Magazine article The Christian Century

West Coast Witness

Magazine article The Christian Century

West Coast Witness

Article excerpt

Sunday, August 21

Matthew 16:13-20

ONE AUGUST I was hiking with new friends just 15 b minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge. They wanted to show me a favorite trail, a path that winds its way through summer-golden hills, past ravines of alder, oak and eucalyptus, and then straight on to the Pacific. We climbed the crest of a ridge that placed us dramatically between sky and sea, at a height even above the gulls. There we ate our picnic lunch and fell into a rambling conversation about politics, real estate values in an earthquake zone and the virtues of sauvignon blanc over chardonnay. Then I mentioned offhandedly that perhaps I viewed something or other the way I did because I was a Christian. This revelation did not strike me as a big deal. After all, they had been talking about Buddhist meditation, Sufi parables and personal spiritual rituals. My saying that the Eucharist was central to my life did not seem out of place.

My remark turned out to be a gauntlet thrown down between me and them, a line unwittingly drawn in the sand. Was I really a Christian? Did that mean that all other religions were "wrong"? That Jesus was the only Son of God? That he was born of a virgin? That he was "in" the bread and wine?

There I was, confronted by people of good will and genuine lovingkindness, suddenly made to be Defender of the Faith, the Tennessee Valley Authority on hard sayings and Christian claims.

I do my best to avoid confrontations of this kind, especially when it comes to saying "really" yes or "really" no. Mystery is usually my refuge. But in that moment on the rim of the Pacific there was no place to hide or run, no way to squirm away from the question of Jesus Christ.

All three of the synoptic Gospels stage similar moments of reckoning, as in Matthew 16, when Jesus forces the disciples to say who they believe him to be. Not who do most people say that I am, he asks, but what do you have to say about me? In John the situation is a little different. Many of Jesus' followers are deserting him after it seems as if he's become too much to handle. He asks Peter if he too will think better of the whole business and turn away; whereupon Peter says, "Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).

Cut from Caesarea Philippi to the Pacific coast 2,000 years later. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see that what confronted me on a cliff overlooking the sea was an update of that Gospel moment. My California friends were turning me into that other Peter; they were asking me to say who I believed Jesus Christ to be. …

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