Proper 19, Year B
Having taught New Testament and early Christian history in a number of places, I can't tell you how many times I've read the word "Christ" used as little more than a surname -- as if Jesus' parents were "Joseph and Mary Christ." I can even recall one time when a student wrote of "Mr. Christ." In Christianity's first century a lot of Romans were equally confused by what they heard of this person whom some called "Christ"; for example, when the Roman historian Suetonius wrote of Christians, he seems to have misheard the Greek word christos ("Christ") as the common slave name Chrestos, and so he reports that the troublesome "tribe" of Chrestianoi began at the instigation of this slave named Chrestos, who was crucified at Pontius Pilate's orders.
It's not hard to understand his confusion. Christos is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew messiah, or "anointed," and "anointed" doesn't mean much beyond someone having a damp head unless you make clear by whom this person was anointed and for what. In Greek and Roman cultures, the term didn't have any particular traditional resonance, and so saying that someone or another was "anointed" was unlikely in itself to excite anyone.
The term did mean something -- a great deal in some cases -- to many Jews. However, the picture painted from many pulpits of all Judea and the entire Jewish diaspora longing and waiting with baited breath for THE Anointed One who would fulfill a checklist of qualifications drawn from various psalms and prophetic writings doesn't hold up under scrutiny of Jewish sources from the Second Temple period in which Christianity was born. A significant number of teachers noted that God's promise to King David was that his line would endure forever, couldn't help but notice that Caesar's agents and not any Davidic king were ruling Jerusalem, and spoke of a hope that God would anoint a king to reclaim David's throne and rule as David was remembered at his best. High Priests were also anointed for office, and some teachers hoped that God would anoint a priest who would reform the Temple hierarchy. Prophets were also sometimes literally anointed as well as anointed figuratively by God, and some who anticipated that God would anoint a particular someone or group of someones in a special way to a prophetic vocation spoke of one or more coming 'anointed ones.'
All that's to say that when Peter says that Jesus is "the Christ" in Mark 8:29, we don't really know what he means. It's possible that Peter didn't exactly know what he meant either. When Jesus asks his followers who they say he is, he isn't a game show host holding a card with a "correct" answer of "Christ" on it. At this point in Jesus' story, "Christ" means such a wide variety of combinations of things Jesus was NOT called to do (e.g., achieve military victory over the Romans or serve as high priest in the Temple) with lots of nothing (e.g., Suetonius' thinking "Christ" must be somebody's name) that even if everyone thought that Jesus was a or even the "Christ," that "knowledge" wouldn't be worth much for Jesus' mission -- indeed, it might even get in the way.
That's probably why Jesus' response to Peter's confession -- a confession that Christians centuries later have labeled "the right answer," and that we even celebrate in the Episcopal Church's calendar as a feast day -- is so shocking. The ONLY thing that Jesus says or does in the Gospel According to Mark in response to Peter's declaration that Jesus is "the Christ" is that "he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him" and he starts talking about suffering, rejection, and death before vindication from God in resurrection. The tone is unmistakable. In effect, Jesus said, "Shut the f*** up!" It's a response to Peter that Christians found so puzzling that Matthew's gospel (16:16-20) adds a long apology for it in which Jesus in effect says "you're right, of course, and I think it's fabulous that you know the truth about me" before saying, "just don't tell anyone -- I mean it."
A lot of sermons I've heard do that too, essentially telling Matthew's story even when preaching on Mark, and in any case leaping to the rightness of the "right answer" to Jesus' question without entering into the awkwardness that all canonical tellings of the story communicate. But what would it look like if we were willing to enter into the drama of this moment?
To start with, we might want to appreciate the cultural considerations that make Jesus' question one that really is wide open, rather than a catechetical drill with one "right answer." People of cultures around the Mediterranean in the first century (and in many of them now!) had what anthropologists call a 'dyadic personality,' in which a person's sense of identity is NOT the kind of individualistic and internalized product we Westerners experience, but is essentially the sum of others' perceptions fed back to them. The closest analogue I can think of in Western societies is the identity of "leader" in the saying, "if nobody's following you, you're not a leader -- you're just taking a walk." In first-century Palestine, when Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" and "Who do you say that I am?" he's not contrasting the answers with his own internalized card with the "right answer" inscribed indelibly on it; he's gathering the information that tells him who he is in this world. (If you'd like to know more about this, I highly recommend the short, readable paperback The New Testament World.) What is at stake when the disciples answer isn't their rightness or wrongness so much as it is Jesus' mission.
I think that's true to a certain extent even if you don't buy what anthropologists tell us about personality in cultures like Jesus'. If I may leap from anthropological to more theological terms, I'll put it this way: as Jesus' followers we are the Body of Christ in the world. Who Jesus is, at least in effect, in this world is going to be the sum of what we say with our whole lives about who Jesus is. And the question is one about behavior as much or more as it is about words now, as it was then.
In other words, Peter's confession is somewhere between incomplete and misleading because he's using words that don't yet carry the meaning they will for him. People say that Jesus is a prophet, and he is -- but what is his message? Peter says that Jesus is the anointed one -- but anointed to do what? Until we're really clear about that -- and I'll argue that no vocabulary speaks as loudly as actions on this point -- the "right" words will carry no meaning or a misleading one.
It's a problem we've still got as much or more in our world. I can say that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God," and if what I mean -- and what my life testifies I mean -- when I say "God" is "that very powerful being in the sky who's itching to punish everyone I dislike or find threatening," my supposedly orthodox confession of Jesus becomes empty at best and oppressive at worst. I can say that Jesus is "my Lord and Savior," and if my life testifies that Jesus saves me from responsibility to care for my neighbors in Cambridge or in the Sudan and that Jesus' lordship is a kind of lording it over those perceived as weak or dirty, my confession is a distraction at best -- something to which Jesus himself would say, "get out of here, accuser!" I can say that Jesus is God's anointed, and that leaves entirely open the question of what kind of God anointed Jesus and for what mission.
I think that's Peter's problem in this Sunday's gospel. Peter has heard Jesus' words, but he not going to get who Jesus is until he sees what Christians see as its fullest expression -- the one condemned to the Cross who forgives his killers vindicated in resurrection by the God who called him there and empowered him to love with God's limitless love. The most compact version of the gospel message, I think, might be St. Paul's summary, "we preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:23) -- that seeming oxymoron pairing "anointed" -- called and honored -- with "crucified" -- suffering and despised by the "right-thinking" people who called with their words and silence, with their deeds and their passivity, for his death. But I can only say that about St. Paul's words because his life gives those words meaning: the man who was so sure he was right that he was willing to participate in the death of those he believed wrong spends the rest of his life pouring himself out -- heart and soul, ink and sweat and blood -- for the people he'd though were too filthy and immoral to be included in God's people, and even for the haughty and self-righteous people within and outside the church who condemned his apostolic mission as the work of the Evil One that undermines the righteous and threatens the very survival of God's people and God's message. I hear St. Paul's proclamation of "Christ crucified" most clearly through Paul's own self-giving love, his testimony to the limitless height and breadth and depth of God's love because of the ways in which Paul himself seemed to find himself stretched by it, rejoicing in one letter at the return of someone he might well have said to "hand over to Satan" in a previous one.
"The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher," Isaiah says, "that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." But Isaiah goes on to say what infuses that word with the power to sustain those suffering:
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
Isaiah doesn't call this teacher "Christ" -- that association of "God's Anointed" with Isaiah's "suffering servant" was made only in hindsight by Jesus' followers as they reflected on the meaning of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. "Christ" as a word couldn't say fully who Jesus was and is. When we encounter Jesus as "Christ crucified" -- fully present and limitlessly compassionate in suffering -- we find our lives transformed, the Word made flesh giving flesh to words.
Thanks be to God!
Re: Mark 8: 27-38...Peter says that Jesus is the Christ, when the Lord asks him, "Who do you say I am?" Another question arises in my mind: Who does Jesus say that I am?
In Judaism, a given name had great symbolic significance. Jesus often gave His followers new names; e.g. Simon became Peter (the rock); Levi became Matthew; James and John became the "sons of thunder." I sometimes wonder what nickname He might have used to describe me.
Posted by: Bob Larranaga | Sep 17, 2006 6:52:02 PM