When my grandfather died, my extended family gathered in a funeral home for the visitation. We gathered as a family to pray before friends entered to offer their condolences. My grandfather’s priest led us in prayer. He started the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father…” I didn’t know the prayer. I knew a few words here and there. It seemed my whole extended family knew the prayer except my immediate family. I muddled through getting a few words right. I said “Amen” at the right time and made the sign of the cross. I’m not sure if you sign right to left or left to right. Not sure what I did, but I did something that looked like a cross. I had done something to participate in the faith of my family.
On the way home, my mother asked me if I knew what I had done. I hadn’t given much thought to what I had done by saying the Lord’s Prayer. Someone had taught me to pray. My mom often offered clichés and platitudes about God in response to the trials of life. But, I didn’t really know who God was or how He worked or what the words of the Lord’s Prayer meant. I just knew that on that night, gathered with my family, to remember my grandfather whose faith was very important to him, I wanted to say the Lord’s Prayer with my family.
The next day at the church a mass was said in memory of my grandfather. A mass is a service in which communion is consecrated and served. During the priest’s homily, I remembered thinking I knew nothing of my grandfather’s faith, but this man knew a great deal about my grandfather’s faith journey. Then, communion was served. Again, this was something my extended family participated in, except my father, mother, brother and I. I saw all my aunts, uncles, and cousins go forward to receive communion, but I was left out.
There was something of great importance in my family that I was excluded from. I didn’t know what it was or what it meant. I just knew that I wanted to be included. There was a secret society that I seemed to be locked out of. I wanted to blame this exclusion on my parents for not raising me like my cousins were raised in the church.
That night, I didn’t know what the words of the prayer meant, “Our Father…Amen.” + But, by my actions, I made the first proclamation of my faith. I made the effort to participate in the faith tradition and began a quest for answers about who God was and what He did. It would be 3 or 4 years before I stood in front of a congregation and publicly confessed my faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. But, just trying to say the Lord’s Prayer that night in the funeral home was the first step of this journey.
We all have eventually made a confession of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. We each started on a path of faith that led to that confession and we continue on that journey with various milestones along the way. We all stopped at the mile marker and were asked, “Who do you believe Jesus is?” “Do you believe Jesus is the Christ?”
Our text today is Jesus stopping the Disciples at that mile marker as they traveled and asked, “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” The Disciples have been traveling with Jesus across the countryside and back and forth across the sea listening as he taught and witnessing His miracles. It was time for the Disciples to talk about who they thought Jesus was and what people have been saying about who He is.
People have been saying about Jesus the same things they had said about John the Baptist. He is Elijah or one of the great prophets of Judaism. Jesus said, “Yes, but who do YOU say that I am?” As the Disciples spokesman, Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” Any confession of human words is inadequate to define who Jesus is, His mission, His power, His divinity, His humanity, or His authority.
The term Messiah was full of connotations and expectations at the time. The long-awaited Messiah was believed to be one who would overthrow Roman rule and re-establish the Davidic kingdom of Israel. That is, many Jews believed that Israel would once again be a nation and there would be a king like the beloved King David to sit on the throne ruling over a sovereign nation under the authority of God. This could only be done by the supernatural power of God and military might. It would take great force to drive out Rome. Many Jews believed that was possible and maybe even probable.
However, this Jesus didn’t fit the Messianic mold. He wasn’t rallying troops and amassing an army. He didn’t seem to be challenging the Roman emperor. What He was doing was healing people and driving out demons. The coming kingdom He was talking about didn’t seem like a mighty nation. He didn’t seem like one who could be a great king. All He was doing was causing synagogue and Temple leaders a lot of grief.
When Jesus hears Peter’s confession that He is the Messiah, Jesus’ response is to tell the Disciples to tell no one. Jesus knows that when people hear that He is the Messiah they will place a whole heap of expectations upon Him that He can’t live up to because He is not that kind of Messiah. He is not the one they are expecting. The Disciples don’t yet understand what it means to call Him the Messiah, because they don’t know what kind of Messiah He is. They don’t understand that He will not fulfill their Messianic hope of a military leader and king. They don’t understand that He comes to save, He has been anointed by God, to be a Savior through self-giving love and sacrifice. Who Jesus is cannot be understood apart from the cross and they have not traveled the distance yet. They haven’t witnessed self-sacrifice and the grave-defeating power of the resurrection. Only then can they begin to truly confess that Jesus is the Messiah.
Jesus goes on to try to explain to the Disciples what it means for Him to fulfill His Messianic mission and what lies ahead for Him. Jesus tells the Disciples, “I must suffer and be rejected. I will be killed, but I will be raised.” Peter didn’t want to hear any of it. He pulls Jesus aside and says, “Why are you saying all these things will happen? Stop it.” Peter is anxious that Jesus’ words may be true and, in order for them to be true, Peter has to lay aside his expectations of Jesus.
Isn’t it difficult to set aside what we expect to happen, what we want to happen, and accept that what will happen will be better than we can imagine? It is really hard to say in our prayers, “I’m not going to be anxious about how things turned out or how things will turn out, because God has always given me more than I need and better than I wanted.”
I look around this room and I see that your lives are different than you thought they would have been 10, 20 or 30 years ago. You may have a different spouse or partner. Your dreams didn’t materialize as you thought they would. You have different jobs than you trained for. Retirement is not what you expected. But, all that’s good. I think most of you are happier than you could have expected.
We can understand Peter’s anxiety about Jesus’ proclamation that things won’t go as Peter hopes. We all have worries about what lays ahead of us. We all have dreams that we hope will come. We all have plans for our lives and are trying to plot out what we need to do to get there.
I think many of us live in the future with all our worries about tomorrow. Jesus said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow…Who of you worrying can add a single hour to your life?…Let tomorrow worry about itself.” (Matthew 6: 25 – 34) It is okay to have hopes and dreams and make plans. But, we shouldn’t cast our worries and vision too far down the road. Instead, we should spend a little time reflecting on the past to recognize that God has done far greater for us than we could have hoped. We are happier than we planned to be, even in spite of our present problems.
Jesus has final words on the matter of His fate and the future of His Disciples. In order for them to understand who Jesus is, what He does, and what it means to call Him the Messiah, they must journey on to the cross. They must lay aside their expectations and be willing to follow Him to the very end. Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm says, “they must put Jesus’ priorities, purposes and path ahead of [their] own; take up the cross to willingly suffer the consequences of faithful living and follow him to unknown destinations that promise to be both dangerous and life-giving.”
Doesn’t faith require the same of us? Sometimes we think that trivial things are our cross to bear; sometimes, we think important things are our cross to bear. But, the cross we bear is the cross of faithful living. Bearing the cross is the willingness to set aside anxiety and worry, to set aside our dreams and desires, to set aside what we think might be non-negotiables in order to put first God’s priorities and accept God’s gifts as they come.
Bearing the cross is not standing still waiting for God to lift the burden. We must be willing to carry the cross to places where we can be buried and God can resurrect us. We have done it before. If we reflect on our journey, we can remember times that we lived faithfully, trusted God, continued to hope, felt like we had been through death, and, yet, God raised us.
When we feel the weight of the cross across our shoulders, we are on the threshold of growth. We have to muster up the strength to carry that cross to wherever God is calling us. Then, we can stake that cross. Die upon it. Bury ourselves in the dirt. And, wait for God to give us new life. Our lives are what they are today, because we’ve carried that cross before. We’ve gone the distance and found new life. Confessing that Jesus is the Messiah means that we’re willing to make the journey, because, regardless of the moments of death, we find rebirth along the way.