I do enjoy words. The right words, said in the right way, at the right time can change the world. From the right person telling you they love you to Winston Churchill telling the British people to “Never Surrender”, words have the power to inspire. You don’t need me to tell you that words also have the ability to harm, hurt, or destroy. In an age of instant communication, where words can be shared at the speed of thought, so can anger and rage. The wrong words, said in the wrong way, at the wrong time can also change the world. It’s too easy to say things to a keyboard we would never utter to another person’s face. You can’t hear or see someone’s state of mind, context, their emotions, or feelings when we hide behind computer screens. We only see their words. We see, and then interpret, what they say. What they meant becomes interwoven with “what we think they meant”.
Jesus wants to remove the filters separating himself from the crowds. No screen names, no applications, no devices, and no phones; Jesus wants to know from the people, “Who do they think he is?” He wants to know what people really think about what he’s up to. It’s customary in this era for a person like Jesus to be compared to other prophets from Israel’s glorious past. Those comparisons between then and now will tell us much about how they people of today understand who Jesus is and what they hope he will accomplish. They believe the past will inform the present. There is continuity in Israel’s prophetic life. To whom are they comparing Jesus?
The disciples tell him outright. The people we encounter are comparing you (Jesus) to an array of people. Some think you are the recently deceased John the Baptizer. Others see you as Elijah (from the distant past), while others view you as “one of the prophets”. Public consensus seems to be that Jesus is a dead man, newly returned to life. Jesus is not dead. This is an important fact, especially for one of the points Jesus will make in a few moments. However, there seems to be swathe of public opinion that he is already a resurrected dead person; perhaps (i.e. Elijah) one who’s been dead for 800 years. John was a trailblazer, a man on fire for God. Elijah was one of the greatest prophets in the history of Israel. You would think to be compared to either of these men would be a great honor. In one way, these people are saying Jesus’ work is firmly in line with everything we know about the greatest men who stood up for God in Israel’s most challenging times.
However, there is a more subtle message at work. It is as if they’re saying, “Jesus is no more or no less than the best thing God’s ever done up to this point.” When asked who Jesus is, they are saying, Jesus is God’s recycled trophy because that’s as far as we can picture God going, that far and no further. Don’t you think that sells God short? Are we guilty of the same short sighted prophetic blindness? Talking about all the great things God has done in the past then asking, “This is where it ends?” Uttering, “What we have received is all that God can ever be.” That is the reasoning behind the answer which says Jesus is Elijah, John the Baptist, or another prophet. This answer says Jesus provides no new words to talk about God.
If that’s what the others believe, what do you believe? Jesus turns and says, “Tell me your words about me?” Who do you say I am? What do your words and experiences reveal to you? Peter seems to get it uncharacteristically right. You’re pretty cool Jesus. There’s no one quite like you. You’re not like the ones who came before. You’re a stand alone, unique figure in human history. Peter makes each of these statements by using only one word. One word says it all. One powerful all encompassing word: Christ.
But there’s something about that word Jesus doesn’t like. He gets the word, Jesus understands it, but he doesn’t want his disciples throwing the word around too loosely. It is as if, from what Jesus says, they may not fully understand the full implications of following one who is called the Christ. Being a Christ follower is serious business and comes with serious implications. It’s one thing if some people up in the backwoods of Galilee think you’re Elijah. After a bit of moonshine, they think any boat carrying more than two dogs is Noah’s ark.
Peter takes Jesus aside and says, “don’t get so worked up, this is just a week to week fantasy discipleship league.” The chief priests, scribes, and elders don’t care about our words. We’ll cash out and do it all again next week. These are Peter’s words.
Jesus responds so strongly because Peter doesn’t get the level of commitment Jesus is preparing to make and Peter will eventually be asked to offer. Peter earlier words are meaningless. He has no idea who Jesus is.
Jesus wants no ambiguity about what it means to be a Christ follower. That’s why, in these moments of exasperation, you’ll see him gather both disciples anyone else in earshot to listen. What follows are not secret teachings, Bible codes, hidden parables but the essence of the Gospel as the early church intended it to be heard. Jesus calls the “crowd together” and says, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
The first step in becoming a Christ follower begins with saying a word of self-denial. A single word leads to a multitude of “should I, must I, is this, and may I” questions each and every day. A life of self-denial isn’t Lent on steroids. Do my words, choices, actions, habits, purchases, deny the living reality of a compassionate savior? If so, I need to modify those things, I need to deny what I’m doing because it’s ultimately denying the true identity of Christ.
Take up your cross. Like Jesus, we actively choose our destiny. No one puts us on a cross without our permission. We have a choice whether or not to follow Jesus. We aren’t passive victims in some cosmic conspiracy.
Go where Jesus goes and do what he does. When he’s teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum or feeding 5000 people, these seem like easy things to do. Following Jesus down a path of suffering and self-denial are less attractive options. These ugly options are the Good News. Dying and Suffering is what Jesus offers. Everything else is on Faith. That’s the deal.
All roads lead back to suffering and self denial. It’s not the path we’d prefer but it’s the one that’s been made ready. As we stare down this road, like Peter, we cannot imagine a crucified Messiah, a dead savior, and our part we might play in any grand plan. So we stop. We urge him to go no further. We stand in place. We cannot move. Now imagine a different story, a different, even daily ending. Where we moved down that road, to the cross each day and the suffering of those we encounter on the way to the cross is lessened, each day. In our suffering, others find relief. From self-denial others know abundance. From death, life emerges. All this happens on the way to death on the cross. Sisters and Brothers, welcome home to the warm embrace of the counter intuitive Good News of Jesus the Christ.