Who do you say that I am?
August 21, 2011
Isaiah 51, 1-6; Matthew 16, 13 – 20.
It’s a normal question to ask when you meet a person for the first time. “Who are you?” Sometimes you probe further, “What do you do for a living?” “Where do you come from?” Whatever the answer, it will have to be couched in terms the questioner will understand. It would be no use telling a native of an Amazonian rain forest tribe that you’re a computer programmer; it would mean nothing to them. That occupation only has meaning in the context of a modern technological society.
It’s most unusual, on the other hand, for someone to ask you, as Jesus is shown doing in this morning’s Gospel reading, “Who do people say I am?” and almost unheard of for someone to ask “Who do you say I am?”. Which is a sure indication that what we are dealing with here is very unlikely to be a record of an actual historical conversation, but is actually a statement of the belief of the early Church.
The Jesus we know from the Synoptic Gospels did not seem to be at all interested in what people thought about him. He didn’t talk much about himself. What he talked about was God, and God’s Kingdom, and how people should act in order to serve God’s Kingdom on earth. He didn’t ever claim to be the Messiah, he didn’t ever claim to be the Son of God. When his followers, or those he healed, or the demons he was exorcising gave him those titles, he commanded them to be silent.
Yet, within a generation of his crucifixion, when the Synoptic Gospels and Acts were written, he was being proclaimed as Messiah – in Greek ‘the Christ’, in English ‘The Anointed One’. It had become so much associated with him that it had changed from being a title – ‘Jesus, the Christ’ to being something like a surname, ‘Jesus Christ’ or even to being a name on its own, ‘Christ’. Then, by the third quarter of the first century it was being used as a way of describing his followers, who became known, as we are, as ‘Christians’.
But what did these titles mean to those who first used them?
In the Judaism of the time of Jesus, there was a hope for a Messiah, a person appointed by God to save Israel, defeat her enemies, and restore the Jews to freedom and pre-eminence. It was not a major element in their faith, but it was an expectation among ordinary people, and a subject of speculation among some of the sects, such as those who lived at Qumran, and whose writings we have in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The main expectation was of a Messiah who would be a king in the line of David. This King Messiah would defeat the Gentiles in battle, would restore the fortunes of Israel, would instil the fear of the Lord in the people, lead them in holiness of life, and administer justice with righteousness. Other ways of referring to this person were ‘Son of David’, ‘Branch of David’ and ‘Star of Jacob’.
There were claims that this person had come, especially during the time of the last uprising of the Jews against the Romans in 135-137 AD, when the leader of the rebels, Simon bar Kosiba, was renamed bar Kochba, ‘Son of the Star’ by those who thought he was the promised Messiah.
There were other expectations. Because the royal line of David had died out, the High Priests exercised political as well as religious power. So some groups expected a Priest Messiah rather than a King Messiah. Simon Maccabeus, who lived about 150 years before Jesus, was praised in Messianic terms which spoke of his star rising, and the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of the Messiahs of Aaron (a Priest-Messiah) and of Israel (a King-Messiah).
There was an expectation that one of the great prophets would return to herald the coming of the Messiah, as we read in the New Testament; but there was also some expectation of a Prophet Messiah, either alongside the King and Priest Messiahs, or as one facet of a person sent from God who would combine all these roles. The historical Jesus came closest to the role of Prophet-Messiah.
Some texts especially after the 1st century AD spoke of a pre-existent Messiah, whose name and essence were known to God before he came into the world, but this person remained only an idea until he was actually born. Other texts said he would not know he was the Messiah until God anointed or appointed him. However, the one characteristic of all these Messiahs was that they would be human, and like all other humans, they would die.
It is perhaps because Jesus’s view of his mission was so very different from all these expectations, and the reality of his life and death did not in any way fulfil popular ideas of the coming of the Messiah that the New Testament shows him as commanding his disciples and the demons to keep their ideas secret, and moving immediately to speak about his coming passion and death.
Similarly, the title ‘Son of God’ would not have had the overtones of divine status that it does for us, influenced by nearly two thousand years of church dogma. Several sorts of people in the Jewish society of Jesus’s time might have been known as ‘son of God’. The Jewish Bible called three groups of beings ‘sons of God’: angels, the people of Israel as a whole, and particularly the Kings of Israel. Psalm 2 calls the Davidic King ‘God’s son’ and the Dead Sea Scrolls also say the Messiah will be God’s son. Therefore, it was natural to combine this title with that of the King Messiah. But in the inter-testamental period, it was also a designation of a just or good man, or one who worked wonders, or one who healed. The Book of Ecclesiasticus says “be a father to the fatherless and God shall call you his son and deliver you from the pit”. Jewish charismatics at the time of Jesus believed that saints and teachers who were especially close to God were acclaimed in public by a Divine voice which called them ‘my son’. This voice was heard only by spiritual beings, evil as well as good, which was why demons are shown in the Gospels as recognising Jesus as God’s son.
Another feature of the holy men, or Hasids, of Judaism at this time is that they called God ‘Father’, using the Aramaic term ‘Abba’ which Jesus also used.
All these traditions would have fed into the disciples’ belief that Jesus was, as Peter proclaimed, ‘The Messiah, the son of the Living God’. Some strands of early Christianity saw his Messiahship as beginning with his resurrection and Ascension, others from his baptism, and others from his birth or before. There was a need make major adjustments in their thinking to cope with a Messiah who did not fulfil any of the expectations of the King/ Priest/ Prophet Messiah, but who was condemned as a criminal and died on a cross.
Eventually, the Jewish understanding of the terms was lost in the Christian Church, as its Jewish element grew smaller and smaller and eventually died out all together. The move into the Gentile culture of Greece and Rome, and nearly three centuries of Hellenistic philosophical and religious debate ultimately transformed the meaning of these titles of Jesus, until eventually the Church acclaimed him as the second person of the Trinity, the ‘only-begotten Son of God, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God’ that the Nicene Creed proclaims.
The understanding of Jesus as a divine being, sent down from heaven to live and die among us, and returning to heaven to reign with God until he comes again to judge the world, is one that was full of meaning for people in the centuries since Nicea. But it doesn’t seem to have much meaning for many people in our time. It has often been pointed out, by Bishop John Robinson among others, that whereas at one time the heavenly realm was more real to people than a foreign country, nowadays the exact opposite is true. Nowadays, to speak of heaven and divine beings is seen by many as talking about something that is unreal, on the same level as fairy stories. If we are to convince people outside the Christian community that the spiritual world is a real and relevant as the material one, then we need to present Jesus in a way which means something to them.
It is obvious from the New Testament that when people came into contact with Jesus, they knew they were in the presence of someone special, someone whose words and actions opened their eyes to the reality of the Living God. People today are just as much in need of that encounter as they were then. Our mission and ministry, the mission and ministry for which we were commissioned at our baptism, is to enable that encounter to take place. Through our words, and even more so, through are actions, proclaim the Kingdom. It is not just Peter who was given the keys to the Kingdom; we hold them to, and we need to open the gates to the people of our time. But to do so, we will have to find new answers to that age old question of Jesus, “But who do you say that I am?” answers that are true to the life and teaching of Jesus, but which will resonate with the hearts and minds of people today.