What it means to call Jesus Messiah

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, September 12, 2021
Mark 8:27-38

    If you could have a conversation with someone famous, who would you want to meet?  In seminary, I got to meet an author whose books I love in-person at a lunch on the campus of the University of Chicago.  When everyone sat down to eat, I was delighted to discover that not only did I get to meet her, she was sitting right next to me!  There were so many things I wanted to talk with her about.  Here was my opportunity!  I was quite disappointed when, throughout most of the meal, she basically ignored me or answered my questions in as few words as possible, clearly preferring to sit mostly in silence and eat rather than engage with me in any real kind of conversation.  Through her writing, I had imagined that she would be this exciting, dynamic personality, but in reality, she must have been having either a really bad day or was a hardcore introvert.
    Perhaps you can relate to having certain expectations of how something will go, only to be disappointed because reality does not meet your expectations.  When we think about famous people we’d like to meet, I’m sure Jesus would be on most of our lists.  But do we really KNOW what it would be like to have a conversation with Jesus?  Would Jesus meet or hopefully exceed our expectations?  I hope so.  For Peter in the gospel today, Jesus surprisingly disappoints.  The disciples tell Jesus that people are imagining that he’ll be like John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets.  Peter gets it right – Jesus is not just a prophet; he is the Messiah.  But Jesus quickly disillusions Peter’s expectations of what kind of Messiah he is.  He will suffer, be rejected, and killed on a cross, and then rise from the dead, Jesus tells them.  This is NOT how Peter thought this conversation would go with Jesus, and this is NOT what any of the disciples had been taught about what a Messiah would be like.  They will have to continue to follow Jesus, watch what he does and listen to his teaching to readjust their understanding of who Jesus is as the Messiah.
    As I mentioned earlier today, we are continuing to ask the question, “What does this mean?” in conversation with our gospel texts from Mark this fall.  Today we wonder, “What does it mean to call Jesus the Messiah?”  Jesus himself doesn’t deny that he is the Messiah here in Mark 8 and when he is questioned before the chief priests and the council at his arrest in Mark 14, Jesus affirms that he is indeed the Messiah.  “Messiah” is one of those titles for Jesus -  one of those churchy words -- that we use so frequently today that we may have not thought much about what it actually means.  Messiah is Hebrew and the Greek word is Christ.  Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but central to describing who this second person of the Trinity is.  The English translation is “anointed one.”  Whenever we call Jesus “Christ” or “Messiah,” we are not just using a fancy title, we are confessing that we believe that Jesus is God’s anointed one to offer us life and salvation.  We are saying we believe Jesus CAN save us, and we’re also saying we believe somehow Jesus saves us through suffering and death.  It’s important that we understand what calling Jesus “Messiah” or “Christ” is for us as Christians, because we have taken on that name for our own!  At our baptisms, we were also anointed with the sign of the cross and given that name, “Christ-ian.”  We are not just learning who Jesus is as Messiah so we might understand God in Christ more deeply, we are learning about who Christ is so we can understand who we are as Christians!
The prophets of the Old Testament and other historical Jewish texts talk about a coming Messiah.  The Messiah in these texts is usually described as an ideal ruler who will judge the wicked justly and restore Israel as a righteous people and kingdom.  This Jewish ruler will free Israel from Roman colonial rule, perhaps violently through some kind of war, it was widely thought.  There is no description of the Messiah coming to suffer and die in these texts.  However, the prophet Isaiah does write about a suffering servant that Christians believe point to Jesus the Christ.  We had one such passage for our first reading for today, which is also the passage we read every year on Passion Sunday.  But these passages in Isaiah were not connected to the notion of a Messiah until after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The point is, Peter gets the correct title for Jesus in calling him the Messiah, but that’s about all that Peter gets right about Jesus halfway through the gospel of Mark.  He and the other disciples cannot wrap their heads around this idea that God’s promised Messiah, the Christ, will willingly endure suffering, rejection, and death and somehow save people that way rather than through traditional means of power and force.  And even more troubling, the disciples can’t understand why Jesus would ask them to be willing to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel, also.  What have they gotten themselves into?  What else might be required of them?  Yikes.  They will need to majorly adjust their expectations.
We have an advantage over the first disciples of Jesus because we know the end of the story – that Jesus will suffer, die, and be raised again and THAT is what it means to call Jesus Messiah.  However, we still struggle even as Christians today to place our faith in a Savior and Anointed One who saves in the way Christ does – through self-emptying love that trusts in God’s resurrection hope and life when all we can see is suffering and death.  Let’s be honest, how many times are we tempted to think more money, or better politicians or the right political party, or our personal prestige or achievements will be what saves us from our current situation, rather than looking to Christ on the cross for life and salvation?  When we do this, we are no better than Peter and the other disciples, looking for a quick fix and an easy solution when there is none.  Here’s the good news.  Jesus tells us this 3 times in Mark – chapters 8, 9, and 10, that what it means for him to be the Messiah, God’s anointed one, is to suffer, be rejected, and die, this is true, but also that after three days he will rise again.  He will rise again!  And we will rise with him.  After what may be initial disappointment that Jesus doesn’t save us in the ways we first expect, Jesus the Christ surprises us with a kind of life and salvation that actually exceeds our expectations.  Our faith in Christ is to look at his suffering and death on the cross, essentially excruciating torture used by an oppressive Roman government, and to say that even in the worst of life’s situation God can bring life again – to have faith that because Jesus rises again we will also rise with him.  It is faith in THIS Messiah that allows us to put our own lives on the line, and not worry so much about money, fame, politics and success.  We can do this because we know we have the life that truly is life – we are Christians, God’s anointed ones, because Christ first suffered, died, and was raised again for us.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.