Re-scripting Life – August 23
A sermon based on Matthew 16:13-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 23, 2020*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
We tend to see Jesus in a post-Easter sort of way as always the Messiah, but the Lectionary lesson for today suggests Jesus wasn’t always considered, even by himself, as the Messiah. As the ending verses point out, it was pretty much kept a secret before Easter. When the gospels were written the secret got let out of the bag, so nowadays modern followers of Jesus tend view him as always having been the Messiah, the Christ. The Gospels, though, can be heard to suggest that a different perspective was held by Jesus and his followers before Easter. Since we know the story’s ending it can get muddled and we end up ignoring the parts which evidence that even Jesus may not have considered himself Christ, the Messiah, while he was alive.
Jesus not the Christ? Is that what the pastor just said in worship!? Well, not exactly, but that may be what you thought you heard, so let me say it again: “we end up ignoring the parts which evidence that the even Jesus may not have considered himself Christ, the Messiah, while he was alive.” Stick with me on this. Here is what the first part of today’s reading says:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Then we are told that pretty quickly – just three verses later– Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
Matthew is not alone in this keep-it-a- secret idea. He actually got it from the Gospel of Mark which features what’s known as “The Messianic Secret.” That is Mark has Jesus instructs his followers that no one’s to know who he really is. 2 It’s not just Mark that lends historical credence to this idea that Jesus did not proclaim, or perhaps see himself, as the Messiah. We just heard Matthew repeat it, but Luke and John also do not report that Jesus claimed he was the Messiah.
And actually, there is only one place in the Gospels that reports Jesus made that claim. It is in Mark 14 (62). 3. After his arrest Mark tells us Jesus was asked by the high priest “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus replied “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” This one and only verse where Jesus admits to being the Messiah is thought by scholars to not be an historic event in the literal sense. 4
Some of the reasoning includes the fact that were no court transcripts back then, and no follower of Jesus was at this meeting to otherwise report it; plus Mark wrote it decades after Easter, an event which likely colored – and caused followers to back-filled– the stories of Jesus with metaphoric Truths not necessarily historic accuracy. We can see this in our lesson. Jesus response has Biblical references. He says “I am” which is the divine name God gives from burning bush. And the rest of Jesus’ response is borrowed from the book of Daniel (7:13) and Psalm 110 (1). This makes historians doubt Jesus said those words because they conveniently all fit into scripture. Plus, at the time of those words were reported to have been said, Jesus had not been crucified nor had he risen from the dead, so no one would have known he was the Messiah, since the resurrection marks Jesus’ anointing. On top of which, before Easter the Messiah was expected to be an earthly warrior King, and Jesus was not a warrior . . . or a king in that respect.
I should also point out that not all of Judaism expected a Messiah. It was not until Israel’s fall to Babylon in 586 B.C. that the Messiah concept even came into being. When Babylon conquered Israel and exiled her leaders, Yahweh was considered to reside in the land, specifically in the seat of power, the Temple. Those in exile continued to identify with their homeland and they started dreaming about a Messiah, which means an “anointed one.” The Messiah was to do four things:
(1) overthrow the oppressor (Babylon);
(2) bring the exiles back to the land where God resided;
(3) reestablish a sovereign state; and
(4) reestablish a rightful king from the house of David.
In Isaiah 44 (28 to 45:1) Cyrus of Persia is actually named as a Messiah, the anointed one. While Cyrus did not re-establish a rightful king from the house of David he did do the other three things exiles dreamed.
By comparison Jesus did not meet any of the requirements . . . Not literally. Jesus did not overthrow an oppressor, bring the exiles back to the homeland, reestablish a sovereign state, or reestablish a rightful king from the house of David. 5 What happened was early Christians re-envision the Messiah as a bearer of peace through love. That IS literally Jesus . . . to a tee.
After Easter the Messiah is re-imagined as metaphor and Gospel writers set out to establish symbolic proof that Jesus met three of the requirements of the Messiah (kinda like Cyrus).
(1) Jesus may not have overthrown the oppressor but he tried to stop the oppressor Rome and its crony temple-elites.
(2) Jesus did not try to re-establish a political sovereign state, but He did try to establish God’s sovereign reign.
(3) Jesus was not a political King, but is linked to David, and he is called King of the Jews.
Christian also learned that Jesus was actually anointed by God with the resurrection.
Basically, the Gospel writers used metaphor to carve the round peg of the Jesus’ story so it would fit the square hole of the Messiah requirements. New Testament writers understood Jesus didn’t literally fit, but symbolically fit after he had risen.
Paul, the earliest New Testament author, has a very interesting note at the start of Romans 1 about Jesus. He wrote:
“the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was designated Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” 6.
Professor Stephen Patterson notes that it is significant that THIS apparently very old part of the Jesus story referred to by Paul indicates Jesus was not designated the Messiah until AFTER he was resurrected. Jesus is designated Son of God . . . BY . . . the resurrection.
We can also hear this old tradition in Paul’s letter to the Philippians in chapter 2 (6-11) when he quotes from an early Christian hymn. 7.
“[Jesus] who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This hymn exalts Jesus for not exploiting his God-ness, for his humbleness and his obedient life. And it points out that because of those things, “THEREFORE God ALSO highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” This evidences early Christians understood that it was a consequence of Jesus’ completed life AND death that he was exalted by God. The Pre-Easter Jesus was not exalted above all others– by God– until his ministry and life were complete. Professor Patterson puts it like this:
In this hymn Jesus’ titles all follow upon his exaltation after his death. This observation has led many to the conclusion that the earliest followers of Jesus did not regard him as the Messiah during his own lifetime, because Jesus did not so regard himself. Only later, in view of all that had happened to Jesus and all that his followers had experienced after his death, did they begin to speak of Jesus as the Christ. But soon there developed many stories, that Jesus was a glorious figure, a god man striding through life to ultimate triumph. But Mark knew that this is not the way it was, and so created the messianic secret. In Mark Jesus’ real identity is not to be revealed until after his death on the cross. In this way Mark made sure that his readers would realize in spite of all the wonderful, fantastic stories about Jesus, in reality no one knew who Jesus was in his own lifetime. Any tendencies toward triumphalism must be tempered with the reality of the crucifixion. 7.
This way of understanding Jesus means that Jesus lived life fully human (which we also discussed last week). And not in the abstract, but within the limits of being fully human. Not as an elite. Not wealthy. Not with super powers. Just the opposite. In the depths of poverty Jesus lived out life so rich with God he becomes forever linked with God and heavenly power.
This is where the latter part of the reading comes into play.
In today’s reading Jesus says “ those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” This is also thought to be a very old part of the Christian tradition. 8 Jesus is not talking about literally losing our bodily life. He means something else. Could he mean what he did with his life, e.g., making an extraordinary life out of ordinary humanness?
What if we hear it as Jesus calling us to do as he did, reject the life the world scripts for us . . . to lose that life? If we do that, and embrace the new roles God has scripted we get a new life, a life like Jesus’, attached to God . . . not to the world. That means that like Jesus as ordinary mortals we can make a heavenly difference too.
We discussed this last week as well. There is a consistency in our lessons’ messages! Jesus is the model. He changed the world by ministering to those around him, the poor, the expendables, the outcasts. His ministry included inviting them to reject their worldly scripted roles, to rewrite their lives.
The Beatitudes are all about this. If you’re last in the worldly script, God’s rewrite is you are first. If you are poor, God’s rewrite is you are blessed. If you’re hungry, God’s rewrite is you are filled. If you are sad, God’s rewrite is you are comforted. If you are reviled, God’s rewrite is heaven is yours. Jesus can be heard in today’s lesson to teach us to pick up a new script with completely different roles. And Jesus’ life evidences what can happen if we dare to do that.
The world’s script that says we are ordinary . . . is nonsense. There is a script already written by a much better writer, God. And God’s script
says we are extraordinary. God’s script says we are extraordinary. Extraordinary enough to change the world. So, let’s do it.
*Based in part on a sermon I originally wrote in 2009
2. I have taken much of the ideas about the Messianic Secret for this sermon from Stephen Patterson’s wonderful book The God of Jesus, in particular pages 197-199.
3. Ibid at 197.
5. The information on the Messiah is taken from my notes in a Spring 2005 course at Eden Theological Seminary taught by Rabbi Howard Kaplansky. The class was called The Impact of Judaism on Christianity.
6. This is Professor Patterson’s translation at page 198 of The God of Jesus.. The NRSV reads slightly differently, i.e., “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
7. Ibid at 198.
8. Ibid at 95. I also rely heavily on pages 95-97 for the ideas regarding this saying.
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