One of my favorite lines is from the poet E.E. Cummings who said, “The beautiful answer is always preceded by the more beautiful question.”
The poet, Rainer Rilke, offers similar words to a 19 year old, aspiring artist, in his Letter to Young Poet.
Where was this wisdom for those of us who grew up on a steady diet of answers that left us malnourished and starving for the more beautiful questions?
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus travels as far north from Jerusalem as he and his disciples ever travelled (Some questions can’t be asked too close to home or at the center of our religious imagination). In that distant place he asks the young and aspiring disciples a beautiful question, whose answer turns out to be much bigger and better than they can imagine.
“Who do you say that I am?
Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus affirms Peter’s answer in the most unusual way. Jesus tells Peter that he did not answer this on his own. The answer itself is a gift from the One whose meaning will defy all expectations. Perhaps this is why Jesus admonishes Peter and the rest of the disciples not to mention this to anyone.
Was Peter’s answer factually correct? Yes. Do the disciples have any concept of what his non-violent, hanging-on-a-cross, forgive-them-for-they-know-not-what-they-do messiahship actually looks like? Not a clue. How could they? How could anyone?
Presumably Peter and the disciples still had to “live the question:” enflesh it, love it, let it do its work over time until it finally yields a more beautiful answer than the one they were prepared to share with others.
There is much to explore here, but my main point is that Jesus is not the Bible answer man that many of us grew up with. In fact, Jesus asks many more questions in the Gospels than he answers. To be exact, Jesus asks 307 questions and he only answers three of the 183 questions addressed of him (See Jesus is the Question by Martin B. Copenhaver).
All this makes me think of catechisms. Catechisms are a form of religious instruction usually framed around questions. For example, the Westminster Catechism begins with this famous question, “What is the chief end of humanity?
It seems to me that Jesus is modeling for us a catechism of sorts in the Gospels — what I would call a human catechism. Jesus is inducting Peter and the disciples into life itself, and he does so through a series of questions, fully lived to the end. Jesus is not inducting the disciples into being a Catholic or a Protestant. He is inducting them into what it means to be human — fully human. And this, according to St. Irenaeus, is what gives glory to God. Yes, in the Gospels, we are witnessing a human catechism.
And what happens to those of us who live the questions en-route to becoming fully human? The text makes it clear. We are given a kind of authority and responsibility that none of us dared to imagine. We are given the “keys” to the kingdom. According to Jesus, “Whatever we bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever we loose on earth is loosed in heaven” (vs. 19).
Can we see?
Jesus is inviting us to participate in the work of God. That’s what it means to be fully human! It’s no wonder then, that Jesus tells his disciples to remain silent and let the question do its work. It is only by undergoing the question that the messiah is revealed as the Crucified One — the One who takes on the sin and suffering of humanity. Only then can we recognize and imitate the One who is the key to life itself.
Who do you say that I am?