Jesus asked his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”Mark 8:29
In Mark 8:27-38 we encounter one of the most important questions in all of scripture, asked by Jesus to his disciples: Who do you say that I am? It’s a crucial question, isn’t it? But the answer to this question is, in some ways, the easy part. Who do we say that Jesus is? He is the Messiah, of course. Peter was right about that. We are here because we believe it. We believe that Jesus is God’s Son, our Savior, the long-promised Messiah. That’s the easy part. But what does it mean? That’s the hard part. What does it mean for Jesus? What does it mean for us?
When you think about it, you can get the answer right about many things, without really knowing what the answer means for you. To give one personal example, how about when my wife first became pregnant with our first child, Katie? I certainly knew the answer to the question: Am I going to be a dad? Yes! I still remember the Father’s Day before Katie was born, when our church family knew that Karen was pregnant. At worship that Sunday, some of my church friends there wished me a Happy Father’s Day. Yes, it was true! I was going to be a father. I knew that. But did I know what that meant? Did I know how radically and completely my life was about to change? Of course not. I had no idea what it meant!
So, we can get the question right, but not know what it means. And that was the case for Peter in today’s gospel reading. He got the question right. Jesus was (and is) the Messiah. But what does that mean? That’s what I want to focus on today. Because I believe that Jesus wants more from us than to simply get the answer right, about who he is. He wants us to live our answer, every day, in every way, just as he did for us.
What Does It Mean for Jesus?
So, what does it mean that Jesus is the Messiah? Jesus tells Peter and the disciples what it means, right after Peter’s great confession. Jesus says this is what it means:
“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering … be killed, and after three days rise again.”
What? The Messiah must suffer and die, before being raised from the dead? This is the first time that Jesus has told his disciples this. And it must have come as a complete shock to them. That is the last thing that anyone thought the Messiah would do – suffer and die. The Messiah is supposed to take the throne of David, restore the kingdom of Israel in all its glory. The Messiah is supposed to be very alive, and very powerful. And certainly not supposed to suffer and die.
It’s hard for us to remember how radical this was. Or maybe it’s not. Because a suffering God, even though we know it’s true, is still radical, isn’t it? I suppose it always will be. A God who suffers and dies? What in the world does that mean?
It’s no wonder that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. Peter suspected that one of these demons that Jesus had been casting out had got in and possessed him. Why else would Jesus say such crazy things? So, Peter rebukes Jesus, just like Jesus has been rebuking all those demons. Hoping to help Jesus come to his senses. And get back to Messiah-stuff, like teaching and healing and eventually taking the throne and leading. That is what the Messiah does.
This, of course, is tempting for Jesus. We know that, because he in turn rebukes Peter, and famously says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” Satan, the tempter. Who tempted Jesus in the wilderness. And who is tempting Jesus here. Take the throne. Overthrow Rome. Restore the kingdom of Israel. You don’t have to suffer and die to do that. And what good is it to suffer and die? How is that going to help accomplish your mission?
Yes, this must have been a temptation for Jesus. But Jesus knew that his path had to lead to the cross. It was the only way to save us. It’s a great mystery, to be sure. Why? Why is that the only way? There are theories, but no single answer. What we know is that it’s true, and we know that because Jesus said it.
The Messiah “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
That is what it means to be the Messiah.
What Does It Mean for Us?
But what does all of that mean for us? Well, Jesus tells that, too, in this gospel reading. He calls the crowd together, with the disciples, and says to them, and to us:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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.”
That is what this all means for us. And this, too, is a mystery. But if we are to follow Jesus, our Messiah, there is only one way. We must take up our cross. We must lose our life as we know it, for his sake and for the sake of the gospel. That is how we will save our life. That is who we will gain world. By losing it. By putting Jesus first, in everything.
What does this mean? We don’t find out all at once, do we? We take the first step. We begin to follow. And day by day, little by little, we begin to learn what it means to follow Jesus, to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel, and to gain our lives, and so much more in return.
It’s a little like becoming a parent, when you think about it. You have no idea what it means. I certainly didn’t. Your whole life changes. It no longer revolves around you. And it’s the best thing in the world. You gain so much more, so much more than you could ever have imagined. But only by giving something up.
So, too, with following Jesus. It is the best thing in the world. You gain so much more than you ever could have imagined. But, again, by giving something up. By taking up your cross, whatever that may be for you, and giving up your life as you know it, and following Jesus.
What Does It Mean that Jesus Took Up His Cross?
That is what it means for Jesus to be our Messiah, and what it means for us to follow him. But this gospel reading does not quite tell the whole story. Because it happens before Good Friday.
When Jesus told the crowd to take up their cross, they must have been a little confused. Take up our cross? Think of being told to take up your electric chair. Take up your noose. Take up your firing squad. Take up your cross? What does that even mean? They wouldn’t fully know until Good Friday. When Jesus took up his cross. And when he died on that cross.
But think of what that meant, that Jesus took up his cross. That the Son of God died in this terrible way, at the hands of Pilate and all those who killed him. It means many things, but part of what it means is that God is present with us in our suffering. The cross means nothing if it does not mean that: God is with us when we suffer. No matter how bad things get in our life, we can count on the fact that God is with us. And we can count on this because Jesus, the Messiah, the only Son of God, took up his cross. For us.
The Ground Zero Cross
When I think of all that the cross means, for me and for our world, one of the places that my mind goes, especially this time of year, is to the cross that miraculously appeared at Ground Zero in New York City on 9/11. Many of you probably remember that cross, now known as the World Trade Center cross, or the Ground Zero cross. Here is a picture I took of it in 2005:
This cross was formed from steel beams, and found among the debris of the World Trade Center, after those buildings fell on that terrible day. The beams are now part of an exhibit at the National September 11 Museum. They showed us, in a miraculous way, that God was with us, even on that dark day. My family had a chance to visit New York City in 2005, and one of the most moving places we visited was Ground Zero, with that cross prominently displayed.
That cross was, and is, a reminder to us that there is nothing that can happen in this life that can separate us from God’s love in Jesus. And there is no place life can take us that Jesus is not with us. That cross reminds us that he was in those towers that, and in the Pentagon, and on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
He was there. And he is here, on our dark days. When we get sick. When our loved ones suffer. When we feel alone. When we struggle to believe and to hope. He is with us. Jesus is with us. We know it because he took up his cross for us. If the cross means nothing else, it means that.
After Three Days Rise Again
But even that is not quite the end of the story. Because when Jesus told his disciples that he must suffer and die, he also told them that he will rise again, after three days. I think that they missed that little statement. They didn’t ask him about it. Peter rebuked Jesus, tried to convince him not to suffer and die, that it was not necessary. But I think that he must have missed this incredible statement, that after three days he would rise again.
The cross can never be separated from the resurrection. Because the cross always leads to new life. The disciples were not ready to even begin to understand that. But Jesus still told them, because for him they cannot be separated. The cross always leads to new life. There is no death without resurrection.
Jesus did not just come to die for us. He came to overcome death for us. To put an end to this last great enemy. And that is why he can invite us to take up our cross, and promise that when we do we will live. When we lose our life we will save it. Because the Messiah lost his life for us, to save us.
That is the good news that gives us the courage to gather today, and every Sabbath, to confess our faith in Jesus. Because we know what it means. It means life, new life, for us and for all our world. We may not know all the details. We don’t even know what tomorrow holds for us. But we know who holds tomorrow for us. The one who took up his cross, and died, and after three days, rose again. Our Messiah. The Lord of life. Who died, who is risen, and who promises to come again. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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