Starting in my second year of seminary, our school faced a series of losses and tragedies. A recent graduate died a sudden death. Two active students were diagnosed with terminal cancer—one of them had just gotten engaged. One student being treated for clinical depression killed himself. A professor in his 50s died of a brain aneurism.
In the midst of all the grief we were grappling with, one of my friends, who was grappling with her own grief and pain, wrote a hymn. One that we sang many times in chapel—a song that helped articulate the grief.
Jesus, you are the Bread of Life; why are we so hungry?
Jesus, you are the only Bread; how do you satisfy?
Will you be the Bread of my life?
Jesus, you are the Light of Life; why are we in darkness?
Jesus, you are the only Light; how do you heal blindness?
Will you be the Light of my life?
Here we were in seminary, learning all about God, all about Jesus, learning all those names for Jesus and what they meant—Emmanuel, Christ, Messiah, Son of God, Lamb of God, Light of the World, Prince of Peace, Holy One, Savior, Redeemer. We knew what the words meant—we knew the Greek and the Hebrew and the best translations, but what did it mean to say “Jesus is the Light of the World,” when we felt such darkness descending? What do we mean when we express faith in Jesus as our Savior, when friends are sick? What does Jesus save us from? What does Light look like?
In our scripture passage today, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and they echo all the speculation from the crowds—a prophet, a teacher, Elijah reincarnate and come to pave the way for the Messiah… “Yes, but who do you say that I am?” Jesus pushes. And Peter, never one to shirk from a challenge, speak out, “You are the Messiah.”
And it would seem that Peter got it right. He knew who Jesus was. Jesus—the Messiah. The problem comes in the next moment, when Jesus starts preparing his disciples for hard times. “I will be rejected; there will be great suffering; they will kill me and on the third day I will rise.” We can probably forgive Peter for hardly noticing the “third-day rising” part, because I know that if someone I loved talked about being rejected and killed, I would not hear anything after that except the thumping of my heart and the rushing of blood in my ears. No—all he heard was suffering, rejection and death, and that completely contradicted every definition of Messiah he’d ever heard.
The Messiah wouldn’t suffer—the Messiah was the one to end suffering! The Messiah wouldn’t be rejected! How could he save Israel and lead the nation if he was rejected? The Messiah certainly wouldn’t be killed by the religious leaders of the nation! No! That would be failure—failing to be the Messiah. That’s how everyone knew that all those other aspiring Messiahs weren’t the real deal—they failed. They got killed.
Jesus was talking crazy, defeatist talk, and Peter tried to stop him and got rebuked for his efforts—told that he was too focused on worldly things.
He must have been so confused and scared—Peter, I mean. I wonder whether he considered that Jesus was going insane. Did he wonder whether he’d been misled? Did he worry that he’d been wrong about Jesus all along?
Peter believed Jesus was the Messiah—he had the title right—but he didn’t understand what it meant. His concept of what Jesus would be, and do as Messiah was wrong—flat out backwards, upsidedown and inside out wrong.
And I guess what I realized this week, thinking back to that difficult year of seminary, and that unusual hymn full of questions is that Peter is not the only one who’s gotten it wrong. Messiah isn’t Jesus’ only title, and it is certainly not the only one that has been misunderstood, or too narrowly defined over the last 2000 years.
Jesus, you are the Light of Life; why are we in darkness?
What does it mean that Jesus is the Light of the World? Where is that light? How do we see it?
What does it mean that Jesus is the Good Shepherd? Why do we still feel lost sometimes?
What does it mean that Jesus is our Savior? Why doesn’t he save us from tragedy? Why doesn’t he save us from ourselves? How does he save us?
What does it mean that Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us? Why do so many people still feel alone?
What does it mean that Jesus is the Messiah? Why does he get rejected and killed? What does it really mean for him to be the Messiah—the Chosen One—chosen for what?
And what do we do with all of these questions? Does faith mean ignoring the questions? Does it mean settling for simple answers that seem insufficient?
Well, when Jesus confounded all the disciples by upending their whole notion of what it meant to be the Messiah, when he set all these kinds of questions stirring around their heads, the next thing he did was to extend the invitation to follow.
It wasn’t the first time he invited them to follow—they were already following him and had been for months—years, even! But here, while they were asking, “What does it mean for Jesus to be the Messiah? Why is he talking about rejection and death?” Jesus extends the invitation again.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” And there is our image of faith—following. When we discover that all these label and titles and images and descriptions of Jesus are insufficient—when we realize we don’t really know what it means that Jesus is Messiah, or Jesus is the light of the world, or Jesus is the Good Shepherd, or Jesus is the Son of God—when we realize we have more questions than answers, we have a choice. We can dig our heels in and demand answers before we will have anything more to do with this enigmatic Jesus, or we can take the risk and follow.
We can follow Jesus by imitating his actions and attitudes—extending care to those in need around us. We can follow Jesus by obeying his instructions—turning the other cheek, trying not to worry about tomorrow. We can follow Jesus by finding ourselves in his parables and sharing them with others—can we love our neighbors like the Good Samaritan? Can we welcome the prodigal home, or work up the courage to return home when we have been foolish and wasteful? We can follow Jesus by listening to that prompting within ourselves to take risks with our love, to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, to give ourselves on behalf of others.
And the questions? They won’t go away. They might change. “Why are we so hungry?” might change to “How do you satisfy?” and finally, “Will you be my Bread? Will you feed me and fill me with whatever it is that I need, even though I don’t get it, and don’t necessarily feel it, and sometimes don’t know if you’re real?”
And that is where we live our faith—not in having answers, but in seeking, asking, following. Following Jesus.