By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
Did you notice, about ten days ago, the exchange of comments about the nature of Christianity between the prime ministers of Hungary and Poland? The Hungarian Prime Minister said that, in the midst of the mass of people fleeing from the carnage of Syria and the barbarism of Islamic State, he feared for the future of Christian Europe. The Polish Prime Minister retorted that Christianity was about compassion and sacrifice and, by implication, to give up on those would be to give up on any claim that Europe might be Christian. I wonder if our prime minister was listening.
‘Who do people say that I am?’ The question has been around ever since Jesus asked his disciples. It’s been around in the Crusades and in the Inquisition; it’s been around in the European colonisation of most of the world; it’s been around in times of church disputes and reformations; it’s been around in times when churches like this one were full to overflowing; and it’s still around when that problem has long since been overcome. And for many a long year the second version of the question posed by Jesus has been posed to us on days like today: ‘who do you say that I am?’
But maybe we need to start where Jesus started: with the question of what we have heard others say. On Wednesday I’ll be starting a bible study group focussing on Jesus, and on what others have told us. When some Greeks came along what they said was: ‘we want to see Jesus’; and for the church that is still the prayer. The questions is: what Jesus do we see? What have we been told about this man from Nazareth that makes us want to see him? Who do people say that he is?
Jesus was known during the three years of his ministry as a rabbi, a teacher; for his disciples that was who he was, and for many today that is what he most obviously is. Many of the stories of Jesus are stories of healing, and for many the image of the healer is what comes most easily to mind. For some, as in the reply we heard read from Peter, Jesus was a prophet – and he certainly stood in the tradition of the prophets in the way he challenged the traditions and the authorities; and he is regarded today, for example by Islam, as a prophet.
For some, Jesus has been seen as a revolutionary figure, one who has turned and will turn the world upside down – and religious and other revolutionaries have seen, in his way of being the complete antithesis of the world as it is, his call to the kingdom of God, a call to live in an entirely new way – and the book of Revelation sees him in this revolutionary way, with its message of the overthrow of Rome and all its ways.
Others have seen Jesus as the companion on the road of the story of Emmaus, the fellow traveller who accompanies us in all our meanderings and wanderings, interpreting the path as it is walked. And there have been, and still are, those who see Jesus as the man of pardon – the one who speaks, and acts, and dies for, a forgiveness that brings a peace we are unable to find on our own.
And then there are those who see Jesus as a kind of personal chaplain, a protector from all ill, a granter of favours, one who answers the prayer of naked self-interest, a talisman who brings good luck. There are those for whom Jesus is the conquering hero, the man in armour leading the charge. There are those for whom Jesus is the one who bars the door so that the unworthy may not enter in.
It is possible to hear all of those voices at different times in history, and indeed in different places today – and some will make sense to you, and some (I hope) will not. But none of them really amount to the reply that Peter gives as his own response, nor to the view that Jesus appears to have had of himself.
Peter answers: ‘you are the Messiah’. You are the deliverer, the saviour; you are the one who will deliver us from oppression; you are the one who will usher in the age of peace and plenty, the time of harmony and freedom. Traditionally, the Messiah was the one who would deliver the Jewish people from foreign domination, who would restore the rule of David, end oppression, bring back a feeling and a reality of self-determination and self-respect.
And Jesus tells Peter not to share that answer with anyone else. Much has been written over the years about what has been called the ‘messianic secret’, about Jesus’ insistence that his followers do not talk openly about who he really is. And much speculation has gone into what the reasons might have been for this secrecy. For me, the reason that Peter is not to tell anyone else about this answer is that the answer will be immediately and consistently misunderstood.
Peter’s answer is one that people would immediately connect with – and one into which they would immediately insert their traditional content. It had to be kept quiet if not secretive because you can’t use words that people think they know the meaning of while actually meaning something else. If you mean something else, it’s best not to use the word. Jesus’ response might have been ‘yes, but’. And he goes on to talk about the ‘but’. Jesus seems to have understood himself, following his time in the wilderness, in terms of Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ – this was his new interpretation of the word ‘messiah’, and it’s one that does not carry with it the same easy and enthusiastic acceptance.
The Old Testament reading set down for this morning was actually one of the earlier ‘songs’ of the suffering servant, but I thought we would have the much better known song, the fourth and final song found in Isaiah. It explains Jesus’ comments to Peter about suffering and death – not an explanation Peter wanted to hear, not an interpretation that made sense to him.
You see, the traditional idea of the messiah was one which imagined an external figure arriving to sort everything out, to banish all those we see as our enemies, change everything and everyone into the way we think they ought to be, and present us with the kingdom of God on earth. And we don’t have to do anything except watch and pray and give thanks. And there is much even in Isaiah that would support that way of thinking – writings about the watchmen keeping watch on the walls of the city, looking for the coming dawn; and we have hymns that pick up on the same kind of thing: for example, ‘Lo he comes with clouds descending,’ a hymn that goes on to describe the wailing of those who are ‘sorted out’ by the arrival of the messiah.
But Jesus insists that that is not how the kingdom of God arrives, that’s not how the messiah works. Isaiah’s fourth servant song speaks of the servant of God having no beauty, nothing to draw us to him; the servant of God is one who takes the blame and the punishment for everything we have done wrong – and the deliverance wrought by this servant is not one of glory and victory, but one of agony and attrition.
And even then, even then, this understanding of the work of the messiah might have been one which demanded nothing particular of us; it would have been like seeing Jesus as the traditional Jewish scapegoat, on which all the sins of the people were ceremonially placed before it was sent out into the desert, carrying everything with it – never to be seen again.
But Jesus goes on: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ The way of deliverance is not simply to be a passive recipient of the work of the messiah, it is to follow where the messiah goes, do what the messiah does. And that, for Peter, at this stage of his learning, is hard to hear – impossible to understand.
So let’s return to where we started, to ask about this idea of Christian Europe, or a Christian country. Let’s return to the comments of the Hungarian Prime Minister, comments with which many might agree, comments that chime with many quoted in the papers or giving their opinions on television, that of course it’s terrible for these poor people fleeing war and violence and poverty, but we need to look after our own first. Where do we think that kind of comment, that kind of attitude, that kind of thinking, sits in the context of what Jesus says?
I saw a snippet on the BBC of a primary school teacher in Kent asking her children how they would feel if they were told it was no longer safe to live where they were, and were told to leave ‘now, this minute’. It was a good question, but I suspect it’s one that many in this country have still failed to grasp, or process in their minds.
And either one of those people is our Prime Minister, or he is taken over by the idea that those who are in that situation are too numerous to ignore. Either way, for a Prime Minister who has more than once insisted on this being a Christian country, it is an extraordinary position to take. And to try to suggest that taking 4,000 people a year for the next five years is generous and magnanimous, is to add insult to injury.
‘Who do people say that I am?’ asks Jesus; ‘who do you say that I am?’ he goes on. Whatever our answer, whether what brings us here is to do with teaching or healing, forgiveness or mercy, newness or peace, the answer challenges us to follow where Jesus leads. The only ‘entry ticket’ required for the early church was the ability to say ‘Jesus is Lord’; but, then and now, it was, and is still, a courageous, and (yes) demanding, and even on occasion expensive, thing to say.