16 Pentecost, Proper 19 – September 12, 2021
Today Jesus asks the question, ‘who do people say that I am’? And Peter responds with “You are the Messiah”. A perfect, A-plus answer, right? The whole gospel story in a nutshell, right?
Wrong. Or, at least, not quite. Because after this, the story Mark tells gets really 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 upsetting, and so counter-intuitive, that Peter pulls Jesus aside and tells him to knock it off. But Peter’s rebuke hits a nerve so raw, that Jesus turns and rebukes him in return. What’s more, he does so using words that still shock us, 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, it seems that 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. I mean suffering? crucifixion? humiliation? What kind of Messiah chooses to give up? To surrender? To die? You want me to associate myself with you, and lose everything?”
So, Peter’s profession of faith — as impressive as 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. You still want to be in control. You still idolize your own comfort. You want someone more glamorous, more impressive, more aligned with your own definitions of greatness and power. Peter, there’s so much more for you to learn.”
Jesus asks us the same question “But who do you say that I am”?
Rainer Maria Rilke, a famous German-language poet and novelist shares this: “Be patient,” he writes, “toward all that is unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Jesus’ question is an essential question. Essential because “who do you say that I am? is at the same time, “who will you say that you are?” That’s the rub of this question, the heart of its difficulty. The question strikes at the heart of our quest for identity.
Jesus asks us to put aside other people’s interpretations, and articulate our own. It’s not enough, he implies, to recite the creeds, the traditions, the theologies, the abstractions. It’s not sufficient to rely on other people’s answers. At some point, our faith must become personal. Intimate. Invested. Who do you say that I am?
Jesus explains “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.” “Life” in this sentence is an imperfect translation of the Greek term hē psyche which is “the creature’s center; one’s inmost self.” In other words, who we are at our core, our identity.
Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I watched some of the 9/11 specials yesterday covering New York and Shanksville and was struck by the common theme shared by family members of those lost that day, 20 years ago. They repeatedly shared how strangers came together, how the care and concern from others made such a difference in the days to follow. That September 12th was an important day. I was in New York 20 years ago and I do vividly remember how Manhattan came together, the whole atmosphere of the city changed, people looked each other in the eyes, they were kinder and gentler toward each other. But this year my fascination is on the 40 strangers that made up Flight 93. They were strangers but responded as one. Individually, they gave up their focus on their own life and thought about others. They came up with a plan that, at it’s heart, was about the greater good. They took up a special cross that day in making a unified decision. So, today, on this re-gathering Sunday it seems appropriate that we honor their coming together in a way that strengthens our common bonds today. We are so much more alike than we are different. For all the horror of 9/11, the generosity and compassion that so many showed to others in the days and years after, brought hope. We pulled together, rather than divided. Let’s remember that, let’s honor that as we carry our own crosses today.
To love the questions is to hold mystery and possibility close to our hearts, to allow them to work on us, shape us, transform us. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai puts it this way:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus invites his disciples to live a question. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks them as they make their way through the villages of Caesarea Phillipi. Who am I? Where do I stand in this life we’re making together? What do I mean? To you?
Peter’s confession of faith — “You are the Messiah” — signals the beginning of his exploration of Jesus’s identity, not its end. As soon as Peter thinks he has the answer to the question 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. There’s so much more for you to learn, Peter. So many more answers for you to grow into. Be patient. Don’t force the locked doors. Try to love what is unsolved. Keep living the question. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter must have lived into as time went on, he must have said: You’re the one who said “Yes, come walk on the water with me.” You’re the one who caught me before I drowned. You’re the one who washed my feet while I squirmed in shame. You’re the one who told me — accurately — that I’d be a coward on the very night you needed me to be brave. You’re the one I denied to save my own skin. You’re the one who looked into my eyes when the cock crowed. You’re the one who found me on the beach and spoke love and fresh purpose into my humiliation. You’re my Messiah.
And so, who do you say that Jesus is? It’s a question to ponder for a lifetime. A question that has so many others folded into it: What stories of Jesus have you inherited? What so-called “truths” about him might you need to say goodbye to? How might you be blessed by his loving rebuke? Is he merely the Messiah? Or is he your Messiah?
What Peter learns in this encounter is that Jesus is just as powerfully present in the questions as he is in the answers. Maybe even more so. To love what is unsolved is not to deny Jesus his Lordship. It is to allow Jesus to enter more deeply into your heart than any impersonal truth about him will ever do. Live the question. That’s Jesus’s invitation, and he makes it over and over again, in love. Amen. (parts of this based on Debi Thomas’ blog from Journey with Jesus)