August 24, 2014
The Rev. Philip Tierney
When I served as rector of a parish in North Carolina, I had a personal assistant. Her name was Judy, and she was a rare gem. Judy had a dry sense of humor. She was competent, very practical, and crusty. As a native Southerner, she often served this benighted Yankee rector of that rather privileged Southern parish by translating the norms of the culture to me. Time and again, she’d ask people, “I hear what you’re saying, but what do you mean?” Her point, as I understood it, was that Southerners often say one thing, but mean something entirely different. For example, she taught me to watch out whenever someone begins a sentence with the words “Bless your heart” because some insult always follows. “Bless her heart, she doesn’t have a clue.” “Bless his heart, he never did amount to anything.” People don’t always say what they mean, mean what they say, or know the meaning of what’s been said by others. It’s commonplace in the South, but others do it too.
That’s what Jesus had in mind, I think, in today’s reading. He pressed the people around him to say what they really thought and to know what it really meant. Jesus asked his closest followers a public opinion question. “Who do people say that I am?” he asked.
The ensuing answers were all over the map. One replied, “Some say that you’re John the Baptist.” That always confused me. John was dead. Perhaps some hadn’t heard the news, or maybe they meant, “They think you’re following in John the Baptist’s footsteps—calling people to turn away from their wayward ways and to turn toward God’s ways, instead.” Another chimed in and said, “Some say that you’re Elijah.” I suppose that meant some of the people thought Jesus might be the one sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah. Someone else added, “Some say that you’re one of the prophets.” That meant someone sent to speak God’s word to the people. There were all sorts of speculations about Jesus and who he was or what his role was. Most of them were positive speculations. Most of the average people in the street thought that Jesus was a good teacher or a prophet.
There’s always been difference of opinion about who Jesus was. Some have said that Jesus was a good man; others, a great moral teacher; others, a miracle worker; and still others, one of God’s prophets. Most of them are descriptive ideas, because as the stories about Jesus described, he was a good man, he did teach people about God and about how God wanted people to behave toward others. He did heal many people. And he did speak like a prophet. The disciples may have been too polite to add what the religious leaders thought—that he was a false prophet and did miracles by means of evil forces. The disciples kept their public opinion report positive.
But then, characteristic of Jesus’ style of teaching and spiritual direction, he went further. Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” You see Jesus never seemed to be content to leave conversations on a theoretical level. He always seemed to press people to the next step—to think personally, decisively, and to come to terms with God themselves—right then and there.
Also characteristic, Peter was the one who answered the question. He was, after all, often the most outspoken and daring, if not blundering, of Jesus’ circle of friends. Peter said, “You’re the Messiah. You’re the Son of God.” Now the word Messiah, in Hebrew, or Christ, in Greek, meant Anointed One. Generally that meant someone who had been anointed with oil. And, in Jewish terms, that represented that a person, like a prophet or a priest or a king, was filled with the power of God—with the Holy Spirit. It symbolized that a person was empowered by God to accomplish a mission.
In Jesus’ time it had come to mean something specific. People believed that the Messiah was the one God would send and would fill with the power of the Holy Spirit, specifically to save His people. Now, since the Jewish people thought of themselves as God’s only people, they believed that God would send the Messiah to save them. And since the Jewish people had been dominated by foreign empires for the better part of 800 years, they thought of that salvation as political liberation. In chronological order, they had been dominated by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Also, over those centuries, the Jewish people had picked up customs from those foreign empires. They thought God’s salvation would involve their moral restoration and their religious or spiritual renewal. So they saw the Messiah as empowered by God to restore them to moral purity, to renew them spiritually, and to liberate them politically—to make them God’s nation. That’s what Peter meant when he told Jesus, “You’re the Messiah.”
Now just suppose Jesus asked us that question. “Who do you say I am?” What would you say? a good man? a moral teacher? a miracle-worker? a prophet? a revolutionary? How would you answer the question and what would you mean?
One of the things that set Jesus apart from other good people, moral teachers, revolutionaries, or even prophets was that he claimed to be more than human. Not only did he refrain from correcting Peter when the latter said Jesus was the Son of God, Jesus put himself on a par with God. He said such things as this: “The Father and I are one.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father but by me.” “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” So I ask you, do you suppose that a good person, a moral teacher, a prophet, a revivalist, or a revolutionary would say that sort of thing?
C. S. Lewis, the British writer, educator, and literary critic, put it this way in his book Mere Christianity: “Many say that Jesus was a good man or a great moral teacher. But a man who claimed the things that Jesus did wouldn’t be good. He’d either not be telling the truth and be unaware of it, in which case he’d be self deluded, like a man who calls himself a poached egg. Or he’d not be telling the truth and be quite aware of it, in which case he’d be a liar and a charlatan. Or he was telling the truth and is God. You decide. Was he a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord?”
The religious leaders of his time made their decision. They believed that Jesus was a charlatan or a nut and certainly a blasphemous heretic. And that’s primarily why they had him killed—because he called himself equal to God. So, back to the question. Jesus wouldn’t let us get away with knowing what other people believe. He’d ask us what he asked his friends. Who do you say that I am?
Now, if we, like Peter, believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and is the Son of God, Jesus doesn’t leave us with the option of merely comfortably making that assertion, like some litmus test for membership in a club—Club Church. Even though he replied to Peter that God was the one who revealed that truth to him and that it was the foundation of God’s Kingdom, Jesus didn’t leave it at that. He never left things up in the air. In all three synoptic Gospels, in the very next passage Jesus told Peter and the others what it meant to be Messiah and to follow the Messiah. It meant the cross, he said. It meant personal sacrifice, not just the benefit of personal salvation, but also the cost of personal sacrifice in discipleship. C. S. Lewis had something to say about that, too. In his series, The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the lion was Jesus in Narnia. Over and over, many of the characters in those stories said, “Aslan’s not a tame lion, you know.” Likewise, if Jesus is the Messiah and God’s Son, then we must remember that he’s not tame. He’s not ours to tame—to make him do what we want for our personal benefit. No. If he is the Messiah, God sent him to tame us—to train us to be the people He wants us to be and to do what He wants us to do as he did—to give ourselves to God for the benefit, help, and salvation of others. Peter thought Messiah would come to live up to his expectations, to benefit him, but Jesus came to help Peter live up to God’s expectations. The same holds true for us.