Peter gets it absolutely right: Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And yet, as we know, a few minutes later he shows he has not really understood. When Jesus speaks of betrayal, suffering and death he tries to stop him. We cannot blame Peter for that. We would have done the same, but he and the disciples are on a long, hard road to finding out who the Messiah really is.
For a Jew of Peter’s time the Messiah would bring political freedom. For the last seven centuries at least, the little country of Judaea had been bullied by different nations – Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and now the Romans. Each one of these squeezed money out of the people. Each one set up a brutal system of repression. Each one compromised the religious life of the Jews, bringing in foreign gods and defiling the land with their presence. The various writings of the Old Testament have different ideas of what the Messiah would do. But he would bring peace, prosperity and freedom. He may even get all other nations to recognise that truth lay with the Jews so that people from all the nations would take hold of the robe of a Jew and say “We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:23) In a way that is what happened, through the Christian story, though it turned out to be more messy and complicated than that.
We are left with the problem, what actually did the Messiah do? What actually does Christ do, not just in first century Palestine but now, today. Jesus himself proclaimed the kingdom of God. He gave us the Sermon on the Mount and other teaching that told us what this Kingdom would be like. He did not, as Messiah, suddenly bring such a Kingdom to be, but he left us the Christian Church and over the centuries in all kinds of ways, sometimes good, sometimes muddled, sometimes sinful the Church has tried to bring that Kingdom into the world. Has it succeeded? We look round at the world today: endless conflict in the Middle East, oppression and violence in Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Congo and Mali; drug wars in Central America; destruction of the planet through greed and carelessness; chief executives of banks and industries with their colossal salaries and their irresponsible use of money; Brexit – I say no more. It is easy to feel that nothing much has changed since the time of Jesus – not really.
In his recent book, Dominion, the writer Tom Holland tells us why he returned to Christian faith. For a long time, he had thought it irrelevant. He himself was fascinated with the world of Greece and Rome. He has written marvellous books about that world and done an excellent translation of Herodotus. But he came to realise he would not like to have lived in those times. Greeks and Romans were intensely ambitious for power, reputation and glory. They were cruel and enjoyed watching other people suffer. They happily trampled on other people, other nations, to get to the top. There was no compassion, no care for the poor, no concern for the loser. There was no love. We have these values embedded in Western society. We may not live by them; there are plenty of people who act otherwise but society as a whole knows that these values are worth having, and governments know they must appear to care for these values if they hope to be elected. Tom Holland realised that Christianity has left an indelible mark on the world as we have it today. It is a good mark, one we can be proud of.
So one part of Christ’s role as Messiah was to enable his people to bring about this change. It has taken time and will take a great deal more time. It happens through the teaching, the sacraments and the activity of Christians throughout the world. It depends on the knowledge that the Holy Spirt is active in the world and that the Risen Christ is present. On our own, even with the teachings and the example of Jesus before us we could do nothing. Even with the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit the Kingdom of God on earth will not happen any time soon. Individuals experience complete transformation. Millions of people find themselves in a new and saving relationship with God, but society remains stubbornly the same. That final transformation of the world will probably only come at the end of time when God gathers all things together into a new creation. We do not know what that will be like.
Meanwhile there is death. Christ came as Messiah to tell us that death is not the end. He didn’t just tell us; he went through death into the deepest darkness of what lies beyond death, and came back to show us it was not the end. Jesus tells us “I go away to prepare a place for you…I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am you may be also.” (Jn 14:3) That is the exciting news. None of us will live long enough to see the Kingdom of God come to fruition in this world. All of us will die. All of us will have the chance to meet up with Christ coming out of that darkness. All of us will have the chance to go with him, to be received by him and to live with him and his Father for ever. I do not know whether all of us will take that chance. Some may refuse; some may not understand what is going on. I cannot speak of that. But I am sure that if we want to be with Christ and to live in love with God then we will. We must want to be with Christ. We must want to enter into the love of God. We must look beyond death for the Christ who waits for us there. That is the really wonderful news of the Resurrection of Christ. That, in the end is the meaning of Christ the Messiah.
Fr Nicolas CR