Sermon, September 16, 2018 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year B
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
“Who do you say that I am?” With this question Jesus asks his disciples one of the most important questions any of them would ever have to answer. It’s also the most important question we will ever have to answer.
Who do you say that Jesus is? It’s important to get this right.
This isn’t a school quiz or a question on Jeopardy though. It’s not a matter of scoring a right answer so you can be rewarded with an A, or even rewarded with a lifetime in heaven. That’s not what this is about.
It is important to get right because your answer to this question will determine how you live the rest of your life, and what your relationship with God will be.
This past week, the news featured stories on the preparations in Virginia and the Carolinas for Hurricane Florence. About a million people were evacuated from their homes, while many others prepared their homes, boats, businesses, and animals for the coming storm.
What did these residents of Virginia and the Carolinas say that Hurricane Florence was? Why would such a question be important? If you lived there, and you thought Hurricane Florence was just a minor weather event and no big deal, chances are you wouldn’t bother evacuating or boarding up your house. On the other hand, if you believed and understood that Hurricane Florence was a potentially deadly storm, capable of great destruction and flooding, you would prepare. Your answer to the question of what you believed Hurricane Florence was could have life or death consequences for you. Answering this question wouldn’t just be academic, it would be foundational to determining how you spent your week.
Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” is a question like that. It’s not a debating point to distract us from our real lives, or an irrelevant question. This should be the foundational question for how we live our lives.
Let’s look at today’s Gospel passage and see what we can learn about this question. Jesus begins by asking his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples tell Jesus that they’ve heard the people mention John the Baptist, Elijah, and one of the Old Testament prophets. It sounds pretty apocryphal to me. Was Jesus really a guy who had been beheaded a few months earlier? Or an Old Testament hero returned to earth? I get the sense that the disciples were probably enjoying themselves at this point, recounting to Jesus the wilder suggestions they had heard the people make.
But notice how Jesus immediately turns the question to the disciples. “But what about you?” Jesus asks. “Who do you say I am?” Suddenly the disciples are put on the spot. No more poking fun at the silly crowds, they now have to answer the question themselves. Peter answers “You are the Messiah.” Now you are probably thinking, like I did at first, that Peter answered correctly. But as I studied this passage, I realize that he did not. His answer was as wrong as the crowds. You see, Peter had a different idea of what the messiah was than we do.
In order to understand Peter’s answer, we first need to understand the Messianic expectations of the Jewish people at this time. Last weekend, Barbara and I attended a retreat in which we learned all about how the Old and New Testaments form one overall story about God’s work in the world. It is really important to understand the whole context when looking at any one part of the Bible. One of the things we learned about was the messianic expectations of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus.
Let me give you a very quick history lesson of the Jewish people. The nation of Israel reached its zenith during the time of King David and his son King Solomon. King David established Israel as a military power in the region and secured Israel as its own independent kingdom. King Solomon used the stability that his father had won to build the great Temple in Jerusalem. However, after Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two squabbling kingdoms and experienced ups and down until they were finally conquered by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. The Jewish people were sent into exile. Eventually, the Babylonian empire was conquered by the Persians, who let the Jews return to the land of Israel and to become a semi-autonomous state known as Judea.
The Persian Empire fell to the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and eventually to Rome. During this time, Judea was sometimes permitted to exist semi-autonomously, but was often persecuted. Judea was never independent. They were always under the thumb of the Persians, Greeks or Romans. The Jews longed for a leader who would defeat all their enemies and re-establish Israel as a military power just as it had been under King David.
As you may know, the Old Testament prophets promised that the Messiah would come to fulfill God’s promises to Israel. This messiah was prophesied to be the son of David, meaning not only that he would be of true royal blood, but that he would be victorious. And so the Jewish people were expecting a King David-like military hero messiah to come and defeat the Romans for them.
When I was younger I loved to read about King Arthur of Britain. I vividly recall being entranced by the title bestowed on him – “the once and future king.” This title suggests that Arthur was not only king in the past, but that he would be the future king also. King Arthur was the great storybook king of Britain in the Dark Ages. But legend was that the wizard Merlin had magically hidden King Arthur in a cave from which he would emerge at Britain’s darkest hour, vanquish Britain’s enemies and rule Britain once again as the mighty king.
This is the sort of figure that Peter and the crowds were expecting. When Peter answers Jesus’ question by saying “You are the Messiah”, he meant that he thought Jesus was a King Arthur figure. Peter was saying that he thought that Jesus was going to become a great military leader who would liberate Judea from Roman rule, and re-establish a powerful nation of Israel.
We often miss this, because we have been conditioned to have a different concept of what is meant when we call Jesus the Messiah. We think that Peter answered correctly, because we know that Jesus is the Messiah. The problem lies in what it means to be the Messiah. Peter badly misunderstood this. Jesus realizes this, and this realization of how wrong the disciples were is probably why Jesus orders them to keep quiet and not tell others about him. Jesus knows that before the disciples tell others about him, they must first truly understand who he is.
Jesus starts to tell them what being the Messiah really means. He tells them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by Jewish leaders, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. Jesus is telling them that the Messiah would be more like the suffering servant found in Isaiah 53, and a lot less like a returning military champion.
Listen to some excerpts from Isaiah’s suffering servant prophesy: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering. [H]e was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Jesus was telling his disciples that being the Messiah would not bring him military victory but rather suffering, scorn, rejection, and even death.
This upset the disciples. It was not what they wanted to hear. Peter started to argue with Jesus, rebuking him. Peter thought that he could argue Jesus into being the military hero messiah that he wanted Jesus to be. And think about it from Jesus’ perspective. Which would you rather be – a conquering hero, beloved by all, or the suffering servant, despised and rejected, and put to death for the sins of others? This is why Jesus reacted so strongly to Peter. Peter is tempting Jesus in just the same way that Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry.
And so Jesus says to Peter “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Peter wanted Jesus to be a messiah who would make his life easier. A messiah who would give him all the advantages in this life. A messiah who would make him popular, as the exalted follower of the guy who liberated the Jews from the Roman superpower.
This is the Jesus we so often want, even today. For many years, when Christianity was the dominant faith in society, claiming Jesus did give you an advantage in this life. If you wanted better job prospects or to be accepted in the best circles of society, you made sure that everybody knew you went to church. It was the socially expected thing to do. But much has changed over the last fifty years. Today, Jesus doesn’t bring you social advantages. In fact, today, associating with Jesus can be career or social suicide.
We often hear a lot about how so many people have fallen away from Christianity. But I think that most of the people who have left the faith were only nominal Christians – Christians only because Jesus gave them a social advantage. And once that advantage ended, they stopped claiming to follow Jesus. They wanted the messiah that brought them victories, not the messiah that brought them suffering.
At last weekend’s retreat, the speaker said that the primary tool Jesus Christ uses to extend his Kingdom here on earth is a persecuted and suffering church. This is how the early Church expanded across the Roman Empire. It was constantly persecuted and there were many martyrs, but the Church spread mightily. Jesus tells us that in order to follow him, we must be prepared to put aside all, and follow him alone. He said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” We must be prepared to pay this ultimate cost. This is following the example of Jesus who gave his life for us.
Our retreat speaker told us an amazing story about his encounter with a former al Qaida fighter. When he was part of al Qaida, this man believed that God called on him to kill those who disobeyed God. But at some point, he began to question this. Eventually, he encountered the Gospel, and he learned about Jesus Christ who was God, and who died for the sins of the people in order that they might be saved. When he heard this, he knew he had found the truth. God wasn’t calling on him to kill others because they disobeyed, but rather God was calling him to follow Jesus Christ who gave his life to save his people from their disobedience. What an amazing contrast!
This is the Gospel. Who do you say that Jesus is? If you say that he is the Son of God who gave his life to save you from your sins and allow you to become redeemed and transformed sons and daughters of God, then you will be willing to offer your whole self as a living sacrifice in service of Jesus. It will affect how you live your life. Jesus puts this in very stark terms when he asks “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Think carefully when you decide which messiah you want to follow. The messiah of worldly advantage or the messiah who is the suffering Savior who gave his life for you?
Who do you say that Jesus is? Let us choose wisely, because our lives and our souls depend on our answer.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that Jesus Christ is reconciling the world to you through his suffering and death for our sins: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you. We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.