You can download the text of this sermon as a Word document here.
Here’s a poem by a Christian called Stewart Henderson, called ‘Splintered Messiah’:
I don’t want a splintered Messiah
In a sweat stained greasy grey robe
I want a new one
I couldn’t take this one to parties
People would say ‘Who’s your friend?’
I’d give an embarrassed giggle and change the subject.
If I took him home
I’d have to bandage his hands
The neighbours would think he’s a football hooligan
I don’t want his cross in the hall
It doesn’t go with the wallpaper
I don’t want him standing there
Like a sad ballet dancer with holes in his tights
I want a different Messiah
Streamlined and inoffensive
I want one from a catalogue
Who’s as quiet as a monastery
I want a package tour Messiah
Not one who takes me to Golgotha
I want a King of Kings
With blow waves in his hair
I don’t want the true Christ
I want a false one.
Today’s Gospel reading is a momentous story: a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus and his disciples. It is the moment it all changes…
The context of where this event happens is really important and so I just want to say a few words to set this reading in its context by looking at the verses that immediately precede it. And if you want to follow it with me, you’ll find it on page 19 in the New Testament section, the second half of the Bible, in the pew Bibles.
So what’s the context of this story?
The disciples are with Jesus in Caesarea Philippi; a village about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. And it was a fascinating village because it was sort of the ‘retirement village’ for Roman officials: the Bournemouth of the Roman Empire, I suppose! And it was built in a valley surrounded by hills at the foot of Mount Hermon. Since the time of Alexandra the Great, it had been a capital of the cults: Caesarea Philippi was thought to be the birthplace of the god Pan and there were temples and idols aplenty for Pan built into the hills and likewise, there were idols to the god Ba’al Hermon and a temple dedicated to Zenodorus.
So, as the disciples walked with Jesus through the village, they would have looked around them at all the temples and the idols and the images of the gods, and it was at that moment that Jesus chose to ask them a simple question: “Who do you say that I am?”
In the midst of all the gods of the known world – who do you say that I am?
And Peter turns to Jesus and says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”.
Perhaps Peter had known that truth for quite some time. Perhaps it was a realisation that came upon him as they walked past the temples and the idols in the village. But either way, this was a moment of realisation and declaration about the nature of Jesus Christ whom they were following.
And we can imagine the quickening of hearts and the sheer intensity of the moment as the disciples confront Jesus with this truth that has dawned upon them. And Jesus doesn’t deny it, and probably the disciples wanted to go out and shout the news to everyone; to introduce them to the Messiah of God and announce this good news to the whole world.
But we are told something very puzzling about Jesus’ response in verse 20: “Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” It was a strong response from Jesus: some version of the Bible say, “He rebuked them not to tell anyone about him” – and they probably felt disappointed that they had to keep this a secret.
So he wanted them to keep quiet about his identity but he went on to talk to them, and this is where our reading starts, about how the Son of Man would suffer and be rejected and be killed. And somewhat perversely we read in verse 21: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples…” Keep quiet about the good news. Speak openly about the bad news.
And Peter is indignant about this and we read that he began to rebuke Jesus. Now it’s his turn: and the same word is used here to describe how Jesus had warned the disciples just a few moments ago and how Peter is now warning Jesus. But then it’s Jesus’ turn again: and in Mark’s account of this story, the same word is used again in the Greek: “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter”.
This is a heated exchange between Peter and Jesus, full of rebuke and warning on both sides. And we can fully understand the human emotions involved here…Peter had spent many months with Jesus, watching him heal the sick and cleanse the lepers and cure the blind and raise the dead and challenge the religious authorities. Peter had spent many months with Jesus, watching the sheer strength of his ministry and the authority of his word. And now he was being confronted with a future filled with weakness and passivity and vulnerability.
And Peter didn’t want that. He didn’t want a Splintered Messiah. He wanted a strong God.
Like others in Israel, he was expecting a mighty leader from the line of David to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel politically.
With hindsight, it is easy to see that error. But the reality is, we are uncomfortable with a Splintered Messiah. We all want a strong God too…When we are hurt in life, when we suffer loss, when we have to put up with thoughtless words from others, when we are sick or dying, we want a strong God. We want a God who will heal us or justify us or turn our darkness into light. We want a strong God.
But the problem is that we see strength from a very human perspective, not from a divine perspective. We understand strength to be the same thing as might, to be the same thing as vindication in the eyes of others. We understand strength to be victory. But that is a frail, human perspective.
In the eyes of God, strength looks very different. For God, strength is measured in vulnerability, in sacrifice, and by our willingness to endure all things in the name of God. That was the example Jesus – the Splintered Messiah – was about to show for his disciples and that is how he wants us to live our lives too. Verse 24: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
How we trivialise that call on our lives. How we manage to turn such a scandalous phrase into something so tame and so parochial. “We’ve all got a cross to bear”: isn’t that such an easy saying to trip off the tongue?
But it is an incredible call on our lives from the man who was walking towards Jerusalem to be tortured and hung on a cross to die. Our Splintered Messiah.
I wonder if Peter felt let down at this point. I suspect so…Up until then, there was a certain glamour in following Jesus: he was hanging out with the coolest superhero in Israel, the crowds flocked to them, the miracles never stopped coming, the teaching was amazing, and no doubt Peter enjoyed bathing in the reflected glory of Jesus. But now, that all changes…
The glamour is gone and Peter is left with the cold, stark reality of the pain of discipleship and the agony of realising that, if he truly wants to follow Jesus, he can’t have it all on his own terms. There is a real cost to discipleship. It is Splintered Discipleship.
We can’t have God on our terms. We can’t create a cosy religion or a comfortable way of being. We profess a Splintered Faith. We are members of a Splintered Church. There is a real cost to discipleship: and it hurts. There is a painful truth in this passage, that if we truly want to follow in the way of Christ, then our individual lives and our corporate church life will become more complicated. It’s an uncomfortable truth – but it is a truth governed by the knowledge that, as Jesus says here, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
And so this is a passage, fundamentally, about our life, our identity: Where do we find our identity, as individuals and as a church? If we find our identity in our preferences or our comfort zones, then we will lose our identity because that is the nature of an impermanent, shifting world. That’s what Peter was discovering. But if we find our identity, our life, solely in Christ, we will save our identity because Christ is eternal.
I am constantly challenged every day of my life, and perhaps you are too, to differentiate between what is of God and what is of my ego. And sometimes, I can dress my ego up in such a way as to fool myself that my preference is of God. But I need to constantly be trying to lay aside the things of the ego and allow God to be at work in me. It’s a cliché – but I must desire less of me and more of God: as I die, so he can live.
And that is what this passage is about. Jesus was calling Peter into a place of self-reflection: to reflect deeply on whether he wanted Christ or whether he wanted his own idea of Christ. Does he want to be a disciple of Israel’s superhero? Or does he want to be a disciple of the Splintered Messiah? And we too are called into that same process of self-reflection. What does it mean for us to die to self? What does it mean for us to die to our own ego? What does it mean for us to lay down our comfortable images of Christ and the church for the sake of Christ and for the sake of the gospel?
Our lives are Splintered. This Church is called to be Splintered – because the splinters of carrying the cross of self-sacrifice must scar our bodies, scar our corporate body. We are called to constantly die to our egos and live to Christ – and it hurts because the splinters dig deep.
“Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
For Jesus, and for us, there is a Good Friday to go through. For Jesus, and for us, there is crucifixion and resurrection to go through. But we know how the story ends. The Splintered Messiah will ascend to the heavens, taking his splintered and scarred body into the presence of the Father where he will be glorified, because of his splinters, for all eternity.
I wonder if we can be courageous enough as individuals and as a church to embrace the splinters and the scarring and the pain of ego-death and self-sacrifice, knowing that we too will be resurrected in Christ and brought into the presence of the Father for all eternity? As Jesus says in this passage, in verse 27: “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”
Our Messiah was Splintered – but he overcame and was acknowledged by his Father in heaven.
You may feel Splintered today.
This Church may be Splintered today.
But we rejoice in the splinter-marks of the cross in our bodies, in our corporate body, and, if we remain steadfast, we too will overcome and our name will be acknowledged before the Father and his holy angels.
I want a Splintered Life.
I want a Splintered Church.
I want a Splintered Messiah.