There are many different scenes and settings in which this basic scenario can play out. Barbara Taylor Brown tells of a woman in her congregation who left church, her mind and attention already turned to many things. She did not notice a lost-looking man on the sidewalk staring up at the cross on the steeple. She excused herself and started to walk on her way when the man called to her, and, pointing to the doors of the church, asked, “What is it that you believe in there?” She started to answer and then was unsure of what to say, or how to say it, or if she should say it. After a long uncomfortable silence, the man said, “Sorry to have bothered you” and walked away.
Peter S. Hawkins tells the story of hiking one of the Pacific Coast trails just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Conversation within the group included talking about Buddhist meditation, Sufi parables, and personal spiritual rituals. His saying that the Eucharist was central to his life did not seem out-of-place. His remark turned out to be a gauntlet thrown down between him and the rest of the group. He found himself defending what it meant to really be a Christian. Whether that means all other religions were “wrong”? Whether Jesus was the only Son of God? Was he really born of a virgin? That Jesus was truly present “in” the bread and wine? In that moment on the trail there was no place to hide or run, no way to squirm away from the question of Jesus Christ.
The place and time vary, but the scene is similar be it Caesarea Philippi, on the sidewalk outside church, or on the Pacific coast trail. Every scene – and the countless others – are all a replay of that Gospel moment when Jesus asks, “But, who do you say that I am?” Peter did well with his answer. I suspect our first attempts were feeble, tentative, and less than convincing – perhaps even a disastrous flailing of language and incomplete thoughts. Was there ever a second attempt?
We live in an age where people want “proof” about the Christian faith. Proof that is consistent, repeatable, and sure. People increasingly want the proof of science and technology. Behind that lies an insatiable desire for more information. But faith is not about more information or proof. The Christian faith is about love. Something you can’t prove; demonstrate perhaps, but not in a scientific way. Do you love your parents? Yes? Great…prove it. Whatever you are listing in your mind, whatever action you would offer as proof of love – I can do those things for your parents and I don’t even know them.
I would suggest love is one thing you cannot prove; you can just trust that it is true. Faith is another; you trust that what the Christian faith proposes is true. Then you shape the way you see, judge, and act in the world on the basis of that proposition. And keep your answers simple.
“What do you believe in there?” That Jesus has the words of eternal life and that we have come to know and believe He is the Holy One of God. There it is in a nutshell: an affirmation to stake a life on, a Lord not to explain but to follow.
Art by: Henry Ossawa Tanner
Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus