For the four years I taught high school, I was perpetually puzzled (some might say clueless) about the words students used to describe their dating relationships. Were you seeing each other, dating, just going out, going steady, or what? Each had its own set of acceptable behaviors – and those that were not. Maybe it was that the words they used were different than the labels I would choose. But I never quite understood when they told me – “It was okay to see other people as long as you were just dating, but it was not okay to date someone else if you were seeing somebody.” Okaayyy!! What WAS obvious to me is that the name you gave ‘about’ the other defined how you related to them.
When you call someone an acquaintance – it means one thing. To call someone friend – means another. To call someone husband or wife – defines another level of commitment, To be called father – or mother – or son or daughter – articulates a whole way of life and pattern of choices in terms of how you relate to them.
So what does it mean to call Jesus the messiah? Peter thought he knew. He thought he had it figured out. And he was so proud of his answer. To use our modern dating parlance with a twist: Messiah meant “Friends with benefits”! (not THOSE kinds) Specifically Peter had in mind: power, glory, prestige, restoring Israel with him and his buddies right there in the inner circle – everything coming back to them as disciples because they knew “THE GUY” Jesus. So when Jesus talks about suffering, Peter will have none of it. “You are the messiah of God. Suffering does not figure into the picture. Death is unthinkable for the chosen one of God. When I name you as the Messiah – the anointed one – that cannot involve suffering, for you or for me.”
And Jesus says: (in very strong language) “Guess again, Simon. I’ll be Messiah – but not in the way you’ll want me to. I’ll have power, but not the kind that establishes worldly kingdoms. If you want to follow me – you’ll have the same power as I – the power to be servant, to put God’s will first, to put God’s people first, to lose your life so as to gain God’s. That’s what it means to be MESSIAH. And if the names we use define relationships, then to call me that kind of messiah means that you’ll have to live that kind of life.”
And if you are like me, those are hard words to hear. Denying ourselves. Taking up our cross. Losing our lives. Finding our lives by losing them.
“Does it have to be that all or nothing?” the Peter inside of us all asks. “Can’t I call you messiah but have it mean that I can still figuratively ‘see’ other people? Can’t I say I will be your follower, but not have it cost me, not have it make demands on me?”
And the same Jesus who posed the question to his twelve disciples stands before you and me today and asks us: “Who do you say that I am?” What is the name that you use to describe OUR relationship? And our answer sets a whole set of responses and parameters for us.
• Do you call him “lover of Justice?” Then be ready to be about the works of justice.
• Do you name him “Messiah – the anointed of God?” Then what false gods do you worship – money, security, health, prestige and the like – have to go from your world?
• What if you use Jesus’ favorite term for himself in the gospels – “Son of Man”, a title that signifies his union with the human race it all its struggles and brokenness? Then expect to be called to stand in solidarity in our time with all those whose lives are broken by war, torn apart by addiction, struggling for employment, and trying to make their way home to God.
Words define relationships, even our relationship with God. Father. Daughter. Mother. Son. Friend. Messiah. May we, like Simon Peter, let our Lord teach us, in the concrete choices of our lives (as the letter to James tells us), what it means to call Him our messiah.