“Yes, I am the Messiah. No, you have no idea what ‘Messiah’ means”
September 12, 2021
Mark 8:27–38 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Writers spend a good deal of time crafting the opening of their stories. Grabbing readers and engaging them for the duration is necessary to make any book successful. But for the reader, how the story ends is often the deciding factor in reading more of a particular author.
There are countless ways we expect stories to end, even our own stories.
“And they lived happily ever after.”
“Well done, good and faithful servant.”
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
“And one day there will be an incredible and victorious military overthrow of ancient Jerusalem.”
The latter is likely not the ending of any story we read today, but it was a favorite ending from centuries ago.
Back in Jesus’ day people in exile told stories of longing for a restored homeland. These stories sprouted among the Jewish people as they endured empire after empire controlling their land. Through it all they longed for peace and for God’s kingdom to come in full. All of these stories pivoted on the coming of a Messiah.
Now, not all the stories that circulated about a Messiah were the same. In some, the Messiahs were angelic, some were human, some were born of God. One oft-repeated theme of these stories was that the Messiah would overthrow whatever empire was in power and deliver the Israelites from oppression. This Messiah was a military champion, someone who came with power and force. For a downtrodden people the ending of the story needed to be hopeful, providing them what had been long ago promised by God.
Today’s Gospel from Mark pivots on the definition of Messiah as Jesus asks his disciples a straightforward question: “Who do people say that I am?” Knowing full well the variety of views people held of their long-hoped-for Messiah, it seems Jesus was seeking a reading on his audience. “What’s the word on the street? What assumptions are people making about me? Give me the scoop.”
The disciples must have been hearing plenty because they quickly jump in with answers: “People say you’re John the Baptist. Other people say you’re Elijah! Actually, a lot of folks think you’re one of the prophets.”
Interestingly, Jesus neither affirms nor denies the answers. He simply listens, allowing the disciples to offer up everything they think they know, based on the stories they have heard.
Then Jesus follows up with another question: “Who do you say that I am?” I’m guessing there was a long silence at this point. It is easier to speak for others than for yourself. I can see the disciples looking down at their feet, avoiding eye contact with Jesus. Unlike the first question, there’s not a plethora of responses forthcoming.
Imagine Jesus standing patiently in their midst waiting to hear what his closest friends will say about him. Can they differentiate between the talk on the street and the witness of their own souls? Do they really know him? Is he the hoped for end of the story to come?
With his second question, Jesus asks his followers to put aside other people’s accounts of the stories that have circulated. Now it is time to articulate their own. No longer is it sufficient to rely on other people’s answers. At some point, faith must become personally owned, intimate, invested. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked.
Cue Peter. Bold, reckless, impetuous Peter. When the silence becomes unbearable, he throws himself forward and tells Jesus exactly who he thinks Jesus is: “You are the Messiah.”
It’s a great answer — seemingly spot on. My father would say to such a response “Go to the head of the class.” Peter puts the whole gospel story in a nutshell. A+ answer.
But now we are getting ahead of the story. Because what comes next gets very weird. Instead of praising Peter’s prophetic answer, Jesus tells him to keep his mouth shut, and launches into a grim description of the suffering and death that await him in Jerusalem. He paints a picture so bleak, so upsetting, and so counter-intuitive, Peter pulls him aside and tells him to knock it off. But Peter’s rebuke hits a nerve so raw, Jesus turns and rebukes him in return. What’s more, he does so using words that shock us still, two thousand years later: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Poor Peter. Where does he go wrong?
Well, he gets the “answer” right. The title. The identity. “You are the Messiah.” But when Jesus challenges Peter’s understanding of what Messiah-ship actually entails, Peter cringes in embarrassment. In disbelief. In shame. As in: “No, that’s not what I signed up for. That’s not how I want my Messiah to behave. Suffering? Rejection? Death? This isn’t the kind of Messiah that the stories of old have told. The Messiah I want doesn’t give up. Yet, you want me to associate myself with you, and lose everything?” Poor Peter.
Peter’s profession of faith — impressive though it sounds — signals the mere beginning of his spiritual journey. Not its end. As soon as Peter thinks he has Jesus nailed down, Jesus shuts him up, challenges what he knows, and nudges him back to the starting line: “Yes, I am the Messiah. No, you have no idea what ‘Messiah’ means. In fact, you’re not even ready to know what ‘Messiah’ means; you can barely tolerate my talking about it. You still want to mold me into your image of Messiah-ship, into the story endings you’ve heard on the street. You still want to be in control. You want to hold to your comforts. You’re ashamed to identify with the Savior I really am; you want someone more glamorous, more impressive, more aligned with your own definitions of power and greatness. Peter, there’s so much more for you to learn.”
As I reflect on Peter’s very human, very earnest but misguided response in this story, I’m left wondering what kind of Messiah I want. I know the “right” answers to Jesus’s question about his identity. Who do I say Jesus is? The Son of God. The Savior. The Redeemer. The Christ. But do I have my own agenda when it comes to what Messiah-ship means? An agenda shaped around my own comfort? My own lifestyle? My own priorities and preferences? Would I look away in embarrassment when God challenges that agenda?
What about you? Would you prefer a Messiah who aligns more easily with your social milieu, your political norms, your cultural expectations, your spiritual goals?
Who we think Jesus is will determine how far we’ll go in following him. You see, who we believe Jesus to be and how we enact our discipleship are tightly connected. There’s a reason Mark narrates this scene about Jesus’ identity and then quickly reminds us that to be a disciple is to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
It matters what kind of Messiah we have faith in.
If we think Jesus is a Messiah who will overthrow all our enemies and topple the empires of this world with the force of a military commander, might we be enticed into a violent and self-serving discipleship?
If we think Jesus is a Messiah who is judgmental and discriminating, might we become disciples who build walls to distance ourselves from “the other” and secure our own tribe?
If we think Jesus is a Messiah who won’t touch the dredges of death and the hardships of this life, might we also be disciples tempted into every form of escapism possible? Resisting dying to self and death itself at all possible costs?
But if we behold Jesus for who he is, a Messiah who suffered, was rejected, killed, and then rose again — well, then, what in the world might our own discipleship look like? If our own lives are to be molded after his life, if we are really united to him through our baptism, how might our days unfold?
The stories we tell of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, might just be the stories we live out. This Christian life — this cross-shaped life — is not an easy road. It is a serious story with costly marks of resurrection. It is the truest and most powerful story.
We should not be surprised then when we suffer. We should not be shocked that we will have to lose our lives to find them. We should not be bowled over by the fact that we will have to relinquish our control of God and let God hold us in scarred hands. Instead, we should be ready to take up our cross and follow Jesus: every day, in all circumstances, through the valley of the shadow of death, as our bodies age and our cells mutate, as we go about the mundane struggle of daily business and work, as we grieve, when we rejoice, through losses and gains, through seasons of blessings and seasons of wanting, as we learn to give and as we learn to receive, as we are burdened and as we help others carry burdens.
For in every cross-shaped experience of our lives there is a promise. It is not a promise we can always feel or sense or appreciate at first glance. But the promise is still there. And it is a promise that the ending of your story, our ending, the world’s ending is a beautiful one. All of our endings find meaning in that early morning on Easter. When that cross lost its sting and became a sign to us that God had triumphed over the greatest enemies: sin and death. The cross becomes a promise of the best kind of ending. An ending where God has come near and saved us and loved us and delivered us and proclaimed to every particle of creation, as Julian of Norwich phrased it: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
 A prayer of Julian of Norwich, an English Christian theologian and mystic at the turn of the 14th century:
“In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss. In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving. You are our mother, brother, and savior. In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit, is marvelous and plenteous grace. You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us. You are our maker, our lover, our keeper. Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Amen.”