Sunday, September 16th, 2012: “Rally Sunday”
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 8:27-38
"Who do people say that I am?"
When Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?” he is asking a question to which he knows the answer. Jesus knows what people think of him. He knows who people think he is. He knows that some think that he is a prophet, like John the Baptist or Elijah, while others think him a miracle-worker or magician, still others think him a wise teacher. Perhaps each of them have caught some part of his character, but each of them have understood him incompletely. Then there are those who do know him. Surprisingly, when all others fail to understand him the demons he casts out recognize him for who he really is. For them, there is no doubt; he is the Son of David, the Messiah. Yes, even the elements know him, for does not one witness cry out when Jesus stills the seas, “who is this that even the seas and the winds obey him?” And so Peter reports to Jesus what people are saying, to which Jesus presses him further, “… and who do you say I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”
But what does this mean? What is does it mean to call Jesus the Messiah, the Christ? Peter knows the right word, but does he know what it means? Peter had a thought about what it meant, but he was sternly rebuked by Jesus when Jesus began to overturn the convention meaning of the concept of the “messiah” with talk of suffering and death. There are literally hundreds of books written investigating what the typical first-century Jew thought the messiah might be like. Investigating contemporary sources like inter-testamental Jewish literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and ancient historians like Josephus, we see that although in many ways Jesus does fit the bill for the description “messiah” (otherwise, how would he have been recognized as such?), in one important way, his version of messiahship was revolutionary. Yes, he was a messiah that would ride on and conquer, as was expected, but he would ride on a lowly animal, not a majestic beast; he would take up a cross and not a sword; on his head would be placed twisted thorns and not a garlanded crown. This messiah would suffer pain and suffer death.
Peter would have been right to say “Forbid it, Lord!” Peter was right, given what he had learned the messiah should be, to object sternly to Jesus’ proclamation that the messiah must suffer and die, for this image of a messiah was not what was expected. But Jesus rebuked him, for this messiah was not simply present to upset the current order of domination, but the cosmic order. This messiah was here to set things right on all levels. This messiah was here to deliver the people not only from the bondage of oppression of their earthly masters, but to deliver them from all other bondage, from the power of Satan, from the power of death, from the all the things that bound them in body mind and spirit. And how would he do this? He would defeat those powers by defeating death itself. He would go to the cross, go to the grave, with faith and hope and trust that God would raise him again.
Who do people say that I am?
It seems to me that people are very confused, both within the church and outside the church as to who Jesus is. This should come as no surprise, for when we begin to read the stories of Jesus, to read his overarching story, it is a challenging one. Anything that involves the dead being raised may be difficult to believe. Peter was challenged and so are we. Let us enumerate the various Jesuses we may hold dear to us. There is the Jesus who cures the sick. There is the Jesus who teaches that the God loves the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed. There is the Jesus that teaches us to love our neighbour, and even our enemies. There is the Jesus who says “let the little children come unto me.” There is the religious revolutionary, who turns over the tables of the money-changers in the portico of the Temple. There is the Jesus who debates and criticizes both the religious zealots and hypocrites of his day. There is the gentle baby Jesus, meek and mild, in his mother’s arms that we adore every year. There are all these Jesuses and more. Each of us will have a favourite version, and vision, of Jesus. And none of these are wrong. They are all Scriptural, they have all been preached by me and many others from this very pulpit. But like those early followers of Jesus who were taking guesses at who he was, if we latch onto only one of these images, or even just a couple, we are not getting the full picture, we don’t really and truly know who Jesus is. We catch glimpses of him, but we only catch a partial glimpse of who the Messiah is. All these aspects of Jesus, Jesus as healer, revolutionary, teacher, all point to the deeper reality of Jesus, and that is the reality of God with us. That is why John’s Gospel begins, with “the word was made flesh.” That is why the book of Revelation draws to a close with “behold, God has made his home among mortals.” Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.
Yet we dare not stop even there, for God is with us, not only to accompany us, but to lead us into our salvation. And thus, God delivers himself, in his life as Jesus of Nazareth, to death on the cross. By the Father raising the Son from the dead, Jesus tramples down the gates of death. Death is the thing that enslaves us most in this life. All of our fears, all of our anxieties are ultimately rooted in the fear of death. To a remarkable degree, when we dig down deep enough, death is what shapes the narrative of our lives. What Jesus does is proclaim in his teaching, in his journey to the cross on our behalf, and in his glorious rising to new life, that death is not and will never be the story that shapes us as Christian people. Death will not destroy us. Death will not be the final word for us. The resurrection of Jesus is our story, because his resurrection is our journey through the Red Sea out of bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
Who do people say that I am?
It is not wrong to take a particular liking to one image of Jesus. Perhaps Jesus the healer is of particular meaning to us because we have known him to be with us through our own illness. Have we been alone and felt the presence of Jesus the comforter? Or do you feel the presence of Jesus the liberator in your ministry with those who are poor and in need. Never forget though that all these aspects of Jesus point to Jesus the Saviour. This is the Jesus we worship with all our hearts, for Jesus the Saviour seeks out you and me as individuals and saves us. Jesus the saviour opens his arms wide for the healing and salvation of the whole world. Jesus the Saviour redeems and restores the whole cosmos.
When we realize just how all-encompassing the Messiah is. We can sometimes respond as Peter does, because our own fragmented image of the Messiah is challenged. Our world view, our religious convictions are challenged. This isn’t the messiah I thought I followed! But as we are challenged, and our older, safer understandings are broken open, God reshapes our convictions, reforms them, and recreates them. But what is more, he breaks us upon, he reshapes us, he recreates us. And this is what the Messiah does. He leads us out of our bondage to death and he leads of out of the bondage of our old selves.
Who do people say that I am?
Even more important than this question that Jesus asks Peter is the question he will later ask, after the Resurrection: “Simon Peter, do you love me?” To understand who Jesus is, is one thing. To love this Jesus, to follow him, to trust him, is quite another. And so the real question for us is, do we love Jesus? This is why one of my favourite prayers is the prayer attributed to St. Richard of Chichester. It is a prayer that you likely know if you have ever seen the musical Godspell. In fact, in the early 1970s it even got a lot of radio play. It is prayer that might well serve as an answer to both of Jesus questions, “Who do you say that I am,” and “Do you love me?” It goes like this:
“Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly,”
To which the 1970s version adds,
“day by day.”
c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves