As some of you will know, I just returned from my first trip to Israel; I am glad to back among you, here in my church home.
While I did not travel to the Holy Land primarily for spiritual reasons but mostly for a conference to do with my full-time job in academia, you cannot help but be spiritually touched when you are in the land where our Lord lived his incarnate life. I learned a great deal as a result of being there, and I gained a new perspective on Scripture and our Savior to whom Scripture witnesses.
It’s a cliché to say that the Holy Land is home to the three great monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The truth is the place shelters great variations and divisions within those faiths and more besides.
I spent, for example, three days in Haifa, where one of the primary sights to see is the Bahá’í Gardens. Not many people are familiar with the Bahá’í religion, but Haifa and nearby Acre are its holiest places. The Bahá’í faith took its present shape in 1844 under the leadership of a young Persian who developed a prophetic version of Shia Islam. He called himself the Báb or “Gate,” and he regarded it as his mission to foretell the last and greatest divine prophet, one who would stand in the line of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed but surpass them all. For this heretical view that Mohammed would be superseded he was persecuted and eventually executed. His disciples persisted though, and one of them, who called himself the Bahá’u’lláh, “The Glory of God,” had a vision in prison in 1852 that he was that prophet foretold by the Báb. The Bahá’u’lláh wrote the sacred texts of the Bahá’í faith in a prison in Acre, only a few miles from Haifa, where the Báb’s body was taken and buried in a resplendent garden of 19 levels, one for the Báb himself and one for each of his original 18 followers. His burial place in that garden is a pilgrimage site for the world’s 7 million Bahá’í believers to this day.
Something else you will see a lot of around Israel are posters plastered up at bus stops and on light poles of a famous and important rabbi. Most visitors could be forgiven for not knowing who this rabbi is, but if a rabbi can be a rock star, this is him. The posters depict Menachem Mandel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rabbi who propelled the Chabad Hasidic movement to a global phenomenon. No one disputes that Rabbi Schneerson was a man of impressive learning, enormous personal charisma, and profound piety, but many say he was more. The posters stuck up all over Jerusalem in odd corners and hard-to-reach places are printed on a signature yellow that Rabbi Schneerson’s most enthusiastic followers have chosen as emblematic of their belief that Schneerson is not in fact an ordinary rabbi or even a rock star rabbi but is the long-awaited Messiah himself, and they have slogans in Hebrew declaring him to be so. Believers in the Rabbi as Messiah are routinely discredited by mainstream Judaism, but they are not few in number. Twenty years after his death, 50,000 people visited his grave in Queens, New York, and as I can attest, in Israel enthusiastic belief in his messianic status would appear widespread.
I bring these examples up because they tell us something important about the background of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus has been praying alone, as in Luke’s Gospel he often is, especially right before pivotal events in his ministry.
This is one such pivotal event.
He retires from private communion with God his Father and asks the disciples who the people say he is.
Some say John the Baptist, killed at the hand of King Herod but now returned from the dead.
Some say Elijah, who never actually died but was caught up into heaven by a chariot of fire and thus was widely believed to be bound to return to earth to prophesy the imminent coming of the Messiah.
Some say a prophet arisen to minister again after centuries without any prophet in Israel.
These were all popular ideas.
Even King Herod himself in the exact same chapter of Luke’s Gospel puzzles over the exact same possible explanations of who Jesus is. “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” he asks, and he’s baffled at the rumors he is hearing: about John the Baptist being raised from the dead when he had already beheaded John or about Elijah reappearing or about the arising of a prophet of old.
None of these answers, while popular, is true. This is why Jesus asks those to whom he has revealed himself most plainly, those in whose sight he has performed wondrous miracles, those who are nearer to him than any others:
“Who do you say I am?”
This is not an idle question. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. Thousands of religious leaders, mystics, persons of deep spiritual wisdom by their lives pose this same question. Who do you say I am? The Báb, “The Gate,” the foreteller of the last and greatest prophet, the Bahá’u’lláh, “The Glory of God,” the founder of a new religion, the last Lubavitcher Rabbi.
Peter speaks for Jesus’s disciples when he says you are the Christ of God. The anointed one, God’s Messiah.
This is the true answer. But getting the true answer is not good enough.
We know this because Jesus rushes right into a response of his own to Peter’s truthful declaration. Unlike in Mark and Matthew, where Jesus at least takes a moment to congratulate Peter for getting it right, here Jesus rushes into a sobering warning that the disciples should not tell anyone this truth and furthermore that as Messiah he must, he must, as if by divine imperative: suffer, be rejected by the religious authorities, be killed, and then be raised from the dead.
Why is Jesus in such a rush to make this terrible declaration, something he does for the first time in Luke’s Gospel at this pivotal moment?
I think it’s because he wants to be clear what it means to be the Messiah. We have already seen that there were plenty of popular beliefs about who Jesus could be, and these beliefs were entertained by everyone from the common folk to King Herod himself.
Jesus shushes his disciples about what his Messiahship means because nobody can imagine what kind of Messiah he is. For Luke, it is true that Jesus is the Messiah, but just because Peter and the disciples have figured that out doesn’t mean that they understand what it means for him to be the Messiah, and in fact no one at the time understood what it means.
I would say in fact that even today many do not understand what it means.
For Luke, the meaning of Jesus being the Messiah cannot be understood apart from the reality of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.
This, incidentally, is the primary reason mainstream Jews will say that Rabbi Schneerson cannot be the Messiah. They look to no less an authority than Maimonides, the greatest Jewish thinker of the entire Middle Ages, for support. Maimonides said that the Messiah would be born into an unredeemed world, that he would restore the temple, and then gather all Israel together.
Therefore, according to the great Maimonides, anyone who died in an unredeemed world cannot be the Messiah. Rabbi Schneerson died in an unredeemed world, so he cannot be the Messiah.
By the same logic, Jesus cannot be the Messiah. But it’s worse than it even seems.
Because Jesus did not just die in an unredeemed world. He died at the hands of an unredeemed world.
He died for an unredeemed world.
This is the shocking, even scandalous truth of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.
And no sooner does he make it clear that this what being Messiah means, with the same haste he makes it clear what it means for us to affirm and accept him as Messiah. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” This is what it is to be one of Jesus’s disciples.
In Luke chapter 6, Jesus says something about being a disciple. “A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher.”
So if Jesus must die on the cross then so must we.
And yet notice something else unique to Luke’s version of this story. Unlike in Matthew and Mark Jesus does not just say his followers must take up their cross. In Luke, he says we must take up our cross “daily.”
The Christian life is not necessarily one of obvious imitation of Our Lord’s literal martyrdom. But it is a matter of dying daily to self.
Every crucified person was put to the pain and humiliation of carrying their own cross to the place of their final execution. This is a bit like being forced to dig your own grave. It is a terrifying reminder of your own imminent death and a degrading compulsion to participate in your own death. This is what we are told by our Lord it means to follow him.
Did you ever hear somebody refer to some minor problem in their life as “their cross to bear?” This is not what it means. Having a cross to bear is not a matter of putting up with a personal annoyance.
Bearing the cross is the way we follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Discipleship is a daily affair, a matter of day in and day out accepting the burden of living each day as if it were our last, putting our own beloved selves to death.
This sounds a bit grim, and maybe it is. But we lose our lives for his sake in order to save our lives. And remember what Jesus says about a disciple and his teacher. “Every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher.”
By taking up the cross daily we are not just putting up with annoyances or building character. We are becoming like our teacher. We are becoming like Christ.
Because it is in the imitation of Christ that we get to know who Christ is, and it is in the imitation of Christ that we become like him.
He accompanies us in our suffering and trials, and it is in that dying to self that we come to know him for who he is.
The question remains: “Who do you say I am?” There is only one way to find out. We can say the true words: “You are the Christ of God.” But to know what it means we must walk in his way. We persevere under the burden of the cross because there under that weight we come to really know the one who carried it first—and carried it for us.