Who do you say I am? (Mark 8: 27-38)

Who do you say that I am?  With this simple question, Jesus has thrown down the gauntlet – asked them to be bold with an opinion – and oh, the result!  The common talk around town is that Jesus is showing signs of greatness – just like the good old days.  Perhaps there’s a prophet in their midst…John the Baptist, or even (could it be) Elijah…returned!  Someone to demonstrate the presence of God among this godless occupying force; someone to lead God’s people to freedom…there’s been lots of talk, of course.

But the disciples – those closest to Jesus have been strangely silent.  In Mark’s gospel, it seems intentional – after all, Jesus has often enough ‘forbidden them to speak’ after they’ve witnessed miracle after miracle- small wonder they are hesitant to offer an opinion…

But when pressed, we can count on Peter.  Peter, whose brain can’t keep up with his enthusiastic mouth – “You’re Messiah!” – a term so heavily laden with meaning even in Jesus time that it needs some unpacking

Messiah is from the Hebrew word for anointed – an action that marked a man as king or priest or (sometimes) prophet.  An actual anointing – pouring oil over the head of the person whom God has singled out – so that person (David, Saul, Solomon, for example) can assume the responsibilities of leadership.  Anointing was the sacrament of leadership in ancient Israel.  But after the Kingdom fell and the people were scattered and exiled, the promise of Messiah – an anointed one – takes on almost mythic proportions.  There will be one anointed, Isaiah promises, a king like no other; a servant king – Messiah – who will serve as God’s ultimate rescue plan.  One who will honour God and restore the people to their rightful place among the nations; a saviour of all that Israel considered sacred.  A hero, in short with divine qualities and human sensibility – the best of both worlds.  An Peter saw such a one standing beside him in Jesus.

So Jesus congratulates Peter,  because here is a statement that can be explained.  To talk of the reincarnation of ancient heroes of the faith is foolish at best – but to invoke the promise of salvation, that is a divine revelation.  Peter must be on to something, because Jesus orders them to silence.  That kind of talk is revolutionary, after all – you don’t dare raise up a king for yourselves while under Roman occupation.  And then he tells them what it means to be God’s chosen – to be Messiah.

It’s not pretty – it is nasty, brutish and short, according to Jesus – so horrible that Peter can’t believe it.  and I wonder if we really believe it, even now…?

Who do we say Jesus is today?  He is Messiah – Lord – Christ – all fitting titles; he is counsellor, co-pilot and friend (according to popular music and culture) but what do we imagine that any of these really mean?  Are we prepared for the harsh reality of Jesus’ role in our faith and our lives?  I suspect not.

I don’t dismiss the gentle, loving, serene aspects of Jesus influence on the Christian faith – love your neighbour, by all means – and pray for your enemies too; but when it comes down to how the faithful propose to ‘order the world’ on Jesus’ behalf, I’m more than a little suspicious – in fact, I’m disappointed.

We seem to think that by virtue of the titles we bestow on Jesus, he has become our heavenly yes-man; the one whose words (and work) might be used to justify everything we do in his name.  Jesus has been represented as being on almost every side of nearly every argument in modern political, social and ethical circles.  Jesus is praised from pulpits and prison cells (or more recently, the front door of the county jail…).  His vote is courted by multiple shades of the political spectrum.  Jesus opinions are treasured by those who “love life” and those who seek “death with dignity” assure us that they too want what Jesus offers – a pathway to the presence of God.   But in truth, Jesus is not to be manipulated by our expectations.  Jesus urges us to make brave decisions in the name of justice; Jesus points us toward acts of unselfishness for the sake of love; Jesus calls us to set our minds, not on the human things but on divine things – things that defy explanation and resist reason – and most of the time, we just can’t do it.

We are trying to win the world using Jesus as a formula for our behaviour, and it turns out, that’s the wrong goal.  Christians (on every side of every argument) are working in what they call good faith to create a world fashioned after Christ as they imagine he should be – but Jesus says the world is already won; God has emerged as the victor, and nothing we say or do can change that.

So we can’t pretend that Messiah’s task was easy – nothing as simple as ruling the world in the place of our hapless leaders – The salvation of the world was both an immense burden and an enormous privilege.

The cost was both the dignity and the very life of God; the reward is the redemption of Creation for all time.  And no political argument, or social change is capable of that.

That doesn’t mean we can sit back and do nothing, however.  We are invited to imagine a world redeemed – to live in such a way that others can imagine it too – to love others as God loves us; to “take up our cross and follow” is a difficult and dangerous transaction.

“Right”, faithful decisions will cost us plenty, if we are truly seeking to follow Christ.  We will need to admit past mistakes (and recognize present mistakes) in ways that will not show us (or the Christian faith) in the best light. It is both difficult and (occasionally) dangerous to suggest that death is not the end – that the last should be first – that those who have nothing are actually favoured by God – that the privileges that we create for ourselves, whether of race, or religion, or relationships, are nothing but smoke and mirrors, and there is no difference in God’s eyes between one human and another.

Who do you say that Jesus is?  He may be your friend – your confidant – your source of strength or your ‘personal saviour’ – but the truth is more beautiful and more complicated than that.  Thanks be to God, He is Messiah; meant to suffer, to die and to be raised by the power of God – not so we could rule the world, but so the world might know who truly rules.  Amen.

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