SCRIPTURE – Mark 8:27-33 – Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Jesus’ Identity Crisis
Oct. 28, 2012
Have you ever wanted to just get away? Only on days ending with the letter Y, right? That’s where I believe Jesus is in our story today. For eight chapters he’s been on the go, healing people, teaching crowds, dealing with demons, getting interrupted. Every time he’s tried to catch his breath someone else has been there with their withered hand outstretched or their sick child by their side. Knowing the road that lies of ahead of him leads to the cross, Jesus realizes that to get away from all of the demands being place upon him, he’s going to really have to get away.
The place where Jesus and his disciples retreat is a peculiar choice. The name of the city was originally Banian, named after the Roman god Pan. The city was in the domain of Herod Phillip, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth. In order to get on the emperor’s good side and proclaim his own sovereignty, Phillip changed the name of the city to Caesarea Phillipi. The city was well-known for its pagan worship, and was dominated by an enormous temple dedicated to Caesar, as well as several smaller temples dedicated to other gods. This was as far away from Jerusalem as you could get and still be in Israel.
Why would Jesus want to come here to get away? It’s like someone who hates seafood having lunch at Red Lobster. This is hostile territory. One of the benefits is that Jesus was pretty much assured of not being recognized or bothered. He was far from the center of Jewish activity, so there was little chance of him being stopped on the street corner or followed by a large crowd, which has happened repeatedly in Mark’s gospel.
But there was a deeper reason for Jesus bringing his disciples here. They were surrounded by all sorts of statues and monuments and temples dedicated to pagan gods. In the midst of this cultural conglomeration of false religions, with idols all around looking down on them, Jesus asks the disciples to stand up and make a statement of faith. Who do you say I am?
But before he asks that question, he wants a sampling from the grapevine. So he takes his own Gallup survey: “You fellas have been out among the people. You’ve heard the talk on the street corner. What are you picking up? What’s being said about me?” The disciples report that Jesus has favorable rating in the polls. While we don’t necessarily believe people come back from the dead (unless you count zombies and Elvis), back then it was a common belief. So some thought he was the recently beheaded John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for the true Messiah. Some thought he was Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet, returned from the dead to pronounce the return of the Messiah. All of these speculations pay great respect and tribute to Jesus, because it means they saw him as a great man and forerunner of the Messiah. And the disciples are good journalists, reporting the facts back to Jesus.
But Jesus wants more than facts from them. They’ve been with him for three years now, following him around, watching his ministry, seeing the kingdom of God through his teachings and miracles. Jesus is now ready to ask the real question: Do they get it, or are they still the Duh-ciples? Do they understand him? Do they know who he really is? So he looks them in the eye, and he says, “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” They could no longer report what others were saying. They had to say it for themselves. Have you ever had to say for yourself what you believed about Jesus? It’s hard to be put on the spot like that. Disciples pastor Fred Craddock says that, “you don’t know what you believe until you hear yourself say it.” I spent four years in seminary with my nose buried in books, studying all about this kind of thing, but one of the hardest questions I faced when I interviewed at my first church was, “Share with us your belief in the one God and your acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” Uh…um…well. How would you answer that? Who do you say he is?
Peter, every the loquacious one, never a person to miss an opportunity to open mouth and insert foot, pipes right up to provide an answer. “You are the Messiah, the Christ,” he says. At first, I want to cheer. “Yay, Peter!” He passed the test. He’s the first human being in the gospel to say who Jesus really is (a few demons had already identified him as the Son of God). Finally, after eight chapters, someone gets it. Jesus must have thought the same thing, because he follows up Peter’s declaration with a statement about what’s going to happen next. Now that the disciples are finally clear-headed about who Jesus is, he wants to let them know how God’s plan will be carried out. Jesus will suffer, be rejected by the Jewish leaders, be killed, and then rise again. Mark tells us Jesus said this quite openly, meaning he didn’t put it in a parable or try to mask it with a story. He tells it like it is.
And they just don’t get it. Just when Jesus thought he gotten through, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him for Jesus’ prediction. At this point, Jesus must be looking for a brick wall to bang his head against. The verb for “rebuke” conveys a sense of superiority, as if Peter had the right to tell Jesus what God’s mission really was. “You’re the Messiah, you can’t die! If you die, the bad guys win.” Notice Peter doesn’t seem to get the last part of the prediction about Jesus rising again. That seems like a kind of important part of the plan, but Peter can’t get past the first line: “The Son of Man must undergo much suffering.”
Why does Peter respond so sternly to Jesus? Because that’s not how it’s supposed to happen! The Hebrew prophets said the Messiah would come in glory, bringing with him victory over the oppressors and the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth. The Messiah would be a conquering hero, vanquishing the Romans and re-establishing David’s reign. The Messiah suffering and dying? Are you kidding me? The Christ, by definition, is a winner, and yet what Jesus has just told Peter is the exact opposite. So Peter rebukes Jesus, completely missing who he really is.
Not that we do any better, you know. It’s really easy to grasp the Jesus who does miracles and heals people and says really wise things, but not so easy to understand the Jesus of the cross. Jesus’ message is so easily misunderstood, which is why in Mark’s gospel he constantly tells people not to talk about him. He didn’t want folks getting the wrong idea about who he was. Depending on which parts of the gospels you read, and which parts you choose to believe, Jesus could be a revolutionary, a nonviolent teacher, a charismatic healer, a Galilean holy man, a fervent prophet, a nice guy, a peasant leader, or a wandering Cynic. In the gospels, he is all of these things, and at various times in our lives, we need him to be these things. But he is also more than these things. He is the Son of God.
Peter almost got that, but in the end he tries to define the Messiah in terms that best suit him. What he didn’t realize is that as soon as you call someone “Messiah,” you give up the right to define what that means. Confessing faith in the son of God automatically assumes that we relinquish faith in all the other gods around us clamoring for our time and attention. As Peter learned, when talking about Jesus, we have to do more than just get his title right. We have to be willing to follow him.
Maybe that’s what truly tripped up Peter. When Jesus starts to predict all that’s going to happen to him, maybe Peter realized that to follow Jesus not only means following him to Galilee and Tyre and Sydon and Caesarea Phillipi, it also means following him to Jerusalem, where he will be accused of blasphemy; and following him to the Upper Room, where he will talk about his broken body and spilled blood; and following him to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will be betrayed and arrested; and following him to Pilate’s house, where he will be tried and convicted; and following him to Golgotha, where he will be crucified. It’s easy to follow a Messiah who’s a winner, but not this Messiah. I believe to maintain our integrity when we profess the name of Jesus Christ, we must be consistent in following him, regardless of where that leads us in our lives.
To join a Disciples of Christ church, you don’t have to take any classes. There are no entrance exams or Bible knowledge tests you have to pass. To join our church, you simply have to answer one question: “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and do you accept him as your Lord and Savior?” If you say, “Yes,” then you’re a member. What you need to know about that question is that none of us really understands it. I believe we confess our belief that Jesus is the Messiah, and then we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure what that means.
That’s hard work, and it may lead us to some places we’d rather not go. Maybe it leads us to the hospital room of a dying congregation member, as we provide comfort to them. Maybe it leads us to a meeting where we lead a ministry team as it carries out its plans. Maybe it leads us to a Sunday school classroom as we help our children take their next step of faith. Maybe it leads us to a soup kitchen, or a women’s shelter, or an English as a Second Language classroom. If we really believe Jesus is the Messiah, if we are going to speak his name, we have to be prepared to follow him, no matter where it leads.
Who do you say I am? That’s not a question we can only answer once in our lives. It’s not even a question we should only answer each time we join a church. I believe it’s a question we have to answer every day. I admit that there are days when I don’t want to follow Jesus. It would be a lot easier to do my own thing, and sometimes I do. But each new day is another opportunity to answer the question. “Who do you say I am?” A teacher? A prophet? A nice guy? A figurehead? Or is he something more? You are the Messiah, the Christ, the son of God. I hope for us that’s more than just a title. I hope it has an impact on how we live our lives, on the choices we make, on the way we decide what gets our time and attention and money. Who do you say he is? He is Jesus the Christ, the son of the living God. May we have the courage to continually search for what that really means as we live out our faith today and every day.