Saturday, January 18, 2020

Thoughts on the Feast of the Confession of Peter

Window from St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Ripon, Wisconsin

Today (January 18) we celebrate that Peter confessed Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). But we know that, for all that Peter got right in that declaration, he fundamentally misunderstood what it meant. Just a little later, after Jesus declares that "he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Matthew 16:21), Peter rebukes him Jesus saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you" (Matthew 16:22) To which Jesus famously responds with his own rebuke, "Get behind me Satan!" (Matthew 16:23)

Peter had come to believe Jesus was the Messiah. But he believed that that meant Jesus had come to kick butt politically. He was supposed to be like King David beating up on the Philistines or like King Cyrus beating up on the Babylonians. Peter wanted the Messiah to be a divinely appointed bully to out-bully those he believed were bullying the people of God. He wanted a Lion of Judah. But he got the Lamb of God who came to undergo great suffering and be killed.

What Peter got was a Messiah committed to extravagant mercy. What he got was a Messiah who blessed not those with wealth and power, but the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those willing to be persecuted for the sake righteousness/justice.  What he got was a Messiah who rejected vengeance and insisted that enemies (yes, even those enemies) must be prayed for and forgiven. What he got was a Messiah who insisted that turning the other cheek was an essential discipline of his faithful followers. What he got was a Messiah who warned that we will be judged based on how we talk about and treat others, on our caring for the least of these, on our clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, etc. What he got was a Messiah who insisted that life was not about winning, but, humility, self-sacrifice, and service. Indeed, it was about denying the self, taking up the cross and dying in order to truly live.

By the end, Peter came to understand. But not before notoriously denying Jesus. When the crisis came, the one who had made the solid rock confession, crumbled and admitted, "I do not know the man" (Matthew 26:72). Though that was partly to save his own butt – the butt Jesus would not save by kicking other butts – it was also one of the truest things Peter ever said. On a deep level, he still did not know Jesus or what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah.

Like Peter, Christians through the ages have confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But also, like Peter, Christians have been tempted to believe they know better than Jesus what that meant. Christians have been happy to affirm that Jesus is the Way, but less willing to follow in the Way Jesus is. We are still tempted to remake the Lamb of God into some Lion of Judah. We are tempted to look for a political King David or a worldly King Cyrus to deliver us from our enemies. But that is not the kind of Messiah Jesus is. Do we want to know him? Do we want to confess Jesus as the Messiah he is? Or do we want risk hearing the words with which Jesus rebuked Peter shortly after his confession?

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