“Tell us a story!” That’s the way I would begin the earliest conversations I remember having with my grandmother. When my sister and cousins and I were in her presence, someone would inevitably ask her to tell us a story from her childhood. Then we would gather around wherever we could find room and listen to her repertory of tales from her growing-up.
The stories had names: “The man behind the curtain,” “The man by the gatepost.” We knew all of them by heart and the details never changed, yet we never tired of hearing her retell them. They helped us know who she was, and they helped us learn who we were.
That’s the way of growing up. Children love to hear stories about the childhoods of their parents and grandparents and others close to them. Children need to hear such stories to shape their world, to start learning who they are, and to create a vision of their future. Children need to hear childhood stories of the adults around them if they are to begin imagining that they, too, will one day be an adult and to imagine what their own adulthood might be like.
The details of my grandmother’s stories have faded now. I can sketch only the bare outline of a couple of them. As we grew older, the stories of her childhood were gradually replaced by stories of our childhoods, stories of our relationship with her and of our own growing up. Knowing who we are became something we gained not from the stories of her experience but from our lived experience.
The same thing happens as our faith develops. Hearing stories of other people’s faith is necessary to developing a vital faith of our own. Eventually, if we keep growing toward maturity and don’t get hung up somewhere along the way, we stop living the stories of other people’s relationship with God and start to embody our own living relationship with God. That happened to me, as it does to most of us, during my late high school and early college years. I had to break out of the mold of religion in which my family had cast me and grow into a faith of my own. (I’m still doing it, by the way.) It’s a necessary step in becoming an authentic, mature individual. If it doesn’t happen, real adulthood is never attained.
It happened also to Jesus’ first disciples. Jesus asked them who people were saying he is. John the Baptist, they replied, or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. They reported how Jesus was identified through the experience and faith of others (Matt. 16:13-20). That’s how every faithful person I know began describing their faith, through what they had heard from others. It’s not a bad way to begin. In fact, it’s the necessary way to begin, by sitting at the feet of others and hearing and absorbing their life stories until we know them by heart.
But Jesus did not stop there, and neither can we. In a stunning moment of breakthrough and transformation, he moved them from rumor to experience, from second-hand reports of the faith of others to a personal, first-hand statement of their own faith. “But who do you say that I am?” he asked (emphasis mine). Don’t tell me what you’ve heard from others, he said; tell me what you’ve experienced for yourself.
Some people think the rock upon which Jesus would build his church (Matt. 16:18) was Peter himself; others think it was Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah. I think the foundation of the church is the move from an inherited to an experienced faith. I think when we move from parroting what other people say about Jesus – Sunday school teachers, preachers, mentors, other models of faith – and look deeply enough into our own hearts and experiences to identify our own gracefully eccentric faith, then we will have laid a cornerstone upon which the great cathedral of authentic human maturity can be built.
The question about who I say Jesus is has challenged me recently. What does my faith say about the suicide of a celebrity tormented by depression and the onset of Parkinson’s disease? After the police killing of a black teenager in Ferguson and the apparent cluelessness of white officials there, what does my faith tell me about the gospel of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19)? How does my faith – not yours nor my bishop’s nor anyone else’s, but my faith – help me make sense of a world in which a gifted concert violinist is murdered by a couple of desperate men looking for a few bucks?
It matters who I say Jesus is, and it matters who you say Jesus is. It matters to us, and it matters to these two children we baptize today. No one else’s faith is going to get any of us through days like these. No one else’s faith will free you from the place where you lie powerless (John 5:2-9). No one else’s faith can release you from the demons and chains that bind you, nor can another’s experience of faith lend value and credibility to your life story (Mark 5:1-20).
The stories of faith our forebears told are vitally important seeds for growing our own faith, but they are dead stories, and they will not give us real life, everlasting life, abundant life. The curriculum of true life is not written in the text of someone else’s life and faith. We, our lives and experiences, are the curriculum, the text, in which we learn of a relationship with God that is healing and restorative.
“So what’s the bottom line,” someone asked me after one of my sermons that seemed to end without a conclusion. There is no bottom line, no summary truth that I can give you to make things right. Each one of you must “work out your own salvation [your own abundant life] with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you” (Phil. 2:12-13) making all things possible. If there’s a bottom line, it’s going to be in who you say Jesus is.