Jesus is Messiah and Lord, but He confounds every notion we have ever had about these titles. His power reaches perfection in “weakness” and He reigns from the cross. To the world this is utter absurdity, but the Lord insists that we meet Him at the cross. He chooses the foolish to shame the wise; He chooses the weak to shame the strong; He chooses the lowly and despised things of the world—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are (cf 1 Cor 1:27-28). Let us journey to the cross and meet Him there; let us endure a little of His “folly.”
Our journey begins at Cesarea Philippi, a town “way up yonder” in pagan territory.
I. Confusion – Jesus begins by asking the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.”
First, note that not only are many different opinions put forth, but all of them are wrong.
There are many today who think it advisable for the Church to change her teachings based on what “the people” are saying or think is “right.” Yes, we should just take a poll and find out what the people want! So often we are called out-of-date because we do not conform to current (passing) opinions.
The premise, of course, is that we live in “enlightened” times and that if only the Church would just conform to current “wisdom” her halls would be full. Any look at most of the mainline liberal Protestant denominations puts the lie to this. For all their conformity to modern sensibilities, they are far emptier than any Catholic church (or those of the Evangelical denominations).
Further, the “poll” results delivered by the disciples in this passage are all wrong—every one of them. Collecting everyone’s opinion does not produce the truth.
Thus, we ought to acknowledge that there is a lot of confusion and divided opinion in the world; we should be careful about taking cues from the world when it comes to religious, moral, and lasting truth. Even in the physical sciences, which claim to be so objective, there is a considerable shifting of even fundamental premises over time. Further, there is often division among scientists and medical experts over even basic matters.
We do well to approach this world’s teachings and claims soberly, realizing that even in worldly matters, let alone religious ones, the world is divided and sometimes just plain wrong.
The question remains: Who is Jesus Christ and how will the answer be given?
II. Committee – Having rejected poll results as a valid way of determining the truth, Jesus tries to sample the experts. Surely even if the general populace cannot supply the answer, they can. The question now gets posed to the “blue-ribbon panel,” the twelve Apostles: And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Now we may wish to rush ahead to Peter’s answer, but first let us note that, as a body, the apostles are not able to return a verdict. What we get is silence.
III. Confession – Finally the correct answer comes forth: Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.” Then [Jesus] warned them not to tell anyone about him.
The manner in which God provides the correct answer to us is developed more fully in Matthew’s version, which adds the following: Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:17-19).
Hence, we are taught that God the Father anointed Peter with this knowledge and inspired him to speak it for the others. This is the basis of our confidence that Peter and his successors, the popes, are inspired to proclaim the faith infallibly, not on account of their own learning but on account of the grace of God. And while the pope generally works with the college of bishops, his affirmation of their deliberations is essential for formal teachings on faith or morals.
Peter’s declaration is true and correct: Jesus is the Christ. However, Peter and the others still need to grow to a deeper understanding of the full implications of the true Faith. Just as Jesus will lead them to understand it, so too has He led the Church to a deeper understanding over the centuries.
IV. Clarification – Jesus draws them to deeper understanding: He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly.
Although Peter has spoken rightly, calling Jesus the Messiah, the term “Messiah” was widely misunderstood at that time. The misunderstanding was rooted in an incomplete reading of messianic prophecy. Most Jews of the time thought of the Messiah as a powerful military figure who would usher in a bloodbath, a career of conquest against the Romans; that is how this “Messiah” would reestablish the Kingdom of David in all its glory. It was a worldly and political view of the Messiah, one which Jesus rejected. Instead, He would more likely refer to passages such as these:
The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord GOD is my help; therefore, I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame. He is near who upholds my right; if anyone wishes to oppose me, let us appear together. Who disputes my right? Let that man confront me. See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will prove me wrong? (Is 50:5-9)
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Is 53:5)
Jesus clarifies what the Messiah must be: a suffering servant who dies so that His people don’t have to.
V. The Cross – Then things get tense for a moment: Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
Peter, correct just a moment ago, now needs rebuke, but Jesus is willing to work with him. He was right that Jesus was Messiah, but now he needs to understand more deeply what that really means. The Lord calls him away from the world’s notions and the opinions of sinful humanity.
After this, Jesus gets personal. He now tells them that not only will He take up a cross, but so must they.
Talk about not taking an opinion poll! Could anything rate lower on an opinion poll than the cross? Indeed, if one were to take a poll today, there would likely be no crosses at all, only pillows and buffet tables.
The cross is a paradox if there ever was one: from the cross comes life.
Even the world once had some notion of this. What do we have (that we value) that does not involve some sacrifice? A college degree, a career, children, a home, a television—all of them are the fruit of labor, of sacrifice. Too many today want blessings without sacrifice. If we want something, we “charge it.” We spend money we don’t have in order to possess things we have not earned. Welcome to $13 trillion in U.S. household debt, which of course no one should have to “suffer” to pay down. Indeed, the cross has largely been set aside.
But not for Jesus and not for us. To be true Christians we must embrace the cross. Oftentimes this means doing what is hard. It is easy to give way to temptation; it is harder to withstand it. It is easy to be greedy; it is harder to be generous. It is easy to fornicate; it is harder to be chaste. It is easy to file for divorce; it is harder to work things out. It is easy to do what everyone else is doing; it is harder to be a witness or a martyr. It is easy to do what is sinful and self-serving; it is harder to do what is right.
Yes indeed, the cross is what it is—hard, but there is life that comes from it. I am a witness (and I hope you are too) that to the degree I have embraced the often-harder choice of following God’s way, I have been blessed. The chaste avoid lust’s fires, not to mention child support, alimony, and sexually transmitted diseases. The generous have powerful friends in the poor, not to mention being less addicted to money and possessions. Those who fear the Lord have simpler lives than those who must ingratiate themselves to often-contradictory crowds, compromising at every moment.
In today’s Gospel reading we have been led to a deeper understanding of Jesus Christ. Who is He? Does He hold a worldly kingdom and offer merely passing prosperity? Is He just a divine butler who “steps and fetches” to meet our needs? Or is He the Lord, whom we must obey and who tells us to meet Him at the cross? Ask the martyrs; inquire of the saints. They will tell you of the cross, but they will also shout of the victory.
Jesus is Lord and Messiah, but He will not fight on the world’s terms. He conquers darkness with light, hatred with love, and pride with humility. He gives life by dying and bestows joy by sacrifice. He is Messiah, but on His terms not ours. His “weakness” conquers the strong; His “folly” confounds the learned and clever.
No, He’s not your average Messiah.
This song says, “If you can’t stand a little disappointment … if you think you should always be up and never down, I’ve come to remind you: No cross, no crown.”