Jesus and his Disciples are making their way to a new territory, a new set of villages in which to teach and heal and bear witness to the goodness of God. And as they journey to Caesarea Philippi, the unfamiliar landscape draws forth a new set of questions. Jesus asks what the people are saying about him. The Disciples certainly would have been keeping up with the public perception of their prophet, and so they are quick to answer what they have heard. That this man from Nazareth is something special goes without saying, and so people have speculated that he might be an incarnation of John the Baptist, or Elijah, or perhaps a prophet sent by God to proclaim a new word for the Israelites.
Jesus' question is more than a straw poll. Knowing what other people say about Jesus can be helpful as we prepare ourselves to answer the second of Jesus' questions. One of my first assignments in seminary was to analyze and compare how the reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther understood who Jesus is and what his life and death means for humanity.
It was an exhausting paper to research, full of nitpicky details and fine distinctions. It felt like calculating how many angels dance on the head of a pin. And yet, when I timidly met my strict German professor for a conference about the paper, we ended up talking at length about my own understanding of who Jesus was and is. I was surprised to realize how much learning about the church's traditional interpretations of Jesus Christ informed my own confession of faith.
On the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus pushed the Disciples to answer for themselves just who they thought they were following. Whether he was blessed by unique wisdom or courage, Peter alone responded, and his answer was correct: their rabbi was no ordinary man, but the Messiah.
Peter thought he knew what it meant to stand in the presence of the Messiah. He believed that Israel's hope for a restored earthly kingdom was fulfilled in Jesus. After centuries of slavery and exile, turmoil and oppression, the Israelites would finally emerge from under the iron thumb of their most recent enemies and be sovereign over their promised land again. Jesus would be the victorious King, born from the house of David. All of these expectations swirled in Peter's head as he proudly proclaimed Jesus' true identity.
The Disciples’ high hopes were dashed, as Jesus took Peter's spark of understanding as an invitation to go deeper into the real meaning of Messiah. The Disciples had seen a lot since Jesus called them out of their fishing boats. They had seen Jesus scatter Demons, vanquish leprosy, chill fevers. They had seen loaves and fish split into five thousand servings, and paralysis give way to movement. They had heard the astounding authority in Jesus' words. They had seen more than enough to believe that Jesus was the Christ, worthy of their trust and adoration.
Yet nothing prepared them for this new teaching. What is this about suffering and rejection? What is this about death? I wonder if Peter even heard the part about rising again after three days, so appalled was he at the thought of his beloved master denied by their brethren.
We hear this teaching in much the same way as the Disciples. We did not gather today expecting the doom and drear of Lent. This is the time of the Christian year in which we simply hear the stories about Jesus. We're supposed to be growing in our Discipleship of the risen Lord by rehearsing the gospel accounts of miracles and parables. And yet in the midst of our journey with Jesus, suddenly we find ourselves on another road altogether. We thought we were going to Caesarea Philippi, but it turns out the path leads to Calvary.
Jesus wants his Disciples to understand who he really is.
And if the finger is pointed in our direction, if we take on the boldness of Peter and proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, do we know what that means? The life and death and life of Jesus will reveal an utterly unexpected Messiah, and an utterly unexpected God. For Jesus is not an exception in the life of God, a momentary lapse of divine power. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the sharpest reflection of the heart of our Creator. The fierce tribal god of battles and retribution turns out to be a falsehood. The cheerful and shiny god of smashing success is just another idol. Jesus reveals that the God who lit the stars and stirred the seas, the true God, is loving and compassionate. His faithfulness to his people renders him completely vulnerable, and so through Christ we learn that the One who created us is the One who suffers with us, and for us. And though we might believe that the opposite of power is vulnerability, the Messiah lives and dies to show us that the greatest expression of power is the vulnerability of sacrificial love.
To claim Jesus as the Messiah demands that we recognize the breadth and the depth, the joy and the sorrow, of who Jesus is and what he brought about. Why did the Disciples bother to leave their nets behind and follow this strange teacher throughout the hills and plains of Galilee? And, for that matter, why do we bother to follow him in this time and in this place?
This week I encountered one pastor’s answer to this question that took my breath away and had me drawing stars in the margins of the page. Why do we follow? “Because Jesus told Nathanael, the Samaritan woman and others the truth about themselves. Because he fulfilled the longing of Israel. Because he brought healing and forgiveness that embodied the new regime of which he spoke. Because he practiced and pictured the character and possibility of all people, and breathed purpose and destiny into all creation.
Because he opened out an everlasting communion with the Father that made the Romans, the conventional powers and authorities, all the destructive and craven impulses of the world, even death itself, seem paltry and pitiful. He formed around himself a community, and gave them the practices and the gifts to be his body through pain and joy. His were the words and deeds of eternal life, and there have been none to match them before or since.”
Peter’s lack of understanding frustrated Jesus, and if we join Peter in denying the fullness of who Jesus is, we will frustrate our Lord just as surely. Jesus spoke harshly to Peter not because he didn’t love this bold yet flawed Disciple. Jesus knew how crucial it was for those closest to him, those who had heard and responded to his call on their lives, to know the truth about their leader and the mission he shared with them. No one can say that Jesus didn’t warn his followers that proclaiming the gospel could result in suffering and death.
Just as Jesus could not evade the cruelty of the cross, neither could his followers. "If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me." This is not a battle cry for martyrdom; this is an honest evaluation of the cost of discipleship.
Peter thought he was on the road to Caesarea Philippi with a man whose reputation echoed that of Elijah and John the Baptist. He found out he was following the Messiah on a path to Calvary, and for the life of him, he could not discern any good news in this detour. Yet what we overhear in this challenging passage is a story about a disciple ever so slowly realizing that he is in the presence of the only one who can lead him home.
In this geography of discipleship, Jesus is the leader. We must either follow or get out of the way. If we cannot accept the God whom Jesus reveals, if we cannot abide that our Savior should be anything other than an untainted idol of success, we will be rebuked and told to get back. The journey will continue without us. But if we look at this incredible map and see the way, the truth, and the life, we will be given the grace and the strength to take up our cross and follow him to the lowest hell and the highest heaven.
At this intersection, who do you say that He is?