First thing, we’ve got to go back to last week’s gospel lesson. Last week, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And the disciples answer, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets, maybe John the Baptist come back from the dead. And then Jesus ask them this question, “But who do YOU say that I am?” And this is when Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The question I want to ask before we tackle today’s gospel, is why Peter’s answer was remarkable.
Now first of all, we don’t know exactly why. (Jesus doesn’t explain his reaction to Peter’s confession.) But we can certainly look at the context and try to figure it out. For example, earlier in Matthew, when Jesus walked across the water, the disciples worshiped him, calling him the Son of God. Why is Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” more remarkable than that? The only difference seems to be that instead of just calling him the Son of God, he also calls him the Messiah. What’s a Messiah? And would it be more important than saying that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the key, I think. What is a Messiah?
The Jewish people of Jesus’ time were well aware of how far their civilization had fallen. Once upon a time they had been big shots. They had had their own country and they had even controlled countries around them. They had been powerful and rich. This was the time of King David and King Solomon. Those were the glory years. But ever since, things had been getting worse. First, the kingdom had been split into two parts, the North and the South. Then they started fighting. Then they lost control over the countries around them. Then other empires starting knocking on their doors, demanding tribute. Then the Assyrian Empire conquered the north and dragged the people away in slavery. Then the Babylonian Empire conquered the south and dragged the people away in slavery and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple to boot.
Since that time, things had gotten better for a bit, when the Persians had allowed the Jews to go home and to rebuild Jerusalem (which you can read about in the Old Testament books Ezra and Nehemiah), but then things had gotten worse when Alexander the Great had come through and conquered them again. Then, for a little while, they had broken free from the Greeks, but before long the Romans had shown up.
For the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, history had been very unkind, filled with disaster after disaster. The current situation didn’t look good. The Romans were the most powerful empire yet and freedom seemed unlikely.
And this is where we get to the idea of a Messiah. The Jewish people of Jesus’ time were looking for a messiah, a savior, to save them. This messiah would be a king like David was a king, powerful and glorious. In fact, this messiah would be a Son of David, a descendant of King David. This is a promise that had been given to David after he had become king. (You can find this promise in the OT book 2 Samuel, chapter 7.) The people longed for the glory days of King David and were looking for the Messiah who would bring them back.
There were also some other ideas of what the Messiah would be like, but these ideas were similar. They all involved the idea that the Messiah would be powerful and that the Messiah would save his people by forceful action. These were the expectations of Jesus’ time. This is what people were waiting for.
So back to Peter’s confession. What he said was different than what the disciples had said before. He had called Jesus the Messiah. And here we need to make an important distinction between the titles, Son of God and Messiah.
The title, Messiah, is all about action. When people think, “Messiah” they are thinking about what he will do. The Messiah will liberate his people
The title, Son of God, seems like a glorious title, and it is. But we need to recognize something about it. It describes a relationship. It describes a relationship between Jesus and God the Father. It glorifies Jesus. It’s great. But it is missing something. The expectation of action. When people think, “Son of God” they are thinking about this relationship, not about what he will do. This is an important distinction.
So what Peter has done is put his finger on something that is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry on earth. Jesus is the Messiah and that means Jesus is here to DO something.
Now we move to today’s gospel lesson. In the wake of Peter’s confession, Jesus begins to teach the disciples what it is that he, the MESSIAH, is here to do. Peter and the disciples expect to hear something like this, “I must go to Jerusalem to claim my throne. I will take power from the tyrants and become your good and gracious king. I will drive the Romans out. I will overthrow the corrupt. I will re-establish true worship of God. I will establish Justice and Peace.” This is what Peter and the disciples are expecting from the Messiah. This is the definition of what the Messiah will do. This is the good news that they long to hear. This, after all, is what we hear at Christmas time when the lesson from Isaiah is read,
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it from this time forth and forevermore.” (Isaiah 9)
This is what the Messiah is going to do. He is going to establish his kingdom on this earth by establishing his power and authority, by taking control of the government, by becoming our king. That is how God will change things for the better.
Instead, Jesus says, “[I must] undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Jesus, apparently, does not know his own job description. It is not in the job description for the Messiah to suffer and die. That is nonsense. Worse, it is blasphemy.
Peter knows this very well. He knows that Jesus is getting it all wrong and so he takes him aside to set him straight, “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” ‘Stop being so negative Jesus. You are God’s messiah and therefore bad things will not happen to you. God has a wonderful plan for your life. You will go and become king and you will establish peace and justice and true worship of God. These are good things. These are the things that God wants. Scripture testifies that these are the things that God wants. So don’t talk about suffering and dying. That is ridiculous.’
Peter has listened to what Jesus the Messiah has taught and knows in his heart that Jesus is wrong. Jesus is mistaken. Jesus must not suffer and die because that isn’t what the Messiah does. The Messiah comes and saves his people by becoming king. That’s the way it works. Except, that it isn’t.
“Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to Peter, “You are a stumbling block to me.”
Peter has understood that Jesus is the Messiah and he has understood that Jesus has come for action, to do something. He has even understood that Jesus the Messiah has come to liberate his people. But he has completely misunderstood how God has decided to accomplish this.
God has not sent his son, Jesus the Messiah, to take power, but to be crushed by it. This is what the Messiah will do, he will go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Yes, the Messiah is all about action. But the action is so very different than they expected.
And it only gets worse. “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......”
The whole point of waiting expectantly for the Messiah, was the hope of deliverance, the hope of freedom and justice right now, the hope that things would be set right, now. And in the place of this hope, Jesus is offering suffering, denial and death.
“God forbid it, Lord!” We had been hoping that you would come to make our lives better, and instead you are offering to make them worse! “God forbid it.”
Is this really how it works? Yes. In Jesus Christ, God made a decision to act for us.
God acts. Make no mistake about it. But his action will not be what the old sinner desires. The old sinner desires improvement. Peter wanted Jesus to go to Jerusalem and make things better. We desire for God to make us better, to sand off some rough edges, perhaps add some paint. The old sinner desires improvement. Make this world better, Lord!
But that isn’t why Jesus came. He didn’t come to improve us. He didn’t come to improve the world. He came to die. Peter didn’t understand this and we can see how Jesus set him straight. God isn’t working to make you a better person. That isn’t the point.
No, like Jesus, we have to die. That is the meaning of the cross. The cross that we pick up is not something that we are to carry around patiently as if that were the Christian life. Jesus didn’t carry the cross around. He carried it to the place where he was nailed to it and then he died on it. And so it is with us. Our cross is not a burden, but an instrument of our death, the death of the old sinner. We die in baptism and we die daily in repentance. We die to our own way of thinking. We die to our pretensions. We die to our dignity. We die to our own self-esteem. It is necessary that, like Christ, we die. For Jesus did not come so that we might improve a little.
Jesus came so that we could die with him...... And then BE RAISED with him. He came not so that we could be made better, but new. He came not so that we could have self-esteem, but so that we could have the dignity and purpose that comes from being a child of God. He came not to become the ruler of an earthly kingdom, but to establish his kingdom in the hearts of men, women and children who have faith in him.
You might say that Jesus rebuked Peter so sharply because he was thinking too small. Peter wanted a little improvement. Jesus came to make him a new creation. And so he comes for you. But know this; it will take a little dying.