys with strange companions. Grace us with the hospitality to open our hearts and homes to visitors filled with unfamiliar wisdom bearing profound and unusual gifts, for you live and reign with the Source of all wisdom and the Spirit that bestows that wisdom on us, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

[1] Sylvia Dunstan, “You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd,” in Common Praise (Toronto, ON: Anglican Book Centre, 1998), #630.

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