I count it a particular joy to be with you at Trinity this morning and through this “interim” time as you seek the Holy Spirit’s leading towards a new rector. My experience of Trinity goes way back to 1974, when my wife Karen and I were visiting relatives in Nova Scotia and we came and attended the evening service in the former building on Cogswell Street. Some time after that, as many of you are probably aware, I served as rector of St Paul’s Church, just blocks away, for eighteen years, up until 2004. During that time it was my privilege to meet and work alongside a number of folk at Trinity, particularly in support of the Inner City Youth Club. Then, eleven years ago, I was asked to lead a congregation in Saint Paul, Minnesota; and now, after forty-one years of ordained ministry, we have returned to Nova Scotia to be amongst family and the many friends we made here during our previous time.
There are already a number of familiar faces here in the congregation and I hope to get to know all of you better (and you me) as we seek to minister together in Jesus’ name in this still new location with all its many exciting opportunities and possibilities. And as we worship and work and pray together, my chief prayer and desire is that we should also get to know Jesus better, in the words of St Richard, “to know him more clearly, to love him more dearly, and to follow him more nearly, day by day.”
There could hardly have been a better Scripture passage to set us on that journey than the one that was read from St Mark’s Gospel this morning. Jesus and his disciples had been together now for nearly three years. Some of them had looked on when he was baptized in the River Jordan. They had seen the Holy Spirit come down upon him like a dove; they had heard the Father’s voice proclaiming, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Others had been on the lakeside when they had responded to his irresistible call, “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” They had watched amazed as he demonstrated his power over evil spirits, cleansed lepers, enabled paralyzed people to walk, walked on water, stilled a storm at sea, fed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and fish, and even raised the dead to life.
Who do people say I am?
Now, as they walked along the road Jesus stopped for a moment and turned to them and asked, “What are people saying about me? Who do they say I am?” I don’t think Jesus was asking the question to gauge his popularity level. It was not like what is happening all around us right now as we prepare for federal elections. Each day it seems that the pollsters and public opinion experts are coming out with new figures. (I understand that since the election was called last month there have been at least twenty-five national polls.) No, Jesus was not running for office. Nor was he attempting to measure his ratings in the arena of public opinion.
No, I believe that Jesus was more concerned to discover how much of what he had done and taught had really penetrated, to see if there might be some who had managed to “get it”. And of course the answers he received were many. “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
Now John the Baptist had had a huge influence that was still being felt. People had come from far and wide to hear his fiery preaching. I love the way Eugene Peterson translates it in his version in The Message:
Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin… What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire. (Luke 3:7-9)
Then there were those who thought of Jesus as Elijah. Elijah, as many of you will recall, had been one of the greatest and most powerful Old Testament prophets. Added to that, in the years preceding Jesus’ ministry there had grown up a belief that immediately before the end times Elijah would appear again. So could it be that Jesus had come to bring in God’s kingdom?
In many ways things haven’t changed very much, have they? There are all kinds of opinions about Jesus floating around in the world today. In recent times Jesus has been depicted among other things as a clown, as the lover of Mary Magdalene and as the founder of a hallucinogenic mushroom cult. Even within the church there are those who cast doubt on his being God, on the truth of his resurrection, and on the saving power of his death on the cross.
Yet wide of the mark as many of those ideas may be, it is testimony to the fact that, nearly two thousand years after he first asked that question of his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” Jesus remains a source of fascination around the world. He has appeared on the cover of Time magazine more than any other figure. Even as I speak there are thousands of Muslims who are putting their faith in Isa, as they call him in Arabic. Recently news has been coming from Berlin of a church that has suddenly grown from 150 attendees to 600 through Iranian Muslim refugees who have put their faith in Christ.
Who do you say I am?
We live in exciting times, when as much as at any previous point in history and perhaps more, there is a huge interest in Jesus. Yet for each of us there is a more important issue—and it has to do with the second question that Jesus put before his followers. Not, “Who do others say I am?” but, “Who do you say I am?”
At this point I can imagine an embarrassing silence coming over the disciples. Can’t you see them looking back and forth at one another with blank faces? Who is this amazing man who heals the sick, stills storms and raises the dead? And equally importantly, who is he for me? These are questions not only for those disciples of long past, but also for each of us today. Who is Jesus?
In the end it was Peter who broke the silence. (It was always Peter who spoke first among Jesus’ followers.) “You are the Messiah,” he blurted out. I suspect that he didn’t even know where the words came from. Yet suddenly there they were on his lips. It’s not that he didn’t believe them. I believe that they arose from a conviction that all along had been growing within his heart. And now, for the first time, almost by surprise, like a baby chick hatching from its shell, out it came. “You are the Messiah.”
Now messiah, or mashiach, is a Hebrew word. It means “anointed”. And when you capitalize the “m”, it takes on a special meaning: the Anointed One. In Old Testament days pouring oil on a person’s head was a way of setting them apart, designating them for a particular function in the community. Among the people of ancient Israel there were three categories of people who received this special anointing. First there were the priests. As far back as the day when the Tabernacle was first consecrated for worship, God commanded Moses to take anointing oil and to pour it on the heads of Aaron and his sons, thus ordaining them as priests (Exodus 28:41; 29:7-9). And the practice continued across the years right through the Old Testament.
The second kind of person to be anointed was the king. When Saul, the first of Israel’s kings, was appointed, it was Samuel who “took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, ‘Has not the Lord anointed you ruler over his inheritance?’ ” (1 Samuel 10:1). And the same occurred in later generations for David and Solomon and those who followed them on the throne of Israel. And thirdly there were the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos and the rest, anointed to proclaim God’s word with faith and boldness.
Now put all three of these roles together—a priest to intercede, a king to rule and a prophet to proclaim—and what you have is not an anointed one, but the Anointed One, the Messiah. For centuries now the people of Israel had yearned and prayed and wept for the coming of this great figure. Now in Jesus he had come.
Who I say I am
Or had he? The problem was that over the centuries all kinds of legendary and mythology had become attached to the figure of the Messiah, specifically the notion that he would be a great military conqueror who would restore Israel to the greatness it had once known in the golden age of David and Solomon. All of this brings us to a third question, one that we don’t hear explicitly asked in this passage, but the one that is perhaps the most important of all: not, “Who do people say I am?” or, “Who do you say I am?” but, who does Jesus say he is? And the answer was one that Peter found unbelievable. Indeed it shook him to the core.
No sooner had those words come from Peter’s lips, “You are the Messiah,” what did Jesus immediately begin to do? He began to talk about suffering, about rejection, about being killed and rising again. I can only imagine than for Peter and those who were with him, this was the farthest thing from their notion of the Messiah. They were anticipating a great confrontation of power, a final conflict where the Romans and their puppet rulers in Jerusalem were finally put down.
However, Jesus had a greater foe in mind, compared with which Caesar and his legions were less than an ant or a butterfly. Jesus’ target was what the Bible identifies as “the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12) and not least the sin that reaches into the very core of the human soul. The conflict in which Jesus was preparing to engage was not temporal but cosmic.
It was the Father himself who had revealed to Peter that the man standing before him was the Messiah. But what he could not possibly have understood at that point or brought himself to accept was that the Messiah’s path to victory would be through his own suffering and death. And Peter was not alone in that. For the world around us the cross of Jesus will always remain an impenetrable mystery, a stumbling block, an offense.
Yet we believe that it was on the cross Jesus revealed himself as the priest who offered not a bull or a calf or a turtledove but his very self (in the words of our Prayer Book) as the one “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”. We believe that it was on the cross Jesus began his reign as the king who has conquered not through “winning” but through the power of his own self-giving love. We believe that on the cross Jesus was the prophet who in his very self is the final and perfect expression of the height and length and breadth and depth of God’s unsurpassable love for you and for me.
“Who do people say I am?” “Who do you say I am?” “The Son of Man must suffer many things…”