PROPER 19 / 15 PENTECOST — 13 Sept 2009
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am
Proverbs 1:20-33 Psalm 19 James 3:1-12 Mark 8:27-38
Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
We call this incident “The Confession of St. Peter” and we also celebrate it every year as a holy day on January 18, as well as on this Sunday every three years and also in August of Year A, in Matthew’s telling. It’s a turning point in the course of Jesus’ ministry. Before this, in Mark’s narrative, Jesus has been puttering about the Galilee in the north of the land of Israel, teaching, healing, gathering his followers, proclaiming the Reign of God. From here on out, things take a more foreboding turn: it’s right after this that Jesus turns south, to Jerusalem, and although the teaching and healing continue, the conflicts with the religious establishment intensify, and more and more Jesus himself becomes the issue, until matters finally reach a crisis in Jerusalem at the Feast of the Passover.
But at this point, where we are in the Gospel today, the sun is still shining and the birds are still singing, and trooping about the highways and byways of the Galilean hills is still something of a lark for Jesus’ followers. As we have seen in the Gospel readings this summer, from the early chapters of Mark mostly, Jesus has been proclaiming God’s Reign, and not only proclaiming it but enacting it, performing the signs of the Reign of God, what we might call the signs of the Messiah.
And so now Jesus and his friends are hiking around up north of the Sea of Galilee. (Near where today the borders of Israel, Syria, and Lebanon meet, the area we call the Golan Heights. In Jesus’ time this was not within Galilee, which was ruled by Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great [the Herod who was King of Judaea when Jesus was born]; it was in a district ruled by another son of Herod the Great, Antipas’s brother Philip. Philip had rebuilt a city and renamed it for Tiberius Caesar as a way of currying the Emperor’s favor; the city was renamed “Philip’s Caesartown,” or, as it was actually put in Latin, “Caesarea Philíppi.” As distinguished from Caesarea Maritima, on the Judean Mediterranean coast. And as distinguished from Caesarea of Cappadocia, in the highlands of eastern Anatolia. Actually the Roman Empire had more towns named “Caesarea” than we have “Washington” in the United States. And for much the same reason. But I digress…)
Anyway, Jesus and his friends are walking down the road, and Jesus says, “So. What are they saying about me?” As it happens, people are saying a lot about Jesus, some of it pretty much off the wall. “Well,” say the disciples, I heard one guy saying he thought you were John the Baptist come back to life.” (John the Baptist had recently been arrested and then executed by Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, the brother of the Philip who had built Caesarea Philippi. [Are you getting all this? It’s a little like the episode summaries on the websites of the TV dramas — sometimes it’s hard to keep track!] Remember Salome and the dance of the seven veils and John Baptist’s head on a platter? Of course, some of that is in the Gospel and some of it is Richard Strauss. [I’m digressing again, aren’t I?] Anyway, that was still hot news just then, and some people thought Jesus was the Baptist come back to life.)
And, the disciples went on, “Some other people are saying that you’re the prophet Elijah come back from heaven.” Elijah, you recall, was the great prophet of the Kingdom of Israel, and been carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot, and it says in the book of Malachi that Elijah will return before the final Day of the Lord. So. If you’re following the reading sequence in the Daily Office Lectionary, we are currently wading into the Elijah saga.
Anyway, the disciples went on, “Some say you’re one of the other prophets come back to life — or maybe ‘The Prophet Like Moses’” predicted in Deuteronomy — whom many expected the Lord to send to bring in God’s Kingdom.
“Mmm,” says Jesus. “But what about you? You’ve been with me for a while now. You’ve heard what I’ve said. You’ve seen what I’ve done. Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter, as so often the spokesman, answers him, “You are the Messiah.”
I’m not sure our English Bibles always catch the full flavor of that reply. Oh, the translation is word for word — Su ei ho Christos — “You are the Christ.” But what does Peter mean by that?—when he actually said it, not in Greek but in Aramaic? “Christ” (Christos) is a Greek word, meaning “the anointed one,” and it translates the Hebrew Mashiah or Aramaic Meshikha, “Messiah,” “anointed one.” But for us Christians almost two thousand years later, “Christ” has simply become the common title for Jesus, almost his surname; for Peter to say “You are the Christ” seems perfectly obvious to us. It wasn’t obvious for Peter. What did Peter think he was saying when he said “You are the Messiah”? And why does Jesus seem not exactly tickled to death about it? Why did he tell them not to talk about it?
For Peter, “Messiah” means “savior-king.” The Messiah is the one whom God is going to send to rally the people, purge the sinners, expel the imperial Roman occupation army, and restore the nation of Israel to its glory. The Messiah is the one who is going to come and fix everything for us.
And, in effect, Jesus says, “Not me.”
Jesus goes on to explain that he will be rejected, and finally put to death; and Peter says, “No way! Not God’s Messiah!” And Jesus says, “‘No way!’ to you, Peter—you’re the one who is opposed to God. What you mean by ‘Messiah’ is not who I am. That isn’t what I’m doing here. I am not the one who is going to come and fix everything. You’re going to have to learn a whole new definition of what God’s Messiah is, because I have come to die on a Roman cross.”
Much of the Church, through much of our history, and probably most of us at least much of the time, range ourselves on the side of Peter; and thus we are not on the side of God but of corrupt self-seeking humanity. Because we expect that God is a God who is supposed to come and fix everything for us. We demand that of God. And the plain truth is, God doesn’t do that. Oh, in the ultimate end, in the fulfillment of the Reign of God, all will be well. But in the meantime, God doesn’t come and fix everything. We still lose, we still suffer, we still die.
But winning, and power, and having everything fixed for us, is not what life is about. We live by giving our lives away. That’s the Gospel. Listen to what Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That’s God’s truth. That’s the kind of Messiah Jesus is, one who gives it all away. And what God gives us in this life is not any promise of success, or prosperity, or health, or satisfaction, but limitless opportunities to give our lives away to each other. What God gives us is limitless opportunities to give our lives away to each other, because that’s what it’s really all about.
And it is really — almost — just as simple, and just as difficult, as that.