A bit of background: When we meet Christ and his disciples in this passage, they are about to start their journey to Jerusalem. We have the privilege of knowing what will happen there – their best friend and leader, will be crucified, dead, and buried and after three days, rise again. But the disciples don’t have this vantage point. All the disciples know is a fraction of Jesus’ identity. They have seen this new teacher perform incredible miracles like healing a paralytic, a man possessed by demons, and a woman hemorrhaging for twelve years. They have seen Jesus transform five loaves and two fish into a feast for thousands. The disciples have been called out of their ordinary lives into a life of extraordinary risk. Jesus needs to make sure they’re really ready for the next part of his ministry – the part where they are called to live as disciples.
So, Jesus takes a poll, "Who do people say that I am?" The disciples respond in what we might think of as a modern day opinion poll: "Eh, 55% say John the Baptist; 33% say Elijah, and still about 12% say ‘others’ which is too indeterminate to define at this juncture." Close but not enough. He looks at them, past their fears, past their guarded hearts, and asks, "But who do you say that I am?"
Who do you say that Jesus is? I invite you to take a moment and silently answer our ever-questioning Lord. Hold your response in your heart, your soul, your mind.
O Patient One, I pray that we might have the strength to explore our answers together. Hold us as we continue on our way, knowing that You alone understand the fullness of Your glory. Amen.
Peter answered Jesus by confessing, "You are the Messiah." Strangely, Christ sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
He continues to teach how 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. Quite openly. Jesus reminds his disciples that he has come as the Son of all God’s people – God in human form, incarnate, Emmanuel – God among us. That humble life is then going to be stripped from him in a most violent and painful way: a rejection, a humiliation, a shaming that is so public and so inhumane we can scarcely imagine it. Jesus continues his story – a story that is unfathomable to the disciples and sometimes even to us today. After his bloody and unjust death, he will rise again from the dirges of the earth.
Peter does not like what Jesus has to say about himself. This is NOT the guy he signed up to follow. He was looking for a Messiah – someone who would come and overturn the tyranny of the day, someone who would wipe clean the religious slate and help reform the order from the top down. He wanted a king, not a criminal, not a rebel, not a rejected outlier. No, not now, not after he’s put all his energy into following this rabbi – Peter demands more glory, more power. Peter has the right title for Jesus but the wrong understanding. So Peter does what Peter always does – meddle. He walks right up to Jesus and says, "I’m gonna set you straight. When I said you were the ‘Messiah,’ I meant KING of all the earth. You are the greatest of great – you don’t have to die like a common criminal. Cut out all this suffering nonsense, man."
The youth here today – forgive me. I’m going to tell a story you’ve heard but I think you like it so – here we go again.
The setting is 1997. I’m 15, about to enter 9th grade and we’re on a mission trip in San Francisco. On our first day there, we head to the San Francisco Rescue Mission to serve lunch to the nearby homeless. This Mission is run by a Pentecostal congregation but we’re ecumenical folk and we want to serve so we pay little attention to this. It is all the same Jesus, after all.
After we receive our orientation, the head of the organization, Pastor Mark, breaks us into groups of youth and adults. He wants us to go on tours of the neighborhood since we’ll be there all week. We agree – this is reasonable and quite decent and in order.
I’m put in a group with Pastor Mark. We start our tour but quickly realize this is not a site-seeing trip. He shows us the deteriorating public housing units and drug dens full of sin and wayward lost souls. He barks about the supposed heathenism in the corporate buildings that tower above the littered streets. Pastor Mark tells us every gritty and inappropriate detail about the neighborhood people. But again, we’re good ecumenical folk so we try not to furrow our brows too much even though every half block we stop to lay our hands on the buildings and pray that the demons will come out.
After we’ve prayed for unknown and unseen people for 20 minutes, a woman and her four children walk by and Pastor Mark stops her. "Can we pray for you?" Hesitant but probably a Jesus-familiar woman, she says, "Ok." Pastor Mark circles us around her, her three older daughters definitely confused and the baby boy in the stroller unaware of what is about to happen. Pastor Mark starts to pray. He shouts for Christ’s mercy upon this poor, poor woman. He tells God that this woman must be suffering so much because she clearly cannot handle all this on her own. I start to sweat. Mrs. Harrod is standing to my left squeezing my hand so tight as to make sure at least one hand doesn’t go swatting at Pastor Mark’s mouth. He continues and says, "O Lord, we pray that this baby boy might raise up, raise up like Jesus and be the head of this poor sad household. That’s what Jesus would do – he’d be the man and care for these women who are so in need of leadership."
I’ve never shot my eyes up so fast in my life. As I open them, I see that every single one of my friends giving me the death stare as if to say, "Don’t you dare, Taylor, don’t you dare." I start to breath real shallow-like and am shaking like Mt. Vesuvius. Pastor Mark recognizes that I am filled with the Spirit and says, "Sister Taylor – take it away!" Bad move, Mark. Bad move. I start to pray to Jesus – that SAME Jesus that Pastor Mark called upon – that he would show this woman how he is already with her – that he is the One who has given her the strength to be a mother and a woman of courage. I prayed that Christ might bind within her the memory of her great lineage – one in which she is a sure and true member. That of Eve and Sarah and Hagar, of Rebecca and Leah and Rachel, of Miriam, of Deborah and Bathsheba, of Ruth and Naomi and Hannah, and of Mary and Elizabeth and Anna. THAT was my Jesus.
You can guess the rest of this story. When we got back to the Rescue Mission, Pastor Mark took our leader Katherine aside and told her I could not be in the group that interacted with anyone from the neighborhood. I didn’t care. I had claimed my Lord in the face of adversity. That was reward enough.
After Peter reminds Jesus of who he’s supposed to be, Jesus turns and looks at all his disciples while rebuking Peter quite openly, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t agree with the title "Messiah." Jesus knew what Peter meant by "Messiah" and it wasn’t an accurate description. Jesus – both as the Messiah and as the Son of Man – is the only one who has the authority to claim his title, whatever it may be. Jesus rebukes Peter after Peter tries to push his own agenda and reshape a boundless God.
Jesus’ rebuking of Peter is an alert: we are not the ones who get to name, claim, and appropriate Christ. We are inheritors, not benefactors.
In Christ’s rebuking, he tells Peter to stop setting his mind on "human things" – on his own desires and hopes and selfish expectations. I wonder if we – if I – do the same today. How often do we cobble together half-accurate proofs? Or make silly claims based on hearsay? Or really, just say, "Sure, Jesus is my Savior" without knowing what that means to us, means to Christ?
When I stood in that circle in San Francisco, I felt full of ownership, of entitlement. Someone had taken my Lord’s name in vain and deserved rebuking. But, I deserved rebuking, too, to first assert myself to speak for another whom I did not know and then to claim a very narrow view of Christ. In a world where the news, politicians, academics, and even the bumper sticker on the car in front of you makes a definite claim about God, how are we to set our minds on what Christ calls "divine things"? How are we to follow Jesus when there are so many entangled ways we could go?
Might I suggest we do exactly what Christ tells Peter, tells us to do? Set our mind, our heart, our soul, our strength on divine things: turn our focus to the holy, to God-Christ-Spirit. Pay attention to the divine moving in your life. Seek God in the chaos.
If this too abstract for you – that’s ok. It is quite often for me, too. I’m prone lead with my head not my heart. I want to plan out what it would mean to set my mind on divine things. I want an outline. I want a list of goals and expectations. I also want to know what "divine" actually means. I want to well – make it mine and therefore, a human thing.
So, might I also suggest three practices to help us on our way with Jesus? It is human, I confess, but I think – I feel – it might be a welcomed boost.
The first is to practice reverence – to acknowledge that we are human and not divine. That the One who is divine is boundless. That in Christ, a great mystery was born, crucified, and risen. There is much to learn and much to discover in your relationship with the Son of God. There are still ways you can stretch your imagination of who Jesus is in your life. It begins by practicing reverence for a God who willingly, lovingly is awaiting your search.
The second is to practice articulation – to say and say again and again and again who Christ is to you. To answer his question, "But who do you say that I am?" If you answer this once, it is not enough. Yours is an answer that takes time to cultivate and Christ knows that. When you say, "I believe in Jesus" – parse that out. What does "believe" mean to you? What does it look like? How does it impact your family, your community, your decisions? What does the name "Jesus" mean to you? How does Jesus shape your life – or does he? How does Jesus touch your heart? This cultivation is meant to take place in conversation. Note: it is fine and well to work this out in your own heart and head, but it will grow deeper roots if you speak it in front of and to and with others. Let the articulations of your community, of strangers, of your spouse, of your children be the oxygen your faith needs.
The third is to practice humility – to know that when you misname or take the Lord’s name in human vain – Christ is going to rebuke you and you are called to accept it. The lesson we can cull from Peter’s story is that Christ calls the broken and inarticulate humans to be in conversation with him so that he can help them on their way. When Jesus rebukes Peter, he doesn’t run away but instead tries again – and again – and he fails – but he tries again. Humbly, he knows bit by bit that he can start to unearth who Christ really is and how to articulate it to the rest of the world.
I leave you with a quote from a once felon to acclaimed activist, Carl Upchurch. Upchurch was "in solitary confinement…when he found a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets wedged under the short leg of a table." He wrote, "I won’t pretend that Shakespeare and I immediately connected…I must have read those dang sonnets twenty times before they started to make sense. Even then, comprehension came slowly – first a word, then a phrase, and finally a whole poem. Those sonnets began to take hold of me, transported me out of the gray world into a world I had never, ever imagined."1
Christ is asking you, "But who do you say that I am?" Might you – might I – might we – answer him every day, ever slowly, ever faithfully. Amen.
1. Payne, Ruby K., Philip E. DeVol, and Terie Dreussi. Smith. Introduction. Bridges out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities. Highlands, TX: Aha! Process, 2009. 78.