Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
We lose some of the radicalness of the Jewish title Messiah. It means, as the Greek translation Christ means, “anointed one.” By the time of the New Testament Jewish people believed the Messiah would be a political leader who would end the Roman occupation. The Temple authorities were always on the lookout for anyone who was named, or claimed to be, Messiah – after all revolutions lead to repression and the political space carved out by the leaders would have been quickly ended. No wonder Jesus tells Peter, and the others, “sternly” not to tell others.
Interestingly, Peter understands the implication of the title – but Jesus seems to reject that understanding. Jesus warns that he must suffer and die – and rise again. Clearly Peter missed the rising again bit. What use is a Messiah who dies? Peter tries to set Jesus straight and gets called Satan for his pains – remember from our series on Job Satan is envisioned as as a tempter. Jesus sees Peter’s attempt to get him to see sense as tempting.
Much as I warm to the idea of religious leaders overthrowing corrupt dictators I am reminded of the words of Paul VI who struggled with the part that political liberation – as Peter thought the Messiah would lead – with the task of evangelism: …the Church has the firm conviction that all temporal liberation, all political liberation- even if it endeavours to find its justification in such or such a page of the Old or New Testament…even if it pretends to be today’s theology- carries within itself the germ of its own negation and fails to reach the ideal that it proposes for itself whenever its profound motives are not those of justice in charity, whenever its zeal lacks a truly spiritual dimension and whenever its final goal is not salvation and happiness in God.*
Liberation will only come through Jesus, our Messiah, the one who doesn’t self destruct unlike all our human ideologies.
* Paul VI Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelism in the Modern World) n35 8th December 1975
Messiah, help me to struggle to against injustice, to put a spoke in the wheel of those great machines of evil, but to remember, in doing so, to keep close to you, that I don’t rely on my own strength, ideas or politics, but yours. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is minister of Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs in the Synod of Scotland.