|Jesus with disciples - courtesy viridar.org|
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say that* I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ ‘But you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’
Then he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’
In 1897 a 22-year old beginning a career as a writer realised he had quite a serious problem: he shared a name with a famous American novelist. So he wrote this letter:
Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both. He has learnt … that Mr. Winston Churchill proposes to bring out another novel… which is certain to have a considerable sale both in England and America. Mr. Winston Churchill is also the author of a novel now being published... He has no doubt that Mr. Winston Churchill will recognise from this letter—if indeed by no other means—that there is grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill. He feels sure that Mr. Winston Churchill desires this as little as he does himself. In future to avoid mistakes as far as possible, Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published articles, stories, or other works, ‘Winston Spencer Churchill,… He takes this occasion of complimenting Mr. Winston Churchill upon the style and success of his works, which are always brought to his notice …, and he trusts that Mr. Winston Churchill has derived equal pleasure from any work of his that may have attracted his attentionOf course the other Winston Churchill is now only known because of his namesake, but in 1897 the balance of fame was very much the way around.
Similarly, if we are to make sense of this passage in the Gospels, and indeed many other passages with a related theme, we have to remember that when few people had heard of Jesus of Nazareth, everybody had heard of The Anointed One – in Hebrew Ha Messiah, in Greek to kristos. He was going to be a divinely appointed leader, descended from David, who would usher in the Age to Come where the enemies of God’s people will be destroyed. First century Palestine was awash with messianic expectation. The Temple had been rebuilt – which was wonderful – but the Romans were occupying the Holy Land. And these Romans were not only terribly effective and cruel warriors, they were terrible blasphemers. The late Emperor Augustus had been declared a God and Emperor Tiberius, as his adopted son was officially titled “Son of the God Augustus.” His image and superscription were on the Roman coins - which is why they could not be used in the Temple. It is obvious to every Jew in Palestine that the Messiah, when he comes, will kick the Romans out.
The Romans reacted with customary efficiency and brutality to such attempts at rebellion. Around 6AD there was an rebellion by Judas of Galilee which was crushed brutally, and about 2,000 of the rebels were crucified. His followers, the Zealots, continued to make trouble. Eventually in AD70 the Romans destroyed the temple and there were two more big rebellions afterwards including under Simon bar Kokhba who was hailed as the Messiah by the great Rabbi Akiva. . Jesus knew very well that if people heard that he was the Messiah everyone would assume he was that kind of divine leader. There had already been at least one dangerous misunderstanding: when 5,000 men flocked to Jesus in the wilderness and he fed them so John tells us that “Jesus knew they were about to come an seize him and make him king, so he withdrew “ (Jn 6:15). That was more of less the size of a Roman Legion at the time, and there were only 1-2 legions in the whole region.
If you follow a failed Messiah the Romans will defeat you, and force you to carry your cross to a place of crucifixion where you will die as an example to others. But Jesus calls the crowds with his disciples to him and says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. The followers of a failed Messiah are forced by the Romans to “take up their cross” – yet Jesus tells his followers to do so from the very beginning. What are they to make of that? What are we to make of that?
There is so much to explore here, but let me just touch on three points:
- To follow Jesus we are called to share in his sufferings. Jesus is not a warlord spreading his creed by military conquest. In the world we will have tribulations. Those of us who grew up in the 20th Century in England had the idea that, as Christians, the authorities are basically on your side. We were free to practice Christianity “without let or hindrance”. But that was a pretty abnormal period in a pretty abnormal country. In the 19th Century Catholics faced significant legal discrimination in the UK. And in the 21st Century public advocacy of what until recently were considered completely mainstream Christian beliefs can get you into serious legal trouble, arrested or lose your job. We cannot assume, even in the UK, that the authorities are on our side. Only one of the candidates to be the next PM is not an atheist.
And of course our brothers and sisters in many other countries face varying degrees of persecution. We have to listen to Jesus: “in the world you will have tributation” Though he does add “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
- Who do you say that I am? This is the question that confronts us all. It is even more important than “to be, or not to be.” Because if Jesus is who he claims to be, and if the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is who he claims to be, then (as Hamlet points out) “not to be” isn’t really an option the way atheists suppose. One Christian philosopher described a deceased colleague as a “former atheist” on the grounds that if his late colleague was right, he would be no more, and if he was wrong he would be ... better informed. The great biologist Theodosus Dobzhansky famously wrote “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. But at a deeper level, nothing in the universe really makes sense except in the light of Christ.
Which brings me to my final point.
- Jesus asks who do you say that I am? Not just “who do you think that I am” We are called, not just to have an opinion about Jesus, but to follow him and to speak about him. To speak is not, of course, a substitute for living our lives as his followers. And not all are called to be Evangelists with a capital E. But we are each called, as St Peter says, “to give an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). And we must not “be ashamed of him and his words in this adulterous and sinful generation”
Who do you say that I am?
* The points in blue are where I diverge from the NIV (but obviously stay with the original Greek)