13th Sunday After Pentecost
August 30, 2020
What does it mean for Jesus to be the Messiah?
This morning’s text continues where we left off from last week. As a brief recap, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a regional capital of the Roman Empire, Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks the disciples who they say that he is. In front of the symbols of nation, in front of the idols of Rome, Peter, in a moment of triumph in his faith story proclaims, “You are the messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus then proclaims that upon Peter, this rock, Jesus will build his church.
Okay. Great. Last week, things seemed to be going in a positive direction.
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed. And on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned to Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things.’”
Welp. That went down hill quickly. Peter, who just a few verses before, is declared to be the rock onwhich the church will be built, is now not a block for building but a stumbling block for the Messiah. Peter got the title of Jesus right. But there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah the Son of the Living God. There were a bunch of theories on who the messiah would be and what the messiah would do. Some thought, for instance, that the Messiah would lead a revolt against Rome and finally free Israel from the rule of oppressors – a militaristic view of the Messiah. There was certainly a line of thought that believed that the messiah would bring with him worldly power and riches. It is hard to know exactly who Peter expected Jesus to be as the Messiah; he doesn’t explain in detail. But it seems to have never crossed Peter’s mind that the Son of the Living God would, well, die.
“God forbit it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
We, as folks who have heard the story year after year, know that the cross is coming. But I wonder if we too find ourselves misunderstanding what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God – albeit on the other end of the spectrum. One commentator, Raquel St. Clair Lettsome, writes this, “Perhaps the story has become too sanitized. We are now so comfortable with the end of the story, so confident in Jesus’ resurrection, that his crucifixion no longer looms large. Jesus is no longer a threat to established religion or the sociopolitical system many religious groups lobby to uphold. The teachings of Jesus no longer confront but instead endorse the way things are. The result is that for many professing followers of Jesus, Jesus and the religious rulers are of one accord, backed by the government while simultaneously backing the government. Two thousand years have passed, and the scandalous, deadly language of the cross sounds almost hyperbolic amid the myriad of crosses decorating our paraments, houses of worship, clothing, knickknacks, and skin. Crosses are easily borne as ornaments disconnected from discipleship.” (Connections: A Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Kindle Locations 8888-8894)
We see the cross. But do we really “get” the cross. Because as we dig into what that cross event means – with the social, religious, and political (not partisan) implications of it, we find ourselves squirming. When we wrestle with the real world implications of following this Jesus, this Messiah of the Son of the living God, I wonder if we too say, “God forbid it.”
So what does it mean for Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God?
This is the paradox of the Christian faith: we meet the Messiah on the cross. We encounter the Son of the Living God in the outstretched arms of a dying man, in his cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” and in breathing his last. It is there that the love of God, the love of the God who risked everything to become human, to repair a broken relationship with humanity, to bring healing to a broken world, is made known. On the cross, God does this new and radical thing to turn the world on its head. And to turn our expectations of God on its head.
The cross is the world’s reaction to God’s love. The cross is the world’s reaction to the Kingdom of God that Jesus brings. Because this one, this Messiah, God’s anointed, will transform the world and set things right. In lifting up the lowly, in standing with the outcast, in eating with tax collectors and sinners, in being the messiah, the son of the Living God, Jesus is a threat to the status quo. Jesus humanizes the dehumanized. Jesus stands with and lives life with the people the world would rather forget, would rather hide, would rather ignore. We find him standing with the lost, the lonely, the immigrant/ foreigner/ stranger, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsting, the outcast, the marginalized, the dehumanized. We find, in Jesus, a Kingdom the lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful. Coming into the world, Herod hunts him to kill him. Precisely because of the threat Jesus brings to the status quo. And this one isn’t met with praise and welcome, but rejected. The cross is a consequence of this kind of life and ministry that Jesus came for. Because he and his ministry (and thus also the ministry of his followers) is seen as a threat.
As I was talking to a seminary friend this week (about something completely unrelated… it’s funny how the Spirit works sometimes), Francisco reminded me of a passage in one of my favorite books, One Coin Found, written by Pastor Emmy Kegler – an ELCA Pastor in Minneapolis. She writes:
“Jesus suffered and died not because he was a sinner but because his full and honest truth made all those in power recoil in fear. Certainly something more cosmic could and would happen in that death, but the story itself bore the truth: Jesus died because the religious and political elite hated him. He died because he intentionally aligned himself with those on the edges. He placed himself among the poor who did not have enough bread for an afternoon on a hillside, among the tax collectors who colluded with the empire, among simple smelly fishermen, among those whose skin puckered with leprous scars or the violence of the demons that possessed them, among women who were Samaritans or bleeding or caught in the act of adultery or foolish enough to sit at his feet and dare to learn. He dared to declare the kingdom of God was at hand and that it was among the last and least. He claimed titles for himself that a carpenter’s son from backwater Nazareth had no business speaking: Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God.
I needed this. I needed someone to tell me that all my differences, my impossibilities, my queerness, everything in me that pushed me to the edge of society was not going to prevent my inclusion. I needed to know that all the barriers the world would put up between me and God were worthy of crossing. I needed to hear that no matter how despised and rejected, no matter how acquainted with suffering, no matter how oppressed and afflicted, I was still worth something. The story was that my own sin was the chasm, but what I saw was a culture and a church happy to dig that ditch for me and drop me into it. In Jesus’s suffering and death, I heard it declared that no matter what evil and devastation the powers of this world could cook up to silence a message of mercy and love, God was going to find a way to cross it and bring me back. (Emmy Kegler, One Coin Found, 39-41).
“No matter what evil and devastation the powers of this world could cook up to silence a message of mercy and love, God was going to find a way to cross it and bring me – [and us, and all of humanity] – back.”
That’s what it means for Jesus to be the messiah. Jesus brings with him the kind of love that liberates. The kind of love that brings deliverance. The kind of love that brings us back to God. Again. And Again. And again. And that kind of life and ministry and love leads us to the cross. And Jesus lives that kind of life anyway, knowing that that is exactly where this kind of life – the kind of life that lives out the love of God - leads.
When Jesus tells those who follow him to take up our crosses, he’s asking us to take up that kind of life – centered in the love of God. It is a call to stand with and live life with the people the world would rather forget, would rather hide, would rather ignore. Jesus wants to find us standing with the lost, the lonely, the immigrant/ foreigner/ stranger, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsting, the outcast, the marginalized, the dehumanized. Even when it comes at a cost to us. Jesus is calling us to the real world implications of Jesus’ life, ministry – the real world implications of the coming of the kingdom of God into this world. It is a call to see the ways of the world and the pain that those ways brings, and it is a call to stand with those who are harmed.
It is a call, for instance, to see that racism indeed still infects our world – even the institutions and places that we love – and stand with our siblings of color and show that yes, their lives matter – despite the ways this world as it is devalues and dehumanizes them. We’re called to be theologians of the cross – calling a thing what it is, calling racism for what it is – an affront to God and to God’s people. We’re called to pursue justice, peace, healing, and wholeness for our lives and for our world. We’re called to be Christ for our neighbor. We’re called to this, even if it leads to our own crosses (a literal possibility for the earliest Christians). Even if it leads to our own rejection – in our faith communities, in our friend and family groups. And it is hard. And sometimes we go from the rocks of the church’s foundation to stumbling blocks.
But we do this following the Jesus who, to quote Audrey West, “puts his life on the line ahead of all who follow him” (Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28). Jesus faced the worst of what this world can do. And on that cross we’re shown the kind of love that continually brings us back. It is only by that love that we first received that we can do it at all.