About three and half years ago, I was privileged to make my first visit to the Holy Land. On a glorious sunlit day, our group of sixteen pilgrims left our hotel on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, got into our bus, and drove northward and eastward across the Jordan River—and upward—into the Golan Heights, territory that was once part of Syria but was annexed by Israel following the 1967 war. In a mountainous and heavily forested area, in the shadow of Mount Hermon and close to the borders with Syria and Lebanon, lie the ruins of the ancient Roman settlement of Caesarea Philippi. The jewel of this site was and remains a glorious temple to the Greco-Roman god Pan, built into the side of a mountain. For first century Jews, Pan was a symbol of the “evil empire” of Rome, an icon of everything they resented about foreign domination.
So it’s against this very backdrop—and if I could show you pictures of the place you could see how dramatic it would have been—it is against this backdrop that Jesus puts his questions to the disciples: “Who do people say that I am … who do you say that I am?” It’s Simon Peter, of course—never one to keep his thoughts to himself—who at first gets it right, spectacularly right, in fact: “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God.” But then he turns around and undoes his good deed: Jesus goes on to talk about his own impending suffering and death way down in Jerusalem, and Peter objects, “Don’t be ridiculous, Lord. Quit talking that way. You’re bringin’ us down.” To which Jesus responds with startling sharpness: “Get behind me, Satan.”
Get behind me, Satan. What was Jesus really saying here? What he was probably really saying is, “You don’t know me. You don’t get it.” You see, Peter—and, for that matter, the other disciples—would have wanted Jesus to fit the mold of their expectations about what a Messiah should be and what a Messiah should do. There was a long tradition within Judaism about the Messiah, so they had very specific expectations. The Messiah would effectively be a reincarnation of David, the prototypical “ideal king” of Israel—if you will, the “father of his country.” Back in my youth, American school children were taught to think of George Washington as the “father of his country,” and were pretty much given a narrative that covered over any flaws in Washington’s character and behavior. He was the “ideal President” who set the standard for all of his successors. For first century Jews, King David—despite his flaws, and they were many—David held a similar place in their imagination, and the Messiah would certainly be someone who, like David, would rid Israel of foreign interlopers and invaders, and secure the national borders. He would be a great military and political hero. So, when Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, he wasn’t “confessing” the real Jesus, he was trying to squeeze Jesus into a pre-set mold.
Here, in the northernmost extent of his travels—everything that follows is a long journey to the cross—Jesus has to deal with everyone’s false expectations, and he does so through Peter. His prediction of his own suffering and death, coming on the heels, as it does, of Peter’s confession, begins to set the record straight.
Being the post-Easter people that we are—that is, people who have the advantage of 2000 years of hindsight looking back at Jesus’ resurrection and its effects—it’s pretty easy for us to judge Peter, to say, “Yeah, get behind him, Satan! What are you thinking, anyway?” But we are hypocrites when we do that. We are hypocrites because we also have false expectations about what Messiah Jesus (aka Jesus Christ) is about. We have remade Jesus into any number of false images, images of our own design.
One of the false images we might call Fire Insurance Agent Jesus, the Jesus that…you know…saves us from going to Hell. Now don’t get me wrong here: I’m not denying that Jesus is our Savior and that his saving work includes delivering us from what we might call our “default fate” of eternal separation from the presence of God. But if we limit Jesus to just being our Savior, and confine him to that compartment of our lives that we label “religion”, then we are creating a false Christ. If we don’t allow Jesus to be our Lord, the central organizing principle of our lives, then we are, in effect, preventing him from being our Savior.
Another false image that we have created is Personal Assistant Jesus. Jesus is the name we call on to make all the lights turn green so we’re not late for work, to help us do well on a test because…well…we didn’t actually study for it all that much, or to blind the eyes of the IRS to the “creative” entries we make on our tax forms because, after all, we “really” need the money. Am I denying that Jesus wants to help us? No way! But he wants to be the one to tell us where we need help. He wants to be a mentor and guide, not a member of our household staff, and if we insist on treating him like one, we’ve created a false Christ who will be of no help at all.
Or, some of us may be devoted to the false image of Community Organizer Jesus. This is the Jesus who’s all about making the world a better place, and he needs us to be his hands and feet and voice. So we get involved in the social causes that stir our hearts—and these causes can cover the political spectrum from one end to the other—we get involved in social causes, feeling very holy because we are making God’s work truly our own. But all too often we end up erasing any distinction between the Kingdom of Heaven and our political causes, and we lose both. Does Jesus want the world to be a better place? Of course he does. But God is in charge of ushering in his own Kingdom, and the moment we consider ourselves indispensible to that process, we have created a false Christ.
Here’s the thing: Our calling as Christian disciples is to be conformed to Jesus, not to conform Jesus to our expectations. This includes, of course, conforming ourselves to his cross (or, as he puts it, taking up our cross—it amounts to the same thing), and when you strip away all the other symbolic baggage that we have loaded onto the cross—good and bad, helpful and unhelpful, appropriate and inappropriate—when you strip away all the baggage, the cross is an instrument of suffering. Christian faith doesn’t save us from suffering. It enables us to find meaning in suffering, and to make that suffering productive—productive for the perfection of our own holiness and for the redemption of the world. This is what Jesus’ cross is about, and it’s what our cross is about.
This is an important message for contemporary Christians to hear, because there are voices out there that give the impression that if you’re sick or in chronic pain or are addicted or your marriage has failed or you’re going down the tubes financially, then you must be at odds with God, and it’s your fault; you’re not doing something right. Now, sometimes we are our own worst enemies; there’s no denying that. But suffering is not a sign of failure for a Christian; it is, in fact, a mark of identification with the cross of Christ. Suffering is normal. Suffering is to be expected.
And … suffering is Good News. Here’s what the Prophet Isaiah has to say today about suffering:
For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty?
Isaiah, the prototypical “suffering servant,” a prefigurement of the crucified Jesus, knows in whom his confidence lies, and that he will be vindicated in the end. You see, suffering may be universal, but it is not permanent! Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death also included a prediction of his resurrection. Jesus was “vindicated” by the Father. We who throw in our lot with Jesus, we who take up our cross and follow him, can look forward to the same. We who are conformed to Christ in his death will be conformed to him in his resurrection.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.