In the Church’s calendar today we celebrate Saint Peter confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, identifying for us that which had been slowly dawning on the Lord’s disciples during those brief years of ministry.
However, I always remember that Peter, that brash and impulsive friend of Jesus, is also called “Satan” by Jesus shortly after this confession because he feels its okay to rebuke Jesus and tell Him that He’s wrong. I always remember that Peter, even in the midst of divine revelation, is just as prone to get it wrong as he is to get it right.
No wonder he often speaks for all of us.
While I ponder this fact this morning, I also think of the theological notion of “participation.” This is an important facet of Radical Orthodoxy, a theological movement that has been very important for me and my thinking in recent years. Coming out of Plato’s ideas—which influenced the theological thinking of Saint Augustine of Hippo and, later, Saint Thomas Aquinas—the notion of participation is related to connections. God is not disconnected, in other words. Rather, as Christians, we participate in God and God’s work.
“Why do you call me ‘good’?” Jesus asks the rich young man, with an air of leading, “No one is good but God alone.” This verse helps us understand this notion of participation. “Good” is not something that exists in and of itself. Something is only “good” if it is rooted in God. In other words, if it is “goodly” then it is “godly” and vise versa.
Goodness is the fruit on the vine. God is the root. The fruit swells with the water and substance drawn up by the roots and passed through the branches. The fruit participates in the life of the tree, it carries no existence apart from tree.
This is part of Saint Peter’s problem. He carries in his mind a working definition of the Messiah. So, when he confesses Jesus as the Messiah, he is attempting to fit Jesus into this working definition. What he fails to acknowledge is the full understanding that Jesus is the Messiah/the Messiah is Jesus.
To reference a fairly embarrassing moment in the presidency of Bill Clinton, it all depends on what our definition of “is” is.
Jesus is the Messiah. What this means is that whatever Jesus does or says those things are messianic. Peter can’t quite wrap is head around this notion. Which is why Peter feels it’s okay to take Jesus aside and try to teach Him “actually, Jesus, the Messiah doesn’t suffer and die because…” Peter is working from a disconnected understanding of Messiah. For him, the Messiah is an office, not a person.
Given his historical context, this makes a degree of sense. There had been many people running around trying to be the Messiah. They all attempted to fit into that office. Their inability to be the Messiah had nothing to do with a lack of effort, however. It had everything to do with the fact that they weren’t Jesus.
This notion is dramatically recalled in the Revelation to Saint John:
“I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’
“Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered […] He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne.” (Revelation 5:2-7 NRSV)
In this vivid scene, we see that no one is worthy to open the scroll. That is because they were not the Lamb.
To confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord is to recognize that His lordship and Messiah-ship are tied directly to His personhood. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Messiah. These things are all bound together in the same way that an orange is orange.
Peter tries to teach Jesus what he thinks the Messiah is all about. Jesus winds up teaching us all the truth, while also revealing our missing of the mark.
In this story of confession and rebuke is, too often, our story.
From my perspective, we all tend to get caught up in a Christianity that lacks a vision of participation. We carry working definitions divorced from the person of Jesus. We must remember that to be “Christians” (which means, basically, “little Christs”) is to live a life that participates in the life of Jesus—in much the same way an avocado participates in the life of the avocado tree.
The Church is a place where people’s lives are constituted by sacraments. Where material things become not only divine encounters, but where we are united directly to God.
In his popular book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller writes: “I once listened to an Indian on television say that God was in the wind and the water, and I wondered at how beautiful that was because it meant you could swim in Him or have Him brush your face in a breeze.”
Miller hits it pretty close here. That the life of the Christian is not a life where things like “Jesus” and “Church” are abstracted entities apart from life. We are the Church, we don’t simply “go to Church.” Jesus Himself does not say that He assists us in our life or offers us a better life, rather He plainly states “I am the life.”
To be Christian, to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, is to participate in Jesus. To live a life rooted in Jesus, defined by Jesus, nourished by Jesus. He cannot be abstracted or put aside. To do so would be to completely miss the point.
When we confess you, Lord, help us to participate in you more fully. Amen.