I thought about this story all this week as I pondered today’s Gospel, Matthew’s account of the confession of Peter. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” [Matthew 16. 15] Like the unexpected return of a stolen artwork, Peter’s answer is surprising. And like the choice of a church as the place to drop off that drawing, Jesus’s rejoinder to Peter is even more unexpected. “ "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” [Matthew 16.16] How do you and I make sense of this interchange?
We might start with the question: who is Jesus for you? Is he a teacher? A healer? A miracle worker? A lawgiver? Is he the friend of the suffering and the poor? Is he the one who is put to death on the cross and rises on the third day? When each of us looks at Jesus, we see the aspect of his life and ministry that speaks to us most deeply. In Jesus’s own day, people followed him for various reasons. Most saw him as a healer, many as a teacher. Some saw him as a prophet—Elijah or Jeremiah, as the Gospel says. Some saw him as a religious reformer or political figure, one who preached and practiced subversion of both the Temple system and the Roman Empire. When the church got more established, it portrayed him as a lawgiver. In today’s Gospel, however, Peter says only that Jesus is the Messiah.
The Hebrew word “Messiah” is translated in Greek as “Christ”, and they both mean the same thing—a word we would render in English as “anointed”. The anointed one is, simply, the king. Jews in Jesus’s day looked back to the reigns of kings David and Solomon as the high point of Israel’s life as an independent nation. They longed for a Messiah—an anointed one, a king—who would come, re-establish David’s throne, and throw the Roman occupiers out. When Peter claims that Jesus is the Messiah, he’s saying that Jesus is the king, the one who exercises real political and religious authority.
As you know from the rest of the Jesus story, the drama finally turns on this question of Jesus’s Messiahship. Is he the Messiah? And if he is, what kind of Messiah is he? He certainly doesn’t look and act like a worldly political king. No wonder the majority of Jews never accepted him as God’s promised king and continue, to this day, to look for the coming of the real anointed one, the Messiah who will set things right.
Both religious and secular Jews have thought deeply about the hope for the Messiah and what it means. One of them was Alfred Kazin, a prominent 20th century Jewish intellectual whose journals have recently been published. In a review this month of Alfred Kazin’s Journals [Edward Mendelson, “The Hidden Life of Alfred Kazin”, NYRB 8/18/2011] the scholar Edward Mendelson observes that “to live authentically as a Jew, in Kazin’s eyes, is to serve universal justice.” When Jews look to the coming of the Messiah, what they are really talking about is the future—not only their future but the world’s. For Jews, the moral life, the religious life, is oriented toward what God is doing next. This means that Jewish thought always asks about the future implications of present actions. What kind of world are we making or leaving for our children? For thinkers like Alfred Kazin, “the moral individual looks toward the future.” [Mendelson] As Kazin puts it, “The Christian idea of the future—based on the individual. The Jewish idea: the past, the group.” Both Jews and Christians need to learn from each other. For Kazin, the task for Jews always involves taking the lessons of a painful past and transmuting them into a hopeful expectation of God’s future. For Christians, the task is to think less about our own individual destinies and more about the future of the world.
Thinking about Messiahship in Jewish terms helps us Christians understand what Peter’s confession actually means. In this moment, Peter makes the connection between Jesus’s ministry and the idea of an anointed one. It is an “Aha! moment”, an occasion when Peter glimpses what Jesus and God are up to. Something is going on in the life and ministry of Jesus that points us towards God’s future—the future to which we (both as individuals and as a group) are invited, a future which God wants us to participate in bringing about with Jesus and each other. The goal is to build a future world that looks like the community Jesus has established with his companions here and now—a world of mutuality, compassion, dignity, and respect, a world characterized by the Hebrew word Shalom—peace, reconciliation, justice, love--a world of health and wholeness, creation restored to what God intends it to be.
You and I live in rapidly changing times. The economic turmoil that has been the principal focus of most of the news this summer (and even last week) is one symptom of the many ways we can no longer live by the assumptions that many of us grew up with. In his review of Nicholson Baker’s new novel in last week’s New York Times Book Review [Sam Lipsyte, “Inside Nicholson Baker’s Sexual Utopia”, NY Times Book Review, 8/11/2011], the novelist Sam Lipsyte discusses what he calls “a vanishing consumerist America, where enough cash can protect you from consequences.” Most of us have lived most of our lives in the grip of this vanishing consumerist America, and more often than not we have put our faith in the fond hope that cash can protect us from life’s consequences. As Lipsyte says about Baker’s novel, “The real humor, and sadness, emerges from the impossibility of this fantasyland.”
We are not the first people on earth who thought they could build a society where our affluence could shelter us from all the vicissitudes of life. The Romans of Jesus’s day tried to live in their own version of a consumerist fantasyland, and one central aspect of Jesus’s life and teaching was that there was another, better way to live. Even in a time of diminished resources, Jesus said, people can live abundantly. The Gospel stories of the feeding of the 5,000 are not just Eucharistic miracles—they are parables of the hidden abundance of life lived on God’s terms. There is, really, enough to go around. Citizenship in Jesus’s kingdom means orienting your life away from faith in cash (or power, or success, or beauty, or whatever bad value appeals to your most fearful self) and toward the values around which Jesus’s life and community are organized. If we live our lives for others and not for ourselves, if we point ourselves openly toward God’s future rather than fearfully protecting what we have salvaged from our past, if we think and pray and work for universal justice rather than building walls around what we think of as ours—if we live this way we will find life joyful, abundant, meaningful, and whole. Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah expresses his willingness to commit himself and his life to the joyous, hopeful future Jesus offers and that dawns even when things look most bleak.
In our Old Testament reading this morning, the unnamed Levite woman who gives birth to Moses makes this same kind of faithful commitment to God’s future. If Moses’s mother had simply clutched the baby to herself, she would have lost him to Pharaoh’s guards. Instead, she performs an action of breathtaking trust. She puts the baby in a papyrus basket and places it in the bulrushes, the reeds on the bank of the river. She does so without a guarantee that someone will come and find and raise the infant Moses on her behalf. In taking a creative risk for the future, this unnamed Levite woman ensured the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt. She risks, rather than play it safe. She commits herself and her son to God’s future, and the result is the birth of Israel as a people.
In painful, scary times, it is natural for us to look back to a fantasy of a safe past and imagine that all will be well if we can only get back to a time when things were simpler or easier or more coherent. Nostalgia is always dangerous, because as we look back through memory’s selective filter we fail to see the real pains and dangers that lurked in the time we are idealizing. Nostalgia may look harmless, but it’s dangerous personally, it’s foolish politically, and it’s pernicious as a religious posture. Christianity, like Judaism, always points forward. God is doing a new thing, and you are invited to step into and cooperate with God in bringing that new thing to fruition. The past is a beautiful place to remember, but as the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby learned, it’s a terrible place to live. You can never find fulfillment there.
I don’t know why the California art thieves brought the Rembrandt drawing to a church. But here’s what I hope is true. I hope they realized, once they had spirited away the picture, that by stealing it they had committed a fearful, selfish act, literally seeking future fulfillment in an artifact of the past. By bringing that stolen drawing to a church, I hope they had decided instead to commit themselves to the kind of future Jesus offers, to give up holding on to an icon of worth for themselves alone and instead to entrust it to a community seeking to live out God’s love and justice in the here and now.
As each of us navigates the personal, social, and economic traumas of this turbulent summer, I pray we will have grace to do the right thing, to face always with God into the direction of God’s new, abundant future. The past is gone. We cannot go back there, even if we wanted to. God’s promise to you and me is that we will find blessing and peace both today and tomorrow as we walk together hopefully into the future, uncertain though it may look to us today. Even now, God is working that promise out. Commit yourself to what God is doing in your life and the life of the world. As you respond to God’s promise and live into that commitment, God will lead all of us together toward a future that exceeds everything we can ask for or imagine, we and the world will be blessed, and all will finally be well. Amen.