I am on my post-ordination vacation. I am staying with my family in the Upper Midwest of the United States.
One of the pleasures of this journey is the privilege of preaching from time to time at my parents’ parish, Sacred Heart. It was founded by Croatians: refugees from Communist Yugoslavia who arrived here in the early 1950s. The church is actually made from a Quonset hut.
These folks weren’t rich then, and they aren’t fancy now. But it’s a good parish and a beautiful community.
Last Sunday, when we read the Gospel of Luke (9:18-24) just as you did in Poland (Who do the people say that I am?), this is what I told them:
Today, Jesus asks a question. Maybe, the key question. He asks: Who am I? Who do people say that I am? The disciples report the common consensus: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets, but then Peter says: You are the Christ.
You are the Christ. So what?
We hear and use this word Christ so much that have forgotten what it means.
What would a first-century Jew have meant by this title, Christ?
Peter would have said, in Hebrew-Aramaic,“you are the Moshiach.” That word means the anointed one: מִשְׁחָה means ointment.
And that’s where we get the word Messiah.
Well in Greek, χρίω means “anoint” and so Messiah in Greek is Χριστός, and that’s where we get the word Christ.
So, who is the Moshiach, Christ?
Well for centuries people waited for a deliverer in the line of King David. Someone who would deliver Israel from its enemies, who would unite the tribes; who would make Israel a light unto the nations. That was the Messiah’s job.
When Samuel anointed David and the spirit rushed upon him (1 Sam 16:13), that was the moment when David became a messiah, an anointed one.
And David, like Saul before him, was a warrior. He spent his reign battling for Israel and “slaughtering his tens of thousands,” as Samuel says (1 Sam 18:7).
And in the prophets and psalms we hear the longing of the community of Israel for a new David, the perfect David, the warrior king who would liberate his people and bring about the reign of God.
Listen to Psalm 132:
There will I make the horn of David to bud: I have ordained a lamp for my anointed.
His enemies will I clothe with shame: but upon himself shall his crown flourish.
This king was the Messiah; this was the Christ.
However, in the middle of the Hebrew Bible there is a strange description of the Messiah. It’s a minority opinion. It is an exception to the usual.
We can find it in the 50th through the 53rd chapters of the book of Isaiah, which is probably the work of an anonymous author writing during the Babylonian Exile, 600 years before Jesus.
And some of this description is relevant today. Isaiah speaks in the words of the Messiah, and he says: “I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to those who plucked out the hair. My face I did not shield from shame and spitting.”
This does not sound like the Messiah. This does not seem like a warrior and it hardly seems like King David.
And then we hear Isaiah go on, in chapter 53, “he was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief.”
Despised, rejected, suffering?
None of this sounds like the Moshiach, the king. And this version of the Messiah gets no respect in the eyes of men — not then and not now.
So the prophet says: “we did esteem him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”
But now, we turn the whole thing upside down. Reading all of this from the Christian perspective, we are getting close to what Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Swiss theologian, called theo-logic: God’s way of thinking, God’s way of running the show: Theo-logic.
In God’s logic, things are not always as they appear. Our world is reversed, transformed, in-verted and con-verted. Radically.
The Messiah is a warrior, yes, but he will fight by becoming a lamb of sacrifice.
This description is bizarre, and we can hear how shocking it was in Peter’s response to Jesus.
Peter says, “I think you’re the Christ.” Well, there are lots of people who think someone else is the messiah, or that there is no messiah, or that the messiah isn’t even a person but some kind of metaphor for healing or a sort of happy state. But Peter, in just a few words, gives our definition of the messiah.
Peter says what we believe: Jesus is the Messiah.
But Jesus clarifies what this means. “The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed.”
Well, that was too much.
Peter, who just professed Christ, rebukes him.
Today we heard Luke’s Gospel, chapter 9. But Mark tells the same story in his Gospel, chapter 8. Mark is less discreet than Luke. And in Mark’s version, there’s a fight. Peter corrects Jesus. You know this isn’t going to end well…
Peter says, “Yes, you’re the Moshiach.” That means powerful. Victorious, that’s what it means.
To suffer would be a sign that you are not the Messiah.
But (in Mark) Jesus rebukes Peter right back.
Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan! You are thinking not as God does but as human beings do.”
And these are some of the most disturbing lines in the whole Gospel. Nothing stranger in the Gospel than those words: “Get behind me Satan”
And notice what the Lord is saying: “You are thinking not as God does but as men do.” You are thinking according to human logic. But God has a plan and God has a logic that is beyond you.
Where else to we hear these words “Get behind me Satan?” In an earlier chapter of this same Gospel, in chapter 4 of Luke, where Christ is being tempted in the desert by Satan himself.
Satan, in the last of the temptations, takes Jesus to a high mountain, where he sees all the kingdoms of the world. He shows him all the riches. And he says, “I will give you all this if you fall down and worship me.” The king of hell wants to control the Son of God.
And Jesus says: Away from me! Get behind!
John Milton, one of the great English poets, expressed in verse what Jesus could have said to the Devil.
In Paradise Regained, in his old fashioned language, Milton describes Satan displaying all these riches to Jesus; he imagines Jesus’s reaction:
…the Son of God unmov’d reply’d.
Nor doth this grandeur and majestic show
Of luxury, though call’d magnificence,
… allure mine eye,
Much less my mind; …
…when my season comes to sit
On David’s Throne, it shall be like a tree
Spreading and over-shadowing all the Earth,
Or as a stone that shall to pieces dash
All Monarchies besides throughout the world,
And of my Kingdom there shall be no end….
(John Milton, Paradise Regained, 1671)
Jesus’s kingdom will overshadow and smash any kingdoms of this world. His kingdom is totally different than the rest. And Jesus couldn’t care less for power or riches. He says, “Get behind!”
We need to say that, too.
When we see something, when we sense something, that is contrary to Christ, we tell it to get behind.
Lust for power, lust for revenge? Get behind.
Lust for riches? Get behind.
Just plain old lust? Get behind.
We want the Messiah, we want the Christ, and we won’t buy cheap substitutes.
We say: Jesus is the Christ. And he is. On his own terms, by his own rules, not yours and not mine.
What’s the difference? The human way of thinking says violence should answer violence, evil should be confronted by revenge. That is human thinking.
What the Messiah shows is a different way of responding to our enemies. Does He fight the battle? Yes. Does he stare down the enemies of Israel? Yes. But how? By absorbing their hatred in love. Forgiveness. Compassion. And thereby transforming it.
Naked and nailed to a cross he can say, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
Christ takes on the violence of sin. He absorbs it and he transforms it. That is how the Messiah fights.
Do we have enemies in this world? Oh yes. Will we fight them? Yes. But we need to fight with Jesus.
You are my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.
My soul clings fast to you;
your right hand upholds me. (Ps 63)
Our enemies are hateful but we cannot hate them away. We can’t hate, we have to love our way to victory. Following the example of the Messiah, our King, we take up our cross, we walk in his footsteps. We become a means for holiness and wholeness to enter the world. We are lights that light up this land.
That’s what it means to follow Jesus, the Christ.
The Messiah surprises; Christ confounds us. God never does what we expect, but whatever He does is right. You may remember the old hymn that looks to the end of time, it looks to the triumph of the Messiah at the end of the world. Because then the Messiah will come, and all will know him.
And it says:
Once for favored sinners slain …
Alleluia, God appears on earth to reign.
(In other words, Surprise! It’s the Messiah.)
The hymn says that the marks of Christ’s suffering on his body, as he appears, make him more powerful and more beautiful:
Those dear tokens of passion
Still his dazzling body bears
Cause of endless exaltation to his ransomed worshippers
With what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars.
And his power is strange. And it shocks the world. The hymn says:
Every eye shall now behold him, robed in dreadful majesty.
Those who set at naught and sold him, pierced and nailed him to a tree (that’s us!)
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing
Shall the true Messiah see. (John Wesley, 18th c.)
It may shake us, but we will see him.
And in seeing him we will want to be like him, because to know him is to love him, as Saint Catherine of Siena says.
And we don’t have to wait for the end of the world.
We don’t have Jesus only in hymns and poetry.
In a minute, that same Jesus, that same sacred and scarred body of Christ — the body of Christ — is coming to us in touchable, taste-able form right here at this altar.
It’s so like Jesus to come to us in this humble way in this humble church.
And it’s so surprising and scandalizing to us that we want to be like Peter and tell him he can’t come. Not like this. Not as bread. Not in this quiet way.
But now we know what Jesus thinks of that line of argument!
He is coming, ineluctably, inevitably, with more love that we can bear and more power than we can stomach. He is coming, like it or not.
And all we can do is say yes, let it be: the host is held up in front of us. The Messiah is announced – he is announced by name – this is Jesus; this is the Christ.
“The body of Christ.”
And all we can say is:
So it is.
Truly, verily this is Christ.
Not by accident, we respond using a Hebrew word: The priest says to us, the body of Christ, and we respond, yes, let it be: