Who is this person we call the Christ?
“…on the way He asked His disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’” Have you ever given much consideration to this question? “And they answered Him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’” What does this tell us about some of the disciple’s and the other follower’s perception of just who Jesus is? Did they really have any idea just who Jesus was?
Let’s examine these figures they mentioned. John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin; Gabriel told Mary, “And now your relative (cousin in some translations) Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son.” He was to be a precursor to Jesus. At John’s circumcision, Zechariah spoke these words concerning John, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the LORD to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the forgiveness of their sins.” John came out from the wilderness proclaiming repentance. Although some of the people thought John to be the Messiah, he emphatically denied it, “I am not worthy to carry His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John knew his position was as a menial follower of the Christ; even though his work was instrumental in beginning the ministry of his cousin, Jesus.
“…and others, Elijah.” Elijah was one of the most prominent of all the prophets in the history of Israel. His ministry spanned at least three different kings of Judah and Israel. Elijah is best known for the miracles performed during his life. He raised the widow’s son from the dead and provided her with oil and flour to sustain her through the famine. Probably the best known miracle is Elijah’s challenge to the prophets and priests of Baal on Mt Carmel to determine which was the more powerful; their god or the God of Israel. The final, most spectacular miracle in this storied prophet’s life was his ascension into heaven in a whirlwind.
The Holy Spirit empowered Elijah with a concern for the spiritual condition of His people. In the same manner John the Baptist was called to bring the spiritual condition of God’s people into repentance. The Jews attempted to acknowledge John as Elijah, but John also refused that recognition. Jesus never claimed to be Elijah, although He would liken His ministry to that of Elijah, as One sent to those outside Israel. Elijah’s ministry was congruent with Moses and with all the prophets who served after him including the literary prophets of scripture. The spirit of Elijah was with Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and with all the other prophets. He was with John the Baptist, the apostles, and is still present with all who proclaim God’s Word faithfully. But he was not Jesus, neither was John the Baptist.
All these who the disciples mentioned were forerunners of Jesus, those sent by God to prepare the way for His Son. To the apostles and the people gathered around, Jesus was seen as being another one of those sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. There is some comfort, but more convenience in that belief. Think of houseguests for a moment. Until they arrive, life continues pretty much as it always was; there is some cleanup and preparation but no disruption, at least not yet. Once they arrive, your life’s routine is changed. By thinking of Jesus as only one still preparing the way, commitments could be put off or delayed. If we don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, then we don’t have to pay a whole lot of attention to His message of repentance and suffering; at least, not yet.
Jesus then asks a very pointed question, one which each of us must consider carefully before formulating an answer. “He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” At this point it seems as if Peter may have caught on to what was happening; he sensed things had changed forever, although he didn’t realize how much. And he answered, “You are the Messiah.” Having received the correct answer Jesus then, “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone.” Why this command to be silent? Was Jesus trying to hide something from the people gathered to hear Him? I believe Jesus recognized that Peter’s understanding of the Messiah was inadequate. Peter perceived Jesus to be a new King David, a form of Jewish Caesar, someone wielding the power of God for worldly purposes. For Saint Mark, Jesus is the Son of God who came to be with us as the Son of Man a servant, not as one to be served. He came to give His life for the salvation of many. Only when this is the meaning we hold of the Messiah will our confession of Jesus as the Christ be adequate. In his very next statement Peter showed his lack of understanding of who Jesus really was. Peter did not have an image of suffering for humankind’s salvation in mind when he answered Jesus’ question. It was for this reason Jesus ordered them to be silent; to prevent the disciples from spreading the wrong idea of Jesus’ purpose for being here.
Jesus then began teaching the disciples of His true purpose. He told them He would undergo great suffering and would be rejected by the very ones who should be embracing Him – the elders, chief priests, and scribes. Following this He would be killed and after three days rise again. Peter could not understand this; if Jesus is the Christ, then He should be all powerful. He should be above the fray of life in this world, and surely He should be beyond suffering. But, that is not what Jesus told them. He told them He was going to experience these same terrible forces which afflict us during our lives in this world. Jesus realized the brutal reality of the coming tribulation and openly declared His commitment to endure through it. Peter did not see how Jesus’ predictions of being rejected by the religious leaders and His crucifixion could accomplish anything. He may have been thinking something like, “I’ve left everything; my successful fishing business, my family. I’ve sacrificed too much to have it come to a dead-end like this.”
So Peter took Jesus aside to try to talk some sense into Him.
“…He rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind Me, Satan.’” Jesus saw evidence in Peter’s rebuke that evil was seeking the allegiance of his top disciple. Evil will do its best to grab a foothold in any group of people gathered seeking to follow the mission of Jesus. Doing a word search of the original Greek language reveals a very interesting occurrence. Jesus’ command to “get behind Me” uses the same Greek root as does the command Jesus used when He said to Peter, “Follow Me and I will make you fish for people.” Instead of a punishing reprimand, Jesus is calling Peter back into the place where he first began, that is, into discipleship.
Peter was looking through the eyes of the world; he was formulating plans for a worldly kingdom, rather than being faithful to the true purpose of Jesus’ presence. As disciples we are called to follow, not to try to take the lead. When we attempt to assume the lead we are then playing the part of God. To follow Jesus requires us to deny the self with all our selfish ambitions and their resistance to God’s gracious ways. To follow means taking Jesus on His own terms, then devoting ourselves at all costs to doing His will. We cannot follow the world and Jesus at the same time; there is too much opposition between them.
“If any of you want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.” Unfortunately, nearly half of our neighbors have either no Christian knowledge or a distant Christian memory. The significance of the Cross and Christ crucified on it have been largely lost to our culture. The Cross is very visible; it dots the landscape on steeples all over the countryside, it can be seen on license plates, bumper stickers, and magnets on cars everywhere, and it is one of the most widely sold pieces of jewelry on the market. Yet, too often too many people have no idea of the meaning of this precious symbol of Christian faith.
When I was a boy, I would cross my fingers behind my back to relieve my responsibility fo saying something I didn’t really mean – to keep me from telling a fib, when I made a promise I did not intend to keep. Later, I learned to cross my fingers in front of me in hope it would bring good luck. Imagine my surprise, when I learned in seminary that members of the early Church being persecuted by the Roman Empire would cross their fingers as a sign to other believers of their trust in the God revealed to them through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is calling His disciples to claim their Cross, only then will they be able to follow Him. How do you suppose these disciples accepted this challenge from Jesus? The cross was a symbol of suffering and shame, not of an overwhelming victory. The Roman beliefs were based upon powerful gods such as Jupiter and could recognize little godlikeness in a crumpled corpse hanging from a cross. In fact the Romans lined the roads of the Empire with decaying corpses hanging on crosses to remind passersby of Roman power and might. For these devout Jews who were centered on the power of Jehovah, death by crucifixion was unacceptable for their Messiah. Death on a cross could be an evidence of martyrdom at the hands of the Romans, but never s symbol of the Messiah. Justin Martyr, an early Church theologian argued that “Jesus’ death on a Cross made a decisive case against Jesus’ Messiahship for the Jews”: Jesus’ crucifixion was a sign of weakness.
We are now in the same position as those disciples listening to Jesus. “If any of you want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their Cross and follow Me.” Before we make any decision on this issue, consider this; claiming the Cross as God’s redeeming work in Jesus will call for us to take up our Cross in the future. For us to do that, Jesus tells us there are three required behaviors. First, we will have to deny ourselves. We must deny ourselves by relinquishing some of our secular pleasures in order to have time and resources to disciple to others. Second, we will have to take up our Cross. It is our own choice and it means we will suffer unjustly for the sake of another. Our Cross may be seeking out the poor, downtrodden, or ethnically/socially different and inviting them to celebrate the Good News with us. This often is not a popular position to hold. Third we are to follow Jesus. Peter forgot that, he called Jesus aside trying to tell Jesus what He must do. In order to follow Jesus we must seek to discern Jesus’ will for our lives, our time, our resources, and our hearts. Jesus warns us that following Him will not come naturally, and it will run counter to popular culture.
Accept Jesus, determine the Cross He has for you to bear, pick it up and follow Him. “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.”
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT…AMEN
Written with grateful appreciation for excerpts from:
Mosser, David N., ed., The Abingdon Preaching Annual, 2003 Edition, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002.
Soards, Marion, et al ed., Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1993.