The Jews in Israel in the time of Jesus knew what to expect of a Messiah: he would be an anointed king, of the House of David, who will unite the peoples, rule them and usher in an age of peace. Peace and freedom was what the people desired. First the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans had taken control of their land. The Messiah was their only hope for peace and freedom.
In this morning’s Gospel Jesus asks His disciples a simple question, ‘Who do people say that I am?’.They reply, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, or one of the prophets’. He then asks the question, ‘But who do YOU say that I am?’ Peter answers, ‘The Christ of God’ By this Peter means a Messiah in the traditional sense. But Jesus commands that they tell no-one about this, because He is not going to be that kind of Messiah. He will fulfil the prophecies, but not in the way people expect.
Today Christ asks the same question of each and every one of us. Who do we say Jesus is? What we say matters. What we believe matters, and affects our life. Jesus goes on to say that the Son of God must suffer many things, be rejected, be killed, and be raised on the third day. That’s all a bit strange, really. He’s the Messiah, the Anointed of God and yet He will be rejected by Israel.
Throughout Israel’s history recorded in the Bible the people have turned away from God, worshipped idols and false gods, and it looks like they will again. As Zechariah prophesied, ‘when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born.’ (12:10) They will look on him whom they have pierced, on the Cross, on Calvary. But Zechariah goes on, ‘On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.’ (13:1) Christ’s death will be the fountain to cleanse us from sin and uncleanness. This we experience in our baptism, in the confession of our sins, and in the Eucharist: the fulfilment of prophecy.
Zechariah points forward to Christ, the Word made flesh, the Word of God who fulfils God’s Word.
To those who come after Him, which includes us, Christ says, ‘let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.’ (Lk 9:23-24) As those saved and made free by the Cross of Christ, we take up our cross and follow Christ. We imitate Him, in selfless love and devotion, and bear the weight of the cross in life’s difficulties and disappointments. Following Christ is hard, as we lose our lives for Christ’s sake. If it were not, we would be surprised. It’s a struggle, and we cannot rely upon ourselves to get through. Instead it needs to be a corporate effort, something we do together, as a Christian community, trusting in God. Trusting in His Grace to be at work in us, both individually and as a neighborhood.
So we have a very different kind of Messiah offering us a very different way of life, which we see expressed perfectly in St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. As children of God we are in a relationship with our Heavenly Father. We are saved through our baptism where we put on Christ, we are clothed with Him, so that we can be transformed more and more into His likeness. Now all human distinctions disappear. They don’t matter, because we are all one IN CHRIST. That was a radical thing to say when Paul preached nearly two thousand years ago, and it still is today. We are all one in Christ: young and old, rich and poor. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are from, or anything else. As Christians we are all one in Christ.
To a world that is concerned with wealth, privilege, education, popularity, and all sorts of worldly things, the Church says: none of this matters. None of it does, other than belonging to Christ. How refreshing! How deeply counter-cultural! We can counter the emptiness and the vanity of the world, and offer it something meaningful and wonderful: new life in Christ.
This is why Christ died for us. To heal us, and restore us, to make us free to live in Christ, and for Him. Christ wants us to lose our lives for His sake, and find freedom in His service. We need to be humble enough to accept what God offers us, and be prepared to try to live it together. It isn’t about us, but rather letting God be at work in us. We co-operate with God, and live in love, and joy, and peace. We flourish as human beings. It’s liberating. It is what God wants for us. This is what true freedom is like, and we can live it together. So let us, and thereby give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.