The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The One God.
“But who do you say that I am?”
When I was ordained a deacon and priest, I worked for my bishop, Charles E. Bennison, Sr., in the diocese of Western Michigan. Although I learned many things from this wise bishop, there is one thing that he told me that has stood out in my mind for over thirty years—and I have quoted him hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times. In the Episcopal Church one can have many titles: Reverend, Father, Mother, Deacon, Canon, Vicar, Dean, Doctor, Archdeacon, Bishop, Archbishop.
Right after I was ordained a deacon, Bishop Bennison made me his Canon Theologian and then he told me this: “John, the only way God knows you is by your baptized name. God does not know you by any title, just by your baptized name.” Every time anyone has asked me what they should call me, my response over the last 30-plus years has always been the same: call me John. I then tell my Bishop Bennison story and I always end that story by saying, “If its good enough for God, it is good enough for me!”
In the Gospel for this morning, Jesus asks a question in two different ways. The first time when Jesus asks the question “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus’ disciples answer the question by giving a litany of people’s names: John the Baptist, and others, Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets. It is interesting to note here that the people responded by naming people who were prophets, people who were calling people to change, prophets who were calling people to repentance. That certainly would have given Jesus a sense of whom people thought Jesus was.
But then Jesus asks the question for a second time, but this time he does not ask what the people are saying; instead this time he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” The response that Peter gives to Jesus is not simply a name, but a name that describes the very essence of Jesus: “You are the Messiah.” “You are the Christ.”
The word Messiah is the Hebrew word for “Anointed One,” while the word Christ is the Greek word for “Anointed One.” Peter describes Jesus as the Anointed One.
But the disciples did not quite get it! From the disciples’ understanding or perspective, the Messiah would lead a popular uprising that would overthrow the Roman government and would establish a new political structure. Even among the disciples there were arguments taking place among them who would hold the most important positions in the new government. Who would be the Secretary of State? Who would be Defense? Who would be Homeland Security? For the disciples, the Anointed One was all about political power, the divinely appointed ruler who would restore the glory and the grandeur of the Kingdom of Israel.
That is who the disciples thought they would get in the Anointed One, but then Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Notice the word sternly—we normally do not think about Jesus as being stern. And then Jesus tells his disciples that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This is not what the disciples bargained for in the Anointed One.
But the King of Kings, the Anointed One is not supposed to suffer. Kings, prime ministers, presidents, heads of state are not supposed to suffer. But in the Gospel for today Jesus turns upside down all of our stereotypes. Jesus redefines what it means to be the Anointed One. At the first station of the cross in Jerusalem, when Jesus is condemned, Jesus is given a crown of thorns. But kings and queens of this world wear crowns made out of gold and silver, adorned with precious and semi-precious jewels: diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires. But Jesus is given a crown of thorns. A crown that will pierce the skin. A crown that will cause blood to flow. This king is different. This king calls for compassion. This king calls for forgiveness. This king calls us to love our enemies. This king calls us to put aside our own prejudices and fear. This king calls us to put aside all that enslaves us.
Today is right between two important days on our calendar. September 11, when eight years ago this nation suffered its worst terrorist attack, and tomorrow when the church remembers Holy Cross Day. I suspect that both days help us to put into perspective what this Messiah, the Anointed One, the one whom we call the Christ, has to say to us today in such a radical way.
On September 11, 2001, when the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan were hit, the then Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams, was walking to Trinity Wall Street to be a part of a taping session. What Archbishop Williams wrote following the attack has helped me to understand the Anointed One in ways that explain the unexplainable. In that article, Archbishop Rowan wrote: “the ‘unspeakable’ tragedy of thousands of innocent dead cannot be made ‘better’ by more deaths. It may be humanly as unforgivable as it gets; but that is not the same as saying that revenge (as opposed to just punishment) is what is needed.”
Archbishop Rowan reminded me that God speaks a different language, not a language of revenge and retaliation, but a common language, “by God sharing with us the experience of terror and death.” And when we speak to God the language of hatred and rejection, nails and spears, nail-bombs and air-strikes, terror attacks and the bleeding bodies of children in Ireland, Baghdad, Jerusalem, or New York, God refuses to answer in that language.
With each of the innocent victims who lost their lives on 9/11, God wept and God continues to weep with their families and friends. In the same way God wept and continues to weep for those who committed that horrid act, and act that was as humanly “unforgivable as it gets.” God weeps. God is crying with us. Politicians and world leaders all too frequently turn to revenge and retaliation, but the Anointed One has shown us there is another way to do our business, that God shares with us the experience of terror and death.
On December 21, 1988, the global community lived through another tragedy that certainly can be described “as humanly unforgivable as it gets.” We all remember that December day when Pan Am 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland. That day 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie lost their lives. This last month we have seen how “ripe that pain still is” for the families and friends of the victims as the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, made his decision to release from a Scottish prison the only Libyan ever convicted for the heinous crime on grounds of compassion.
Many of us had the opportunity to listen to MacAskill read his long and articulate decision in which I believe the justice secretary made an important theological distinction in his argument. You will recall that the justice secretary argued that he would not release al-Megrahi on a pardon or change the terms of his just punishment, but it was ultimately on the grounds of “compassion” that MacAskill decided to release al-Megrahi. MacAskill released al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds because of al-Megrahi’s terminal cancer so he could go home to Libya to die. That decision caused a human outcry here in the United States in part because of speculation in the British Press that an oil agreement was part of the deal. Time will certainly tell us if the motivations of the justice secretary were pure or if his decision was tainted with oil.
After listening to the Justice Secretary read his brief, my wife, Kirsten, asked me a question that has haunted me since August 20 to this day. Kirsten asked, “What would Jesus have done in this situation?” If we really believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, if we really believe that God rejects revenge and retaliation, if we really believe in radical compassion, if we really believe Jesus when he says, “Love your enemies,” what would Jesus have done had he been in Scotland? My guess is that Jesus was in Scotland that day helping us to see the radical compassion that God has for God’s people.
Sure it does not take away the pain and the hurt of the family and friends of the victims. It does not bring back any of the 270 lives. God is still weeping with them. God continues to share with us the experience of terror and death. I suspect that, regardless how difficult it might be for me to accept this generosity, God’s business is about radical compassion and forgiveness, and the cross points us in that direction.
Tomorrow the church celebrates Holy Cross Day. Because of that cross Jesus, the Anointed One, does his business in a different way: Jesus calls us to love our enemies, to have compassion and forgiveness. Is that not what we are called to uphold as Christians? As controversial as the justice secretary’s decision was, is that not how Jesus is ultimately challenging us to live our lives?
I close by telling one more story. A story that a Pennsylvania Amish community showed us about compassion and forgiveness and what it meant to live in the image of the Anointed One when they faced a disaster back in 2006. We all remember well when five young girls were murdered in their school. The dean of this Cathedral told a story the Sunday after the October shootings when one of the grandfathers of a slain girl said, “We must not think evil of this man,” and he went on to urge forgiveness. The Amish community also embraced the widow of the killer, which included inviting her to the funerals and letting her know that she would be welcome to stay with their Amish community.
The Amish community has let us see what it means to love one’s enemy and to live in the image of God. In a world today that knows only revenge and retaliation, it was the Amish and the Scottish justice secretary who have shown us a different way—a love that reflects forgiveness and reconciliation, a love that shows us the radical compassion of the Anointed One.
In the name of the Anointed One. Amen.