Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
There is a profound irony in the placement of this story in that the last time the disciples are mentioned, Jesus is chastising them for how little they seem to understand him. And then, moments later – at least in terms of our reading experience – Peter makes the great confession in Mark’s Gospel by confessing that Jesus is the Messiah.
But perhaps that’s less ironic than realistic, when you think about it. Our lives of faith seem sometimes to move in fits and starts, where after long periods of frustration or when understanding seems slow in coming suddenly everything comes clear and we find not just the excitement of insight but the boldness of confession.
If that’s so, then maybe the rest of the story shouldn’t be so jarring, either. For Peter will not linger all that long on the plateau of spiritual insight. Indeed, he will very shortly misunderstand Jesus’ predictions about his death and, later, both deny his Lord and desert him in his time of greatest need.
This, too, feels pretty realistic to me. Faith not only progresses in fits and starts, but also entails some serious ups and downs. We have moments of great faith and many more of great doubt; moments of progress, success, and achievement, and others of disappointment and regression.
What’s constant, however, is Jesus, always there, always with us, and always asking the question – “who do you say that I am?” – and then also providing the answer, not through words or instruction but through his very life, ministry, and ultimately death on the cross.
This, I think, is why he orders them not to tell anyone. It’s just too easy to misunderstand what “messiah” means. We are so inclined to project what we want God to be and do that we often miss what God actually has done and is doing. We, too, whatever our professions of faith, are regularly surprised when God shows up just where we least expect God to be: in the cross, in our suffering, in our moments of weakness, doubt, and despair. This is what “messiah” means – not what we want, perhaps, but what we most desperately need. Thanks be to God!
Prayer: Dear God, surprise us again with the revelation that you desire to meet us in our greatest need, and send us to share this surprising word of grace and mercy to all those searching for meaning and hope. In Jesus’ name, Amen.