27 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?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 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.”
34 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 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.”
This passage is particularly rich and I am going to hop from topic to topic. Any one of them deserve more.
The so called ‘Messianic Secret’ refers to the frequent command by Jesus for people “not to tell anyone about him.” There are very few ministers who would counsel secrecy about their ministries. It is counter intuitive to spread the Good News in secret. Yet Jesus did so repeatedly. Understanding that any answer is speculative, I believe Jesus was all too aware that he was a different Messiah than the one the people expected. His Word was much more complex (and disquieting) than any healing or miracle. Who could even imagine a Messiah who didn’t ‘make things better?’ So when Jesus was doing dramatic things that did make things better (in terms of human desires and comforts), he did not want to be pigeon holed into the expectations of the time. He had more to offer than physical healing or military conquest.
The expectation of the Messiah was someone who would relieve suffering and oppression—both personal and political. But the salvation Jesus offered went much deeper than relief from affliction. Jesus showed that we can be saved in the midst of affliction. But who really wants a God like that—certainly not Peter (more on him in a moment)? He wanted a messiah who removed affliction. By those expectations, if he were killed, Jesus could not be a Messiah.
God’s breaking into the world was so beyond what humans wanted and expected, it could not be fully known until we humans actually saw it. This is a radical change in spiritual thought. It is a struggle we continue to have today. We still want to be able to tell where God is or isn’t. It shows up in the prosperity gospel and it shows up in the ‘why me?’ questions when we are unfairly treated or in pain. It is an idea that is unbelievable until we experience it. Jesus did not want people’s preconceived notions about the messiah to prevent them from seeing who he really was—hence the ‘secret.’ Jesus did not want people to be blinded by what they expected. Hence the repeated de emphasis upon the miraculous—even as he was performing miracle. More was to come.
Peter misses the point
Peter is the poster child for impetuosity. He leaps into deep water literally and figuratively. Apparently Jesus is trying to gage the disciples level of understanding when he asks, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter’s answer sounds like it is correct—“You are the Messiah.”. In fact in Matthew’s account, Jesus praises Peter’s insight and tells him he will the foundational rock of the church. But as soon as Jesus started talking about his self understanding of Messiahship, Peter reveals that the two of them were on very different pages.
In real life, these misunderstanding occur all of the time. Whole conversations proceed before we realize that we have misunderstood or have made assumptions. I often tell couples they would communicate better if they spoke different languages. At least then both parties would know that everything has to be carefully translated. Speaking the same language allows us to assume that meanings are shared. In real life, that is a risky assumption.
Rebukes—from Peter and to Peter
Jesus starts describing the work of the Son of Man. And it does not sound pretty. Jesus could see that he was making powerful enemies. Jesus could see that he would be killed. Jesus was describing an ignominious ending—not all ‘messiah like.’ I’m pretty sure that is all Peter heard. He tells Jesus : “Stop talking like that. That is no way to be the Messiah.”
In real life we often resist bad news. When there is a medical diagnosis that threatens us, it is very common to avoid hearing. That can’t be true. There must have been a mistake. It was only a few years ago that it was considered taboo to discuss dying with the terminally ill. The conventional reasoning was that such discussions would bring the patient down and cause them to give up hope. As it turns out, dying people are often quite fluent about their life expectancy. It is more likely that the family are the ones that struggle with the impending loss. No matter what is preached or promised, it is hard to imagine life after losing someone we love. I feel confident that this was the dilemma of the disciples, and Peter in particular.
But the road that leads to death is hard enough to walk without people telling you, ‘you shouldn’t talk about such things’. ‘You could still try chemotherapy.’ You don’t have to face death—at least not now. But such anxious and well intended comments make the journey even lonelier. Jesus had choices. He had come to understand the implications of his call. The road to Jerusalem ended in death. It would have been terribly tempting to decide to take a different road. But Jesus had ‘set his face toward Jerusalem’ and he could not afford to be distracted by ‘human things’. We are often tempted to take an easier path even when we know the one we are on is ‘right’. It is just hard. Jesus could not afford the enticement to be what the people expected. So he rebukes Peter. ‘Get behind me Satan. I cannot afford to tempted to make my decisions based upon my self interest. I must stay pointed toward God.’
One of the ways that Jesus is revealed to be the Christ is his unfailing willingness to be in conversation with God about his journey as well as his absolute trust that God was with him. His obedience and faithfulness are singular but it is to this example and path that he calls us. We are incalculably capable of rationalizing our diversions from God’s call.
Self Denial and the Gospel
There are two kinds of denial of self I want to highlight—the denial of self that creates room for relationship inside of us and the denial of self that is willingness to inconvenience ourselves on behalf of another. Both types of self denial are foundational to love.
The ego is very powerful and very limiting. We all see the world through our own eyes and tend to assume the world is (or ought to be) as we see it. In the extreme, when we are ‘egocentric’, there is no room for anything new—including God. We only see what we expect. It is a little like trying to describe the color blue to someone who is color blind. If you’ve never seen color, you may even believe others when they say color is possible but it certainly is not a natural assumption. We are far more likely to be unaware of our internal assumptions and dismiss other possibilities. That is true when the disciples grappled with what Jesus meant by the word Messiah and it is true in our simplest conversations. We must be willing to give up our egocentricity—we must be self emptying—in order to really listen to another point of view. Much of faith is the willingness to let go of our own ego (our self) enough to be mindful of other people and possibilities.
Finally, loving another is going to be inconvenient. Proactively cherishing requires that we give up a ‘me first’ life. And we do so because when we are safe with God. It really doesn’t matter who goes first. First and last are secular measures. What is important is that people are able to experience God’s care. We can offer such care only when we have received it.
Jesus gave up what he wanted (Take this cup from me) and gave his life so that we could realize that nothing (including rejection,suffering and death) could separate us from the love of God. He did so—so that we could see what we could not imagine. There is a world of color for the colorblind. God is with us in the darkest of times.
Give us the humility and courage to follow Jesus. Let it be so.