When Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, he gets the right answer the wrong way. A pattern we repeat in our fear of chaos and of intimacy.
Proper 16A | Matthew 16:13-20
If you’ve ever watched a painter work a canvas, you see the very transformation of absence into presence. The white canvas gets swirled and lined with color and these vague shapes begin to form substance.
You watch as the image in the artist’s head begins to form in real-time. These swirls begin to form faces and these others the clouds and these others the grassy hills. And in real-time the picture comes into focus, the picture which was inside their mind is made manifest.
It’s like we can see her thoughts and what she cares about in watching her paint. As she creates life, like the breath of God.
The image of Jesus, Messiah
Christians have long offered a specific image of Jesus to the world. An image painted, sculpted, molded, carved, frescoed, breathed into life by artists. A gaunt man, hanging from a cross, limp, convicted, dying. An image we might recall in the language of Jürgen Moltmann’s classic: The Crucified God.
Jesus, at his lowest, was physically raised up onto a cross. An image that should be the end of the story, except that we remember that beautiful line from John which guides us then: “For God so loved the world”. Which is to say that God loved the world enough to make the story not end there.
Many of us recall this image in a crucifix, like the one hanging in the Cloister Room or in the one some of us wear around our necks, and we go to the low point to see God’s greatness.
That this is the image revealed, of a man dying on a cross, is beyond comprehension. Revealed in all these brushstrokes, and all these shapes begetting faces. And all these faces begetting characters: the disciples, the crowds, the Pharisees, scribes, and elders, the Canaanite woman, and all those who gathered their sick and wounded and dying and possessed and brought them to Jesus. That they might touch his cloak and be healed.
If this is the image of the Messiah, Peter has absolutely no clue what he’s talking about.
The Messiah dies
Funny how we get the image and still look at it half-completed.
Jesus no more establishes the church, bishops, and Peter as the pope here than he founded Long John Silver’s when he fed the multitudes. Early leaders, like Cyprian, justified their hierarchies, matched to Roman order:
Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers.
Neat, tidy, everything in its place and under control. Much like the ones who put Jesus on that cross we’ve captured as our image. The ones protecting our order from an itinerate preacher and prophet calling for a love revolution. Protecting it so much that they have the man killed by cross, the execution reserved for terrorists and insurrectionists: those who threaten Roman order.
This is the image revealed in the second half of this story. The one the lectionary has us do next week. That we can’t handle these two events in concert: that Peter might know who he is, without seeing the whole picture. That he might get the right answer with the wrong theorems.
Peter calls him Messiah, and he is. It’s just that Peter doesn’t have Jesus’s definition worked out yet. He sees the shapes and images forming and he thinks he knows what the image will be: a king, like David on a throne. Not his rabbi, stripped, beaten, and hanged.
The image forms
It is odd to talk about the crucifixion now, but the gospel story is starting to. The image is forming. And the raw materials we have to make this picture are those healings and the miraculous feeding of the multitudes (twice!).
And we have our subjects. Jesus of course. But also the disciples and crowds, the Pharisees, scribes, elders are in there. The Samaritans and Canaanites. Jesus’s family and the parents of Peter and Andrew and John and James.
We have the startling miracles the people see and the ones which greatly disturb the disciples and frighten them.
We have teachings of upside down economies and kingdoms ruled by the poor. Direct lessons about neither fighting nor running away, but standing up to evil. And indirect lessons found in parables and stories.
And amid all of these pieces we have by the point we’re wrestling with this morning: chapter 16 of Matthew: we don’t see a cross emerging from this image. We aren’t seeing a man dying brutally to the evil impulses of the state to protect its precious order. Or the church, bearing that same evil impulse.
The image we would have at this point looks nothing like a cross. But it shouldn’t look like a king, either. The man in the image looks like nothing our worldly analogies can contain. Beyond man, faith healer, shepherd, rabbi, holy man. Even Son of God. Or simply, God. Too easily defined and ordered. It seems an assault on what it means to be the Christ.
An icon or a clue
This chapter begins with a story that could be a throw away, but it isn’t. The lectionary skips it for brevity.
Remember last week, we had Jesus’s encounter with the Canaanite woman and Jesus extends his blessing beyond the Children of Israel in a profound and challenging story. And they go from there to more healings and a second feeding story. But then chapter 16 begins with another interruption.
This time the Pharisees and Sadducees come to Jesus to test him, asking for a physical sign. They want him to show them his power, a proof perhaps, from heaven. He responds:
You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.
They come to Jesus as skeptics, of course. But their skepticism is about him, rather than God, they think. Everything is so precisely ordered and structured about how God operates (they think) so God wouldn’t come to them as Jesus. They can be certain of that. So they demand Make your proof.
But they should already see the proof. In the wonders he has done. In the people who are doing wonders in his name. And in the changing face of this growing movement who will overturn the exploitation economy and bring about a new Jubilee.
Those are the signs they are missing. The signs so many more missed as they formed the Passion and that indelible image of a man, hanged.
Missed, too in the centuries which followed as they built a new church, persecuted their Jewish brothers and sisters, and sought order to still the storm, rather than calling for Jesus.
Leading to a new image
I don’t fault the church for pursuing order in the midst of chaos. Really, it seems quite natural. Like what we always do. We go back to our structure and stability; our leaders and laws. And when these break down, we long for some protection and someone to rise to the challenge to confront the chaos. Because that’s what we do.
And I can’t help but think if it has something to do with that image of Jesus we give to each other. The one with Jesus hanging there, silently, unmoving, forever tortured and forever dying, up on that cross. So still, he doesn’t move. Because he can’t. They’ve tied his hands and driven nails through his wrists and ankles, so he’s not going anywhere.
But he doesn’t and hasn’t for 2000 years. He’s still there on the cross, even when he comes to Mary at the tomb. Or when he comes to the disciples in the upper room. And definitely not on the beach.
I have no doubt the face they saw in those moments was the face they saw at the feeding. The face transfigured and the face they didn’t recognize as he walked on water.
The same face we stare into in paintings and crucifixes hoping that we can break through their inanimate state and find him somewhere other than that cross. Somewhere not so distant from us, but instead, right here next to us. In this pain and confusion.
The cross isn’t Jesus or the defining character of the man or the Messiah. But we spend our lives shaping that paint for each other and making the image swirl and come alive. We are artists for each other painting a new image and breathing life into Jesus.
Our lives are icons, leading us to Jesus. Our marks, struggles, and loves are all the signs we need. Signs revealed as we flip our economy, sharing a kin-dom of relationship rather than order, an empire overthrown by our love revolution. In that image, the children of God are blessed in their making Shalom and we won’t have to ask. We’ll know.