Who do you say Jesus is? Today, we’re continuing on in the gospel of Matthew. Since last week’s text, when Jesus met with the Canaanite woman in the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus healed more people, fed a crowd of 4000, plus women and children, again, with a small amount of food, and spent some time debating with Pharisees and Sadducees, who demand “signs” from heaven. Jesus says to them, in essence, “you’re smart enough to know that when the sky turns a certain color, it’s about to storm. How come you can’t read the signs of the times?” In other words, he’s already showing them all they need to know. Jesus also gets frustrated with the disciples when they still don’t seem to understand what’s he’s been doing either. They don’t seem to be able to connect what they’ve been witnessing with who Jesus is, with the significance of their experiences.
Our text opens today with Jesus and the disciples arriving in the district of Caesarea Philippi. When he gets there, he asks them, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” “Son of Man” is title Jesus uses for himself in the gospels, and it sort of means “the person of persons.” Who are people saying I am, Jesus wonders? The disciples answer that some say he’s Elijah or John the Baptist, others says Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. Now, this doesn’t mean that they thought he was one of these people come back from the dead. Rather, the names they mention represent more what kind of role Jesus has come to play, to fulfill. Is he like a second Elijah, critiquing the religious leaders of the day? Like a Jeremiah, speaking of suffering to come? Like his cousin John? Some other prophet?
Then Jesus is more specific, more direct: And you, who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answers “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus responds by blessing Peter, and making a play on words with Peter’s name, which means literally, “rock,” naming Peter as a rock on which the future followers of Jesus will eventually be built. He speaks of the authority that Peter and the disciples will have. But, he tells them not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah. Not yet, at least.
Sometimes I think the passages of the scripture that are the trickiest for us to really understand are the ones that seem the easiest up front. I think we can read this passage and ask ourselves, well, Apple Valley, who do we say that Jesus is? And we might respond, “The Messiah, duh!” And then we’ll pat ourselves on the back for our excellent answer, and move on to the next passage. Only… What does that even mean? What does it mean to call Jesus Messiah? To say he’s the Christ? What do those labels mean? It doesn’t do us much good to call Jesus Messiah or to call him Christ, just because we know it’s the right answer, if we don’t know what we’re actually saying when we say it.
Before we figure out what we mean when we say it, maybe we can figure out what Peter meant. The word messiah appears throughout the scriptures. It means “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, anointed ones were those who were named as Kings of Israel or Judah. To be an anointed one, a messiah, meant to be the ruler of Israel, chosen, essentially, by God. You might be most familiar with the story of David’s anointing by the prophet Samuel. Samuel had previously anointed Saul as the first king of Israel. But Saul was no longer following God’s ways, so God told Samuel to anoint David, the youngest son of Jesse, a sheepherder. David turns out to be a great military leader though, and eventually, he is able to replace Saul as king. Kings were anointed-ones. Messiahs, with a small m.
In the gospels, as we’ll hear about again from time to time, we see that many of the crowds do indeed think Jesus is a messiah like this – a potential king, like King David was, who will be a great ruler of the Jews, who will conquer the occupying Romans, who will be a political and military great king. In fact, they want Jesus to be this kind of Messiah so much that they try to force him to become king, and more than once, he has to slip away from the eager crowds to avoid this. Eventually, when Jesus is about to be condemned to death, and he still refuses to take up a sword and fight back, some who wanted this kind of Messiah get pretty angry and turn on Jesus. What kind of Messiah lets himself get crucified?
But Jesus has made it clear again and again that he’s not here to be this kind of leader. We’ve talked about the kingdom of God – the reign of God on earth that defies expectations and turns upside down the usual notions about power, and being first and best and strongest. Well, Jesus is the anointed one, the messiah, the King of this upside down realm of God: servant of all, humbling himself, putting himself last, washing feet, eating with sinners and the unclean and the people on the fringes, turning the other cheek, submitting to execution as a criminal. Jesus demonstrates real power through pouring his life out as an offering for others, and then, then, inviting us to do the same, as his followers. When Peter says, “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” Peter is agreeing to no less than this – that the true Messiah comes not to conquer and vanquish and beat others into submission, even the hated Romans. Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one, comes to serve, to heal, to love, and to give his life for others. When Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, he’s not just saying Jesus is in charge. He’s embracing the whole kit and caboodle, the whole message. No wonder Jesus reacts with such words of affirmation for Peter. With passage after passage of the disciples missing the point, like we do, they finally seem to get it!
Do we? I think we don’t have any trouble claiming Jesus as our Messiah. But I wonder exactly what we mean by it. What do we mean when we say Jesus is Christ? Rev. David Lose, a pastor whose sermons and notes I particularly like, suggests that we have to ask ourselves not just what words we say about Jesus as Messiah, but we must also ask ourselves what our lives say about Jesus being messiah. “Who do you say he is?,” Lose asks, “Not just say when repeating the Creed, but say with your lives; that is, with your relationships, your bank account, your time, your energy, and all the rest. Who do you really say Jesus is?”
His question made me think of the book In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? by Charles Monroe Sheldon, written in the late 1800s. You might be familiar with this work because it became very popular for a second time around when, in the 1990s, Sheldon’s great-grandson published a contemporary retelling of the book and “What Would Jesus Do?” became a popular phrase for bracelets and t-shirts. I read the original work when I was in high school, and it’s pretty powerful. In it, a pastor encounters a destitute man who he more or less brushes off. The man disrupts the Sunday worship service, calling the pastor and congregation out on their hypocrisy. He dies a few days later, and the pastor is deeply shaken. He vows, and urges his congregation, to try, as seriously as possible, to only do what they believe Jesus would do in any given situation for the year ahead. The story follows the transformation that occurs in peoples’ lives when they commit themselves fully to doing what they believe Jesus would do.
I think this is what David Lose is wondering, challenging us to wonder about. We say we believe Jesus is Messiah. What do we mean by that, and how, then, do our very lives show that we believe Jesus is Messiah? It isn’t as easy as we might think, when it comes down to it, to put into words what we mean by this title for Jesus, but here’s what I think, with the benefit of crafting my sermon ahead of time: When I say Jesus is Messiah, I mean that he is the embodiment of God’s hope in the world, the embodiment of God’s love and grace and vision for the world. When I say Jesus is Messiah, I mean that I choose to offer my life to serve him, rather than money, or ambition, or status, or being well-liked, or being comfortable, or any number of other things I’m tempted to spend more time thinking about than about Jesus. When I say Jesus is Messiah, I mean that he’s the living in-the-flesh version of God’s reign that flips everything upside down into God’s right-side up, which is always on the side of the least, and most vulnerable, and on the fringes. That’s just a glimpse, an imperfect attempt at what it means for me to say Jesus is Messiah. But I think in that faulty attempt I still have plenty to work on. Does my life say all these things too? I’m working on that.
Lose says that Jesus wants to know who we say he is not so that we can pass some test and get the answer “right,” but so that we can experience the transforming power of being rooted in the love and possibility that Jesus offers us. Imagine, if we lived in such a way that every part of our life, every bit of the way we lived, was a demonstration of what we believed. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Who do you say Jesus is? The Messiah? What does a life based on that claim look like? What do our lives, centered on that claim, look like? Let’s find out.
(David Lose’s comments can be found here: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/08/pentecost-11-a-who-do-you-say-i-am/)