Jesus, Violence, and Power by Rev. Leah D. Rosso

Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 16:13-23

Last week I was talking to someone about starting some new healthy habits, and they said to me, "Learning new habits isn't nearly as tricky as unlearning the ones I already have."

Unlearning habits that we have is hard, isn’t it? Unlearning the ways we have always thought about things is even harder.

Pope Francis recently wrote about the Lenten season coming up, and instead of encouraging fasting from food, which we typically think about for Lent, he was encouraging people to fast from indifference. What would it look like to give up indifference-- a coping method many of us employ? What would it look like to unlearn apathy? I think some people would rather give up chocolate. Unlearning habits can be very difficult, especially if they have been passed on for generations.

Jesus seems to do both. He introduces new habits to his disciples, his followers, and to the religious leaders of his time-- habits like how to pray, how to see the world with abundance instead of scarcity, even how to heal. But he's also always challenging them to unlearn their bad habits-- or in many cases, unlearn the way they think about God and the world around them. Last week we talked about how he flipped the Pharisees' understanding of hell upside down. And by doing so, he also challenges their ideas of who is worthy of God's love, what makes people clean or unclean, how God's grace is shared with the world, and who's closest to God. This week, we see him challenging his own disciples as to what their notions of Messiah look like and how what he has to offer may be quite different than their expectations.

How does he do this? He takes them on a field trip!

Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi-- a place known for its monuments to various gods. There were over 14 temples built near there in honor of Baal, the Syrian god. There was a holy site in a cave where the Greek god, Pan, was believed to have been born. And then, right in the middle of town, there was an enormous white marble temple built by Herod the Great in honor of Caesar, the one who called himself the Son of God. The place is filled with other gods. You couldn’t look any direction and not see a display of power, of violence, of might. Each one holds its story of dominance and victory. Each one built to be the best. Jesus is visually putting himself up against the god of the Syrians; a god of the Greeks; and the entire Roman Empire-- Caesar and all those who called themselves Caesar after him.

How insignificant it must’ve felt to be there among all of the marble and architecture and cliffs. All of them know that to call Jesus the son of Man or the son of God is enough to get themselves killed. And so you can feel the weight of Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” as they stood among giants— Who is this Jesus? This carpenter and his misfit disciples?

It sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it? “Who do you say that I am?” I mean if your spouse came up to you and asked you that, you would know to artfully dodge the question. If an aging parent asked you “who do you say that I am?” you might direct the conversation in a way that helped them see all of the things they’ve done in their life, and the ways you have experienced them. If you have a teenage son or daughter, than you definitely know if they ask you, “who do you say I am?” than now is probably not the time to talk to them about your hopes and dreams for their future.

Here Jesus asks the question, "Who do you say that I am?" And for once in his life, Peter gets it right. Whether it’s a fearful whisper among the powers of his world, or a defiant shout to bring them all down, Peter says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God,” and Jesus blesses him.

If the passage ended there, we may have thought Peter finally understood-- was beginning to catch on-- after all Jesus praises him for knowing the answer, for being bold enough to speak it, for listening to God long enough to see that indeed Jesus, this humble carpenter is the Messiah they have been waiting for. But then something else happens. As they go about their daily life, Jesus begins to share with them what it means that he is the Messiah. He tells them that he will suffer, that he will die, that he will rise on the third day. And Peter takes him aside and says, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.'"

And within a few sentences, we go from Jesus blessing Peter, to rebuking him, saying, "Get behind me Satan." What has happened here? How is it that we can go from Peter calling Jesus, the humble teacher, Messiah and Lord, and then a few sentences later, being rebuked harshly by Jesus?

By the grace of God, Peter was able to see in Jesus God's love and power and grace being lived out in a way he had never seen before and he was able to profess belief and trust in Jesus as his Lord, the Messiah. But that didn't mean that Peter didn't have some unlearning to do. For generation upon generation the Messiah was seen as the one who was going to make everything right. The one who would take King David's place as ruler of Israel. The one who would throw off the oppressor and make Israel a mighty nation again. That was the expectation. The hope. The dream.

Jesus, on the other hand, understood his role as Messiah as the Son of Man, to be very different. He knew that in order to break the cycles of violence that had been happening since the very beginning, that his reign would not come through violence or abuse of power or any of the methods that his forebearers had used. He knew that there was another way-- God's way-- that the people did not yet understand. He sets himself against the backdrop of the other gods; the other way of using power to punish people, terrorize people, create fear in people, and he sets himself up as a different kind of Messiah; a different kind of Lord. He will not reign through might; he will not rule through violence; he will not gain followers through fear. He will not choose to be indifferent to people’s suffering or hunger or spiritual distress. Jesus will walk the road of love, self-sacrifice, and ultimately, life.

It is a way that we are still learning. One, that even two thousand years later, we rarely choose to take because it's so difficult to unlearn. And yet that is exactly what Jesus calls us to-- to follow Jesus in this new way of living. To trust in Jesus to break the cycles of violence in our cultures; in our societies; in our families; in our friendships. Jesus calls on us to trust fully in God's love so that we can rely on that love to direct us, to shape us, and to bring us back into relationship time and time again. To forgive our enemies and serve one another so that God's love will rule our hearts and our minds-- not our own ideas of who God should be or is, but so that God's love will lead us in this life and the life to come.

Every time we come to the table to celebrate communion, we recognize the way that Jesus led his people and the way that he still leads us today. We remember his sacrifice through the breaking of the bread, but we also rejoice in the new life that comes through resurrection. We come to the table and we recommit our lives to Christ, recommitting to follow in his footsteps towards healing, hope, and love.

  • Resources used to write this sermon are Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking; Barclay’s commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, volume 2; and a Time magazine article on the Pope, in which they quote him saying, “Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”