“Who Do You Say I Am?”
Who do you say that Jesus is? The answer to this question can very well be a turning point in our faith journey.
Jesus asked this of his disciples. He knew his days were numbered and so he was asking how effective has he been? Do they finally know who I am and what we are doing? Do they understand what they will have to do when I am no longer with them? Do they realize what they have bought into?
So his disciples suggested a number of possibilities. But finally Peter said, “You are the Messiah!” Peter knew he was right and the others wrong, because Jesus told him not to tell anyone.
But was Peter right? What did he mean that Jesus was the Messiah? What did he think this meant?
Messiah means the same thing as Christ. Both mean “the Anointed One.” The idea of the Messiah arose among Jewish folks as their homeland succumbed to the great powers surrounding it. The ancient Jews had great expectations of their future. They were the chosen of God. And God had given them David as a king. And they believed by the time of Jesus, that the reign of David was their finest days in their history. Early on they had yearned for a descendant of David who would be as great or greater than David and restore them to great righteousness and great power.
It didn’t happen. No descendant arose who was as great as David. The ten lost tribes of Israel were carried off to Assyria. The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and carried the Jewish elite into captivity. Then the Persians took over as their masters. Then it was the Greeks under Alexander the Great and his descendants… and then about 50 years before the birth of Jesus, it was the Romans who took over … possibility the most brutal of the bunch. For centuries the Jews did not know about power or freedom. They only knew oppression.
So they began to hope, that since no Davidic king was coming, that God would intervene in history and rise up a super-human to remake the world. This would be the Messiah, the Anointed of God … he would not be an earthly king, anointed by prophets, but a divine king anointed by God. But they did not consider this Messiah to be God incarnate. The Messiah was distinct and separate from God.
And so they waited for signs of the coming of the Messiah. The first sign would be that the world would descend into terrible and violent chaos. The world would become entirely corrupt. Tyranny and violence would reign. Unending war would be waged. Holy places will be corrupted. Whole nations annihilated. And even nature would be chaotic with earthquakes, storms and draught, humans and animals alike would perish.
But into this chaos will come the prophet Elijah who never really died, but was carried off in a fiery chariot to heaven to wait for this day. He would be the forerunner of the Messiah. To this day part of the Passover Seder is to invite Elijah into the home in hope that he will come and the Messiah soon after. It would be Elijah who prepared the way for the Messiah by mending disputes among the people.
Then at last the Messiah would come to vindicate God’s people. All the warring armies would stop the fighting among themselves to unite to defeat God’s divine champion. The result would be the total destruction of these hostile powers. The Messiah would make war upon them and destroyed these great and populous nations. In the time of Jesus, it is the Roman Empire that Jews would see as being destroyed by the Messiah in bloody, devastating warfare. The Messiah would be the most destructive conqueror in history.
Once the Messiah is victorious a New Jerusalem would be constructed and the scattered Jews would return home. And all the nations would bow down to Jerusalem. And at last there would be a new eternal age of peace and righteousness.
This is what the Messiah would have meant to the Jewish people. Jesus didn’t know if Peter subscribed to this long-standing belief or if he understood the Messiah differently after following Jesus for the past three years.
This is why Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone Jesus was the Messiah. He needed to know what Peter really believed.
What do you think the Messiah is?
We Christians, not brought up in a Jewish home, would know the Messiah only as a synonym for Jesus. So what is the Messiah to us?
Maybe our idea of the Messiah isn’t so far from Peter’s. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a powerful, problem solving president who pulled no punches, who eradicated terrorism and bullied the nations to favor us, disciplined the investment industry so it could no longer risk our retirement, did anything necessary to get people back to work, organized the police to stop all the crazy killers and thieves and illegal immigrants, who fixed global warming so we could survive the weather, and demand strict civic and moral behavior on the people? If he – or she – could do that, wouldn’t a golden age of peace and righteousness arrive? Wouldn’t Jesus – and God – want that?
But I suspect that for most Christians Messiah is just a synonym for Jesus and the details of a conquering hero isn’t relevant. Rather Jesus is a friend, a fellow traveler on our life’s journey. And indeed, appropriately Jesus is that for many people.
Is Jesus a spirit that you bring your prayers to? Indeed, is Jesus just an alternate name for the eternal, ever-giving God? God hears us when we pray. We all probably visualize God in our minds when we pray and we each probably have our own distinct image. I wonder how many of us visualize Jesus in that image.
Jesus is a spirit we can lean our spirit on. Jesus is God’s incarnate comforter that we all long for and need. And indeed, Jesus was a comforter of many people when he walked the earth.
And we see Jesus’ spirit in the workings of good deeds and sacrificial help when someone defends another in a dangerous or tragic situation. We see the spirit of Jesus when downtrodden folk are lifted out of their poverty. We pray to the spirit of Jesus, to God, for peace, for safety, for fairness … and for hope.
And all of these prayers are heard by Jesus and received by Jesus and never rejected. But something is still missing, something large …
When Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah he had come, like all the disciples, to rely on Jesus. I wonder how many times he went to Jesus with his worries of where they were going, of how to deal with his family and just needed comforting in the intense life that he was living with the other disciples. And he needed Jesus so much and seen Jesus help so many in need, he came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But did he really understand who Jesus was? Do you understand who Jesus is?
Who do you say that Jesus is?
After Jesus asked this question of the disciples and Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus needed to know did they really understand what that meant. So he was straight with them, pulling no punches when he announced to them what his fate would be: he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
And suddenly their world was turned upside-down. The disciples were stunned. For Peter it was just too much. Privately he scolded Jesus for suggesting such an outrageous fate for the Messiah. The Messiah is a conqueror, not a victim.
And Jesus, disappointed, exposed Peter to all the disciples. Jesus was telling them that the traditional notion of Messiah was all wrong. It turned out that Peter did believe in that traditional notion. But Jesus was telling them that the Messiah as conqueror was not divine, and was not Jesus, and was not anointed by God … rather such a Messiah is anointed by the misplaced hopes and desires of a desperate people.
The Messiah as divine is Jesus … The Messiah is suppose to bring about the Kingdom of God. Jesus had been teaching all of his life, that coercion, violence, and tyranny would never bring about the Kingdom of God no matter how well-meaning.
So he told parables and lived examples of how the Kingdom comes in peace and love and compassion. But he was also a realist and knew that such activity would threaten the powers-that-be. Pacifism, embracing the poor and the stranger, feeding the needy, healing rich and poor alike undermined the Roman system of tyranny and drove the Jewish leaders to distraction in fear of a violent Roman response that would slaughter the Jews.
And now Jesus has warned the disciples that the consequence of his Messiahship of peace and justice was being called to account, not by God, but by the earthly powers. But that threat was not an excuse to resort to the old notion of the Messiah. Jesus was determined to continue teaching and living the Kingdom of God right up to the end.
So now who do you say that Jesus is? Jesus could have asked again the disciples after he scolded Peter, “Now, who do you say I am?” But he didn’t.
And so it is today. We live in a world that looks for that old traditional Messiah of redemptive violence – an anointed one who will defeat are enemies, be they nations, terrorists, or a debilitating economy and corrupt society. And just as in the first century it would never work, it will not work in this 21st century.
The Kingdom of God will not come at the point of a gun or even by democratic law. It will come when we finally know who Jesus is and we continue Jesus’ work of bringing about the Kingdom in patience, in faith, in hope, in peace and justice.
So who do you say Jesus is?
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …