In order to dig into our gospel reading for today, I want to first start out with a little history lesson. Please don’t fall asleep! This is kind of a puzzling story that we have before us – and I think that digging into the context a little will help us to better understand it.
First, it’s important to know a little bit about where this story happens. Who remembers what the place was called? ___________ That’s right, they were in a place called Caesarea Philippi. Where do you suppose the name of that place came from? What does it make you think of? __________________
The “Caesarea” in “Caesarea Philippi” was for Caesar – the city was named in honor of the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. And it was named Caesarea Philippi by a man whose name was – you guessed it – Philip. Go figure! Philip the Tetrarch, as he was called, was the brother of none other than King Herod. Caesarea Philippi was the town he ruled from — it was a very important place politically.
So it’s really significant that this is the place where Peter makes his declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. It’s not just a religious statement that he’s making. It’s also a profoundly political statement. It may be a little weird for us to think about the “Messiah” having a political connotation. For us, that’s just a religious word. But for Peter and the other disciples, their expectations of what the Messiah would be absolutely had a political nature. They were waiting for a Messiah who would restore the kingdom of Israel and put an end to Roman oppression. They were waiting for someone to come and claim the throne of David.
And so in the disciples’ minds, their whole journey all around Galilee with Jesus had been like one long political campaign – healing lepers, kissing babies, feeding the multitudes, and promising the return of a united Israel. They were urging people to “vote Jesus for Messiah!” And the act of holding a big campaign rally in Caesarea Philippi was a pretty strong way to say to the Roman emperor: “Up yours, Caesar!”
It’s no wonder then that Peter is so confident when Jesus asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” “You’re the Messiah! Of course!”
But then Jesus starts talking about what that actually means. He tells them – quite openly – that he will suffer and that he will be rejected and that eventually he will be killed. And Peter – Jesus’ campaign manager – pulls him aside and is like, “Oookay, buddy, hang on a second. This whole suffering and dying thing really isn’t polling well with the crowds. Let’s keep it upbeat!”
And Jesus just looks at Peter, and then turns and looks at his disciples – I just imagine him shaking his head like he can’t even believe that after all this, they still just don’t get it. They are still setting their minds not on divine things, but on human things, and so he says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus is on a divine mission of life-and-death seriousness and the disciples just keep getting it wrong.
To be honest, I often find myself relating to the disciples in this story. We all have these expectations and ideas of how God should act and what God should do. And if I’ve learned anything from studying the life of Jesus, it’s that we’re usually wrong too.
It’s easy to understand why we get it so wrong. Jesus unrelentingly insists that the way of following him is a way that leads to suffering and death. Following Jesus means denying ourselves, letting go of our concern for human things, and taking up the cross. As it turns out, we humans are not real big on that kind of stuff. We live in a competitive and consumerist culture that places a high value on winning. We cheer our favorite sports teams to victory, and we give honor to people who are rich and famous and successful, and we elect political leaders who promise to put “America first.” We like winners. We like being winners. And Jesus just isn’t a winner by this world’s standards.
Instead, Jesus comes to be among the losers of this world. He comes to be with the last, the least, and the lost. Jesus willingly endures the worst of human suffering – and he doesn’t fight back, even when it means giving up his own life. The glorious political campaign the disciples thought they were running ends in disgrace on a cross.
And paradoxically, that is where the real victory begins. If the disciples had listened more closely to Jesus, they already would have known this. They would have heard him say that the Son of Man would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed – and after three days rise again.” Jesus doesn’t avoid suffering and rejection; instead, he marches right into the jaws of death and emerges victorious. Jesus wins by losing first.
Now, to be clear, Jesus didn’t come to suffer because suffering is somehow inherently good. It’s not. Instead, Jesus came to be present among a world of broken and suffering and hurting people in order to show us that no power in all of creation – not even the power of death itself – is a match for the life-giving love of God.
This is the truly good news for us in our gospel reading for today. The God of the universe comes to us in human form to be with us, even in the depths of our pain and suffering, and raises us to new life. It’s especially good news now, in this season of the church we’re currently living. All across this country, church denominations have been suffering. We are witnessing the decline of the church as we have known it. Congregations in all denominations are shrinking and closing. But this gospel story is a potent reminder that none of this means that the church is failing. The true Christian path has never looked like a path of success in this world. Our path has always been death and resurrection. Always.
And frankly, I know I’m preaching to the choir on this. Here at St. John’s, you already know what it’s like to experience death and resurrection. We’re living through it together right now! You have seen this congregation decline; you have watched its programs end and the community around it change. You know what it’s like to suffer and die. And just look what’s happening to this congregation now! The Spirit is setting this community on fire! There is energy and openness and transformation all over the place. I mean, after our council meeting last Wednesday – a council meeting – I left feeling like electricity was coursing through my veins! There is so much excitement and possibility for what is next! This place is bursting with hope and new life.
Jesus rarely does what we expect him to do – and as it turns out, that’s actually a really great blessing. Because Jesus brings us hope and new life in ways that we could never have even imagined. That’s why it’s only when we lose our lives that we find them again. It’s when we let go of our own expectations, that we can truly open ourselves to the surprising and life-giving love of God.
So take up your crosses, everyone – and let’s be losers for Christ!