by Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, Rector Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, WA, Shackan First Nation
Prior to this moment in the narrative arch of the Gospel of Mathew, life has seemed pretty good to the apostles – maybe they had experienced a novel moment or two in their life with Jesus, but those moments only reinforced their beliefs that Jesus was sent by God. In last week’s Gospel reading, we heard Peter proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Having identified Jesus as the Messiah, the apostles were then confronted with their own assumptions and biases about the very idea of a messiah.
Among the ancient Hebrew culture, the messiah was conceived from their particular cultural experience and social history such that when Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, he had in mind a warrior-king like David, one who would drive out the Romans and liberate the Israelites. The messiah was supposed to overthrow their oppressors, heal all ills, bring mighty justice to the peoples, and wreak vengeance on their enemies. The Romans had been foreign occupiers in Judea since 63BC, when Roman legions laid siege of Jerusalem. As colonizers, they imposed Roman law and levied taxes against the Israelites to help support their occupation. They led by the threat of violence, through the presence of an occupying military force, the usurpation and control of local resources, and by slaughtering the rightful civil and religious leaders of the tribes of Israel in order to replace them with the creatures of empire. The difficulty with having expectations – even of a Messiah – is that expectations are actually limitations that can keep people from becoming who they are meant to be. The expectations of those following Jesus threatened to bind him in a way far more thwarting of God’s plan than crucifixion.
Sometimes the very people we love the most can be stumbling blocks to our ability to journey to where we feel truly called to be in life. The expectations of others can trip us up, contributing to self-loathing for the disappointment that may we cause parents or others by fulfilling their expectations of who they think we ought to be or what others think we ought to be doing. “I love you, I only want the best for you” can become a cudgel of force beating down on the heads of those who would like to please the people they care about but desperately seek to be understood and accepted for who they really are. When Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, his affirmation sounds powerfully accepting of Jesus’ true nature. Yet, when Peter learns of the kind of messiah that Jesus means to be, Peter rejects that understanding – in no way does going to Jerusalem in order to be tortured and killed sound like any version of messianic mission with which Peter is familiar or that he would want.
In truth, Jesus was a warrior-king but not the kind that Peter and the apostles expected.
Jesus is doing something new and living into a type of kingship while leading his followers into a different kind of battle than that of violence and hatred. The Messiah that Jesus is called to be is a kingship not fueled by vengeance and retribution but one that rules by forgiveness, mercy, and love. He is challenging the powers of empire in a way that refuses to perpetuate the violence of empire. As Messiah, Jesus seeks to be enthroned in people’s hearts, not in their palaces. As Messiah, Jesus gathers around followers who will be his ministers of healing in body, mind, and spirit of all those traumatized and weary of exploitation and injustice. He does not arm his followers with weapons of war but with the spiritual medicine kit of the Good News. The message that the Kingdom of Heaven is here is not meant to intimidate and oppress the people but to bring them joy and freedom. Liberation from the expectations of empire is possible when we leave behind what binds us to it through human measures of success and security.
The journey to Jerusalem is one of victory over fear, even the fear of failure. Our faith tells us that when Jesus died, he did not fail, though it might have seemed so to those whose expectations were limited by a narrow understanding of the power of love. For it was love for Jesus that ultimately compelled the apostles to leave the upper room and travel back into the world of empire and turn it on its head with a message of hope. It is love that brings generations of Christians to the lip of the baptismal font, either brought in the arms of family or brought by their own compassion. It is love that empowers us to let one another go so that we might make our individual journey to our Jerusalem and there to become the self and world that God intends for all to know – repairers of the breach, creating a place for all to live in. A world founded in love and committed to peace and justice for all is a new creation worthy of an unexpected Messiah.
So, do not let anyone keep you from your journey to Jerusalem, and I will meet you there – in that place where mercy and truth meet together and righteousness and peace kiss each other and all are called Beloved.
by Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, Shackan First Nation