The Christ of God
Passage: Luke 9:1–9:22
One of the more curious aspects of being a Christian in America (and I'm sure there are lots) is that we talk a lot about monarchy—about kings and the goodness of a king. After watching the musical "Hamilton" during shutdown I went and read the biography on which it was based. They hated the notion of a king around the founding of our nation. If you wanted to offer a public slight on someone, to diminish their appeal or raise a warning about them, you announce that what they really wanted was a king. And like a great melodrama, the speaker could expect a chorus of "boos" to rise up.
Anglicans of course had the worst of it in the immediate aftermath because, well it's the Church of England (boo!) where they have a king (double boo!). The awkward bit came because, while the idea of Jesus as an elected president in a liberal democracy may have fit the mood, it wasn't a great fit for the Bible where we find king language everywhere. Luckily it all happened in the time when people were de-politicizing Christian claims anyway. Any faith claim was a private affair; while politics was a public affair. Belief in God in any form was nice, but not really relevant for public life. What was public and relevant was Reason. Not just using your head and using logic, but the power of logic, of mathematics, and the conviction that if we can get the right method applied to the right problem then we can solve anything. Belief in progress as savior was already starting to find public voice and has been echoed, in spite of all the evidence, ever since. So the notion of religion as political, and publicly political, became tied to things like the so-called "wars of religion" and other negative moments. Sadly, that was sometimes with good reason.
In the proposed non-public world you can have Jesus as king... but not like a real king. That would be unjust, actually, if it really meant "king"—it would mean I don't get a vote. Sentiments began to surface about making Jesus "king of your heart," which sounds eerily like finding a way to say: you get to vote on finding Jesus a place to be "king." It's a democratic monarchy. To speak of a real king, an absolute monarch, sounds like it dethrones us. And it turns out "we, the people" don't like to be dethroned. So Jesus gets to be king if we let him into our hearts; otherwise he stands at the door and knocks, poor Jesus hoping to be let in.
I'm being a bit polemical, I know, and I don't mean any disrespect. There are lots of ways these statements can be used for good. But to be honest, they grate at me a bit. Because we live in a world where I want Jesus to be king. Not in some vague cloud-lit land out yonder, but here. This earth, this stuff, this life that I am actually living. And when we lost the political reality of Jesus as king we lost more than we bargained for. We were left with little but the empty promises of progress (towards what?).
I think those who use the language of Jesus as king in your heart mean well and what they say is true, as far as it goes. Yet we have to remember—the story of Jesus as Luke tells it—declares everywhere that Jesus became king. He didn't wait for someone's heart to allow it, he became king. And our hearts are supposed to reckon with that event.
That's actually the heart of our readings this morning from Luke. Luke wrote this story of the life of Jesus not too long after the events themselves—well within the lifetime of those who are in its pages. We've been going through and looking at Luke's way of telling the story. Luke wasn't even the first to write about it all; he's one of four main ones by those closest to the events. And this feeding of 5,000 men is actually the only one of all the great works (we use the term miracle) that all four of those writers include alongside the different (but related) work of calming a storm by a word.
You might be here and skeptical about someone feeding that many people with a single basket of bread and fish, and that's understandable. A few weeks ago we talked a bit more about the general idea of these miracle accounts and the claim everywhere is (in an old writer's terms), "Creation must obey whatever Christ commands." If Christ spoke the world into being, then it makes sense to say that it obeys him in ways that it doesn't obey me. The claim isn't actually too difficult.
But it would be fun to have a camera on the bread and wine and see how it all happened. Did it just keep growing more molecules quickly in the basket everytime some was torn off? It appears from the other stories that the disciples would keep going back to Jesus everytime they ran out as they served, and it seems they didn't even know how it all happened. They just knew they were there, with 5,000 men, and somehow Jesus fed them all.
Luke ties this story into the larger question: who do you say that I am? We saw it asked by the disciples a little while ago ("Who is this?"), then by Herod here who is afraid of another John the Baptist—the preacher he killed and who had been a PR disaster for him. The whole question comes to its climax when he turns to the disciples: "Who do you say I am?" And Peter's answer:
You are the Christ of God.
We need to hear that as a political bomb dropping. "Christ" and "Messiah" are just the Greek and Hebrew words for having oil smeared on you (or poured); I wish English had gone ahead and translated it instead of just the English letters for the Greek word. But they don't always ask me, and maybe "the one God smeared with oil" wouldn't quite have the same ring. To be a messiah, a christ—you were anointed with oil, a ceremony by which a priest or a king or an altar or the grill tools used at the altar were set apart as an instrument of God in the world. The same language gets used for all of them: priests, kings, clothing, tools—anything that was to be set apart as God's instrument. [For all of this conversation, see Matthew V. Novenson, The Grammar of Messianism.]
Saul had long, long before been anointed as king over Israel by God's priest-prophet Samuel; he was a messiah, one anointed with oil by God. Then Saul showed himself unfit and Samuel found a young boy named David and poured oil out on his head (so he was now a messiah, one who was set part by oil to be God's chosen instrument in the world). But that was a long time ago; David's line had been removed from the throne long ago. The whole of Jerusalem had been destroyed, the capital city. And the people had trudged off into exile in Babylon.
Various prophets of old had spoken of a return from exile followed by a king in the line of David, a new David. A king anointed by God. And he would be a true king, a righteous and good king—a king that lived up to his anointing. That had not happened. Readings like ours from Jeremiah kept being read aloud. But they rarely seemed close to occurring. They had gone from living under the thumb of Babylon, to returning to Jerusalem to live under the thumb of the Persians. Then Alexander the Great had conquered and taken Persia's place over them, only for his empire to be replaced by the Romans. One mighty foreign oppressor after another after another. At no point from the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC to this day was a king in the line of David found on the throne in Jerusalem.
Some had risen up against these large oppressive rulers—most famously Judah Maccabee, who is celebrated at Hannukah in Jewish custom. But none ended well. Just a handful of years before Jesus someone else had arisen to say that he was a new messiah, a new David—one anointed to be king over God's people. But that lasted all of a few weeks and he was killed and the whole thing ended.
It's not that everyone was wandering around waiting for that one figure who would bring the world to its climax; we don't know a whole lot about that if some were. But as a nation they certainly were waiting for a rightful king; one who could legitimately say he was anointed by God: God's Messiah.
It was, in other words, a political hope. Peter's declaration here should be set inside as part of the social and political world of ancient Israel.
You are the Christ of God.
You are God's Messiah; God has anointed you—smeared you with oil—to rule as our king. A confession like this was heard and spoke of as political because it was: the rightful king over God's people, whatever Rome said. "King of the Jews," as it would eventually be pronounced in a different context. It was and remains a political term.
Jesus says not to spread around that he is the Messiah or the Christ, partly because he knows what the Romans would do. It's not yet time; but that time is coming.
As readers of Luke's story, we aren't shocked by Peter's confession. If you're just joining us we've been going through the whole story from the start, and Luke has made this claim already quite often, especially in all the opening songs and exchanges in the first part of his story. We've known Jesus to be the Christ of God, the one God has set to be rightful king over his people. But we are starting to see the drama of the claim: Peter now gets it, confesses it boldly. You are God's Messiah.
But it already has hints of being a bit different from Judah Maccabee or others. First you have the statement right after that confession that he will be rejected, die, and rise to life. He's outlining what it will mean to be God's Messiah, the one in the line of David and yet different from David. We are almost to Holy Week, the climax of the year and the flesh on this short statement. "Peter, you are right: and here is what it will mean for me to be King."
Then you have what it means to follow this Messiah and it's not "take up arms and follow me to Jerusalem." It is, "take up your cross and follow me"—the cross was an object of disgrace. It is not, "finally we are free and powerful," but "lose your life, if you want to find it." Those are the things the Messiah will do himself, so following him here means more than empty metaphors. But it all moves us to start thinking of the Messiah differently. Not less political, but political in a different way. Not less a king, but a particular kind of king. Not a "king waiting on your assent to sit on the throne of your heart." That language can help us sometimes, but is not what we mean by Jesus as Christ or King.
But a king, rightfully taking up a throne.
And it's more subtle but these things are happening in the story of the bread and fish. A king's first duty was always to provide food for the people. That's deep in ancient near eastern thought and, guess what? We still have it today. We take for granted that there will be enough food. But what do you think would happen to any politician if those he leads and represents cannot find food? You think high gas prices have consequences for a politician, imagine a lack of food.
A king provides food for his people, so for Luke it makes sense to tie the proclamation of "who do you say I am," to Jesus' work in feeding his people.
That helps us, I think, understand why all the stories list 5,000 men, not counting women and children. It's not because Luke doesn't care about women and children—he does, everywhere. But put this way has the overtones of a fighting force; 5,000 men is an army. To sit in groups of 50, a strange detail, seems (though this is less certain) because that would be how an army would be divided into its companies. When John tells this story he includes that the people wanted to march on Jerusalem right then and there to make Jesus king by force: they looked around after this and saw themselves as an army.
And yet what will it mean for Jesus to be anointed by God as the rightful king? Freedom from the Romans! Not what he says. An end to the weariness of oppression and injustice! If you're new to the Bible or to church what I'm about to read might not sound familiar, but it will later in the service—listen to how Luke describes Jesus after taking the bread:
he looked up to heaven, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples...
What does that sound like? It's the same language Luke will use for the Last Supper, when Jesus feeds his people with his own sacrifice of himself.
What do we mean when we say that Jesus is the Christ? We use it almost like it's Jesus' last name, or just a title, a word that no longer means anything beyond naming Jesus. But that is not what it should mean or how it should be used: it is a political claim. He is king. He provides for his people—more than they need; there is always more. And that provision is himself: his taking up his own cross; laying down his own life to find it.
"Some of you will see the kingdom of God before you die!" I can imagine the excitement and whispers. But we are approaching holy week and we know what the kingdom of God will look like and how tragic and dark and glorious and final it is. Peter is exactly right: You are God's Messiah! He just had no idea what he meant when he said it.
Not long ago I was talking to a young man who has seen a lot of death, of grief, of injustice in the world. No one is a pure victim, and he wasn't sitting in a victim chair—he was just trying to reckon with how much wrong he has seen. And his question to me was honest: "What good did Jesus do?" The world seems no better.
I get that, all the way down. I have heard that voice too, and the last thing I'm going to do is dismiss it. And yet, as one who has seen at least some sorrow, I can't pretend that Easter hasn't happened. We want the final victory and are right to want it. We want the boundaries of death pushed back, and grow weary that for every advance in justice in one regard, we seem to find in lockstep a move away from justice in another. We want our king the way Peter and others wanted a king—and we are right to want it.
Except what did Jesus actually say for us to expect? I don't want to have to take up a cross, the weariness and burden and public disgrace of it; I grow weary of having to lose my life to save it. Still we find ourselves wishing Jesus had just finished things off then; brought down the curtain—except, let's be honest, we have no idea what we're asking for when we say that. Jesus said that following him was dying and then finding life; was taking up a cross, with the public disgrace and the sorrow. He never said otherwise. And he would provide for us, feed us all along the way. He is king, for our sake.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, so this is the last of the strictly Lenten sermons. The season is a little heavier, a lot of dying to self goes along with Lent. There is hope at Easter; I cannot let this sound like it is the only thing to be said. But Lent is important; we have a time to rejoice and we have a time to weep; a time to feast and a time to fast. And in all of it Jesus gives himself for us, a gift that comes in abundance as he feeds us. It's so Anglican, maybe, but my response to how do I know God can be good is to come and eat. Come and eat. Not because it's magic, not because it makes everything suddenly great, so that losing my life and taking my cross is now like eating boston cream donuts. But because Jesus is King and needs no permission to rule. And he rules, in part, by providing for us: He took bread, broke it, gave it to his people, and said to eat.