Who Is Jesus Preaching To?
For words that are in fact so familiar to us, words like “Messiah” and “followers” and “cross,” they are hard to wrap our heads around, hard to implant in our lives, hard to make real.
This gospel contains some of Jesus’ hardest teaching, but even in our knee-jerk despair that we’ll ever be able to live up to this lofty calling and high destiny of which he speaks, we sense how important it is.
We can feel how grand the story is that Jesus is telling. We understand that he is inviting us to be part of events that change the world.
And the spark of the Holy Spirit within us leaps with excitement and possibility and hunger for living out the justice and love of the Christ-follower and the cross-bearer and the life-giver.
But a much louder part of our minds reminds us that we are also the person who routinely leaves the gas cap undone and is jealous of that one person at work and snaps at the kids when we’re tired.
How can there be room for someone like that in the group that recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and bravely follows him to the cross even at the cost of their own lives?
I noticed something about what was happening to Jesus in this moment.
Jesus’ words are strong and his manner is powerful. We are left in no doubt as to who he is, what he is determined to accomplish, the price he is prepared to pay for it, and the expectations he has of us as his followers.
But I think that his very intensity can reveal to us something very tender and real about Jesus in his humanity in this moment, something that might actually give us the courage to live and give as boldly and fully as we are being called.
But before we get to that moment, we begin in an interesting place. We begin with questions, questions that Jesus asks.
“Who do people say that I am?” he asks.
And then the follow up: “But who do you say that I am?”
The gospel story does not begin by saying, “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he told his disciples, ‘I am the Messiah.’”
It says, “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?’”
Jesus wants to know what we think.
Jesus wants to know how and how much we are understanding.
In some small way, Jesus is letting us define him.
What we are experiencing in our minds and hearts as we struggle to deepen in relationship with him matters to him.
“Who do people say that I am?” for us today is a test of our evangelism.
We are the Body of Christ in the world, so what people are saying about Jesus is what people are saying about us.
When people say Christians are judgmental and small-minded, it’s not enough to say that they are wrong. We have to prove that they are wrong by going out and being as generous and loving and servant-like as we know Jesus to be.
The reputation of Christ himself is at stake.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus wants to know, and how we communicate him in action will determine the outcome.
And then the deeper question: “Who do you say that I am?”
One of the great temptations of Christian life, and perhaps its most subtle and dangerous, is to remake Christ in our own image.
We love Jesus and want to make our relationship with him always harmonious, always pleasant and peaceful.
And so we smooth off the edges we find difficult to deal with, hiding in the back of our minds the times in the gospels that he says things that seem harsh or out of place.
We domesticate him to a fluffy, inoffensive Savior who is like a particularly reliable computer program, always a predictable response, right on time, just as ordered.
I know I do this.
And then the question comes: “Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus won’t let us get away with it. He forces us to stop and think about how we’re defining him, how we’re limiting him, how we’re forcing him to be all one thing or all another, user-friendly and easy.
The disciples get the first half of the answer correct. “You are the Messiah,” Peter answers. And he’s right.
But Peter doesn’t want to hear the second half of the story.
The Messiah is the greatest thing ever to happen to Israel, the long-awaited fulfillment of a golden dream. The Messiah will come and save Israel from oppression and restore it to glory.
Peter gets to savor the dream for about thirty seconds.
“Then [Jesus] 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”
Peter just can’t handle it. It’s wrong.
It’s wrong for the Messiah of Israel to be subject to petty human authorities.
It sounds like Jesus is just going to give up before the fight even begins. What kind of Messiah is that?
“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.’”
Jesus is powerful in his rebuke of Peter. Dominant. Forceful. He means business.
And of course he does, Peter and the disciples have to know that they will not be allowed to stand in the way of Jesus’ mission.
They will not be allowed to define Jesus right out of his task to save the world.
But what intrigued me this time around as I studied this text is my speculation on what might be happening in Jesus’ mind and heart in this moment.
Bear in mind, this is pure speculation and imagination. This might be completely off base and totally not what Jesus was thinking and feeling.
But what if?
What if Jesus is preaching to himself?
Consider what Jesus has just said, what he has just committed himself to in public and in front of everyone.
He has named his heavy responsibility as the Son of Man and proclaimed that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.
Jesus has just given up his opportunity to use his power exactly as Peter would want him to. He has just kissed goodbye any chance of using his power to defeat Rome and return Israel to glory and reign as its rightful king.
Instead, he has just condemned himself to an ignominious death, but not before submitting himself to great humiliation and physical pain.
The human part of Jesus had to have some reaction to that. He had to have been panicking, wanting to take it back, wishing he wouldn’t have to go through with it.
And so I’m wondering if the vehemence of Jesus’ response to Peter might be in part because the human part of him is tempted to agree with Peter, that this is all a very bad idea.
Jesus calls Peter Satan because in that moment, Satan’s temptation is right in front of him.
Just take it back, Satan says. That’s all you have to do. Just use your gifts and do what they want you to do. Take the power, avoid the suffering and death. You’re the rightful king anyway, just do it.
And some poor, small, human part of Jesus wants to give in.
And so he panics, because he knows he must not fail.
He must defeat the weak human love of comfort and the base human temptation for power that lies within him.
“Get behind me, Satan,” he says, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
Remember your divinity, Jesus is saying to himself. Remember your responsibility. Remember how high the stakes are. Remember what your Father is asking of you.
Listen to the sermon Jesus gives next and hear it with the ears of knowledge that in this pivotal moment, Jesus may have been preaching to himself as much as to the disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
When Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” we can answer: “You are someone who faced temptation just as much as we do, and you found a way to get through it, to offer yourself with the most amazing courage of all, the courage of a frightened human who walked forward into death willingly.”
That is the Jesus Christ we follow.
That is the Jesus Christ for whom we are willing to take up the Cross.
And that is the Jesus Christ who is our Savior and Redeemer.
In his humble humanity, he awes us with his glory.
We don’t have to be afraid of the high calling he places before us, the calling to lose our life for his sake, because we have seen that he could be as frightened and as threatened by temptation as we are, and yet he found a way to keep walking forward.
And so we name him with Peter: he is our Messiah.
And we walk forward together.
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