Under oath before the living God

January 21, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 26:57-68.

Those who had arrested Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. Peter was following him at a distance as far as the high priest’s courtyard, and going inside he sat down with the servants to see the outcome. The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward who stated, “This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God and within three days rebuild it.'” The high priest rose and addressed him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.'” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You have now heard the blasphemy; what is your opinion?” They said in reply, “He deserves to die!” Then they spat in his face and struck him, while some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy for us, Messiah: who is it that struck you?”

To the end Jesus insisted that each person make his own judgement about his mission from God, about his sonship. Caiaphas and the others trying to make a case against him were frustrated until finally Caiaphas put the question directly to Jesus. Are you the Son of God? If Jesus said, “No,” there would be no case against him and he probably would have been released. Then he would have been just another false messiah and God would still not have been revealed to His chosen people.

Still, Jesus was ambiguous in his answer. Matthew has him say, “You have said so.” Luke wrote, “You say that I am.” The translation of Mark’s account can be understood as either “I am” or “Am I?” according to Marcus Borg in Jesus. “Am I?” would be consistent with the other two gospels and with Jesus’ self-description throughout. Caiaphas had tried to avoid the issue until he had no recourse in order to make a charge of blasphemy stand. I can imagine that he might have been very reluctant to ask and to hear the response. He couldn’t have failed to be fascinated by this man Jesus, by the miracles he performed, by his authority in teaching the scriptures, by his confidence in prophesying and speaking on behalf of God, and, most importantly, for the hopes and idolization that he stirred in people. Did he really want to know the answer? Isn’t it ironic that Caiaphas order Jesus to answer “under oath before the living God” as the living God stood right before him. If Jesus responded affirmatively, then Caiaphas had to make the decision to believe or renounce. Jesus said to him, “You have said so.” Do you believe or not? His eternal soul hung in the balance.

I get that question fairly often it seems. “Do you believe that I am the Son of God or not?” Sometimes it seems so incredible, that it can’t be true. My reason fights my faith. The reality of facts check my desire to believe. Checkmate. I have no escape. Do I believe or not? Jesus wants to know, just as he wanted to know from Caiaphas.

I keep saying, “Yes,” but I don’t really know why except that I want to believe. And if I believe, then what? For me it means that I have to accept Jesus’ teachings by trying to live in accordance, in obedience. I’m challenged to do that all the time. I saw a painting by Archie Scott Gobber at the opening exhibition at the Lawrence Arts Center last Friday. It was entitled God Loves Fred Phelps. That really challenges me. If I believe in Jesus, then I have to believe what this painting proclaims. I don’t want to; I don’t want to believe that God loves Fred Phelps, a man filled with hate who spews it all over the country in front of cameras. That seems so wrong. He may not be judged kindly by God, but God created him and loves him. Do I believe that?

There are sorts of things about my faith that don’t make sense to me or that are an affront to my sensibilities. So it was with Caiaphas. Many of Jesus’ teachings didn’t make sense to him; Jesus’ companionship with sinners was an affront to him, a righteous man and priest. Jesus didn’t conform to his expectation of the Messiah, so it’s understandable that he determined that Jesus was a blasphemer and deserved punishment, deserved to be put to death. Jesus was a threat to all that was right and proper.

Caiaphas was checkmated. He had a choice to submit or renounce, to believe or not, but he had to make the choice. That’s my dilemma as well, to submit or renounce, to believe or not. Can I truly believe that God loves Fred Phelps. And If I do, what does that require of me? If I encounter him or his family, how am I called to behave toward him? Can I pray for him? If so, what do I pray for? Or am I supposed to pray for myself that I can get past my revulsion and see something of God’s creation, God’s love in him. Those are the kinds of questions that bedevil me. Maybe that is the devil trying to fortify my reason to win out over my faith.

Do I believe or not? To say, “Yes,” is the far more difficult path to take. Jesus knew that was true for Caiaphas and he knows it’s true for me as well. My eternal soul hangs in the balance.

Mike

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