“Messiah”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 27, 2015 – The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8:27-38

 

Up to this point, the story has been different. In the first seven-plus chapters of Mark’s gospel, it is not really clear to most people who exactly Jesus is and what exactly he’s up to. The disciples certainly don’t get it. They ask, “Who is this man?” They mistake him for a ghost. They try to understand, but they fumble and bumble and stumble along, often confused or dismayed, sometimes getting it partly right, and other times getting it completely wrong. They don’t seem to grasp the true identity, the true purpose of their teacher, leader, and friend—or their true purpose, either, for that matter.

And then we arrive at the end of chapter eight, right in the middle of Mark’s gospel. Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They respond with some of the names they have apparently heard him called—John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Jesus comes back with a more pointed question. “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter, impetuous as ever, blurts out, “You are the Messiah.”

For us, as the readers, it’s a sort of “Finally!” moment. If you were to sit down and read Mark’s gospel from the beginning, you would be told right in the opening verse that this is the story of “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But the disciples don’t have the benefit of the little interpretative bits that are added into the text—they are living in the midst of the stories. They have been with Jesus when he healed a woman’s fever, cured a man of leprosy, made a paralyzed man walk, made a blind man see, fed massive crowds of hungry people, walked on water, calmed a storm, argued with the religious leaders, and taught about the kingdom of God. But they do not yet know what all this means. In fact, the only ones who seem to recognize who Jesus truly is in the first half of Mark’s gospel are the unclean spirits and demons he casts out of afflicted people.

So here, at the halfway point, in chapter eight of sixteen, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” we readers already know what the right answer is. And, for the first time, it seems that Peter does, too. Finally! He has figured it out, and he proclaims the answer with confidence. “You are the Messiah.”

Messiah is the English version of a Hebrew word meaning “anointed one,” the one chosen by God to lead God’s people and restore the fortunes of Israel. It was not only a religious title; it had political and social implications as well. The Messiah was the one who would defeat those who ruled unjustly. He was the one who would restore kingship to the lineage ordained by God. Somehow, Peter had at last discerned that this was the man he had been following through Galilee—the one who would lead them to glorious victory.

When Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah,” what he meant was, “You are the one God has chosen to make all things right, to purify society, to defeat our enemies, to deliver us from oppression, to bring about a new realm of justice and peace. You are the one who will turn our humiliation into triumph, our sorrow into song, our suffering into supremacy. You are the one, Jesus. We’re counting on you.”

So you can see why Peter was upset when Jesus immediately began to talk of suffering and rejection and death. This was not what Peter meant when he said “Messiah.” This was not the one he thought he had been following. This was not the one whose coming he awaited. Suffering and rejection and death? There was plenty of that to go around already, thank you very much. The Messiah Peter wanted was one who would put an end to all that hardship for good.

If we’re honest, I suspect that many of us share some of Peter’s expectations and hopes, at least some of the time. We would love for Jesus to be this kind of Messiah—a strong, powerful one who will lead us in the way of glory and victory and ease. We long for a God who can heal our illnesses and guarantee our loved ones’ safety. We would love it if God would cure cancer, solve economic inequality, put an end to war, find homes for the Syrian refugees, wipe out racism and sexism and homophobia—oh, and get the Red Sox out of the basement and make sure our candidate wins the election. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if God would just make all things right?

But like Peter, the kind of Messiah we might want is not the kind of Messiah we get. Jesus doesn’t say, “Come, follow me, and everything will be smooth sailing.” He doesn’t say, “Come, follow me, and I’ll make you really popular.” He doesn’t say, “Come, follow me, and you’ll never face hardship again.” He says, “The Son of Man must suffer, and be rejected, and be killed, and rise again.” And then he says, “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.”

“The Son of Man must suffer, and be rejected, and be killed, and rise again. 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.”

Not exactly the catchy, inviting phrase we’d put on our church sign, or on the home page of our website. Not the verse I’d be most likely to quote in my email signature. Not a phrase that’s often cross-stitched or embroidered or engraved or painted and hung on the wall in your kitchen. Not a text that’s often read at weddings or funerals. This is a hard teaching, a teaching that contradicts our hopes and expectations, not to mention the priorities of our society.

And yet, when it comes right down to it, I think it’s actually good news. Because we all know that life is not always smooth sailing. We all know that sometimes we are called to do things that make us unpopular. We all know that hardship visits the faithful and the unfaithful alike. And what this text says to us is that when the storms arise, when we feel all alone, when the load feels too heavy to bear, our Messiah is right there. He is no stranger to suffering, rejection, grief, hardship, even death. Jesus is right there, calming the storm, lifting our burdens, standing by our sides, come what may.

Like Peter, we don’t get the kind of Messiah we might think we want, but we do get the kind of Messiah we need. One who is with us in the mess and the muck of life. One who is not scared off by the hard stuff. And one who calls us to a purpose holy and high, one who calls us to be part of something greater than ourselves—one who says that we matter, that what we do with our days matters, that by giving our lives away in service to others and to the world, we find the true and abundant life God desires for us.

Because if Jesus isn’t the kind of Messiah who will skip over the hard parts and jump straight to the happy ending, then he just might need us to join him in bringing about the salvation of the world. He just might need us to answer his call. He just might need us to bring healing to the sick, to take care of the weak, to advocate for the marginalized, to dismantle oppression, to seek solutions to hunger and poverty and bigotry and war. He just might need us to rise to his challenge, to recognize that we live not as isolated, self-sufficient individuals, but as members of the human family, members of God’s family. He just might need us to become his followers.

And he needs us to do it as he did—by walking the way of the cross. By looking straight into the face of the world’s suffering and not flinching. By acknowledging the hardships in our own lives without becoming captive to them. By seeing our lives as part of a much larger network of lives that, together, with the help of God, can indeed save the world.

May it be so.

 


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