In one of the rooms near the end of the hall, there are portraits of Jesus. They show him with children… which is right. They show him with a crown of thorns… which is right. They show him knocking on a door… which I’m sure he did and which is a good metaphor.
And they show him being White, with flowing blond hair, a Greek nose, and striking blue eyes… and that is wrong.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. There are millions of portraits of Jesus. Artists have portrayed him as every shape and size and race and color; with every kind of facial feature and hairstyle. There are masculine Jesuses and feminine Jesuses. There are Black and White and Asian and Hispanic and First Nations Jesuses. There are straight Jesuses and gay Jesuses and trans Jesuses.
There is beautiful diversity in portraits of our savior. There is beautiful diversity in our savior.
But the Christ who came into this world as a baby among a dispossessed people in an occupied land… who lived and preached and taught and healed… who was hung on a cross and buried in a tomb… who rose again… did not look like me.
The portraits in the room down the hall are a little bit right. And they’re a little bit wrong. They’re a little bit about who Jesus is. And they’re a little bit about who the artist wanted Jesus to be.
Today’s reading begins with Jesus and his disciples traveling to Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”
And they tell him. There are people who say that he is John the Baptist. There are other people who say he is Elijah: the prophet who was taken bodily into heaven and who would return to announce the Messiah. And there are still others who say that he is a prophet.
The world imagines Jesus is so many ways.
And then Jesus asks them, “Well… who do you say that I am?”
And Peter replies, “You are the Messiah.” And Jesus seems satisfied with that.
I don’t know what Peter is thinking when he says that, but I suspect is goes something like this: You are the Messiah, the descendant of David, the king of all Israel, who will oust the occupiers and defeat our enemies and make Israel great. You are the Messiah, who will usher in the kingdom of God. And all of the nations will recognize our god as the true god! Every knee will bow! Every tongue will confess!
And all of that—all of those hopes and dreams—are wrapped up in, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus starts talking about what’s going to happen. And he does not say that he is going to oust the occupiers and defeat Israel’s enemies and make Israel great.
He says that he’s going to die. He says that he’s going to suffer. He says that he’s going to be rejected by all of the people in charge… and that he’s going to be killed… and that he will rise on the third day.
And Peter gets upset: “No! You are the Messiah! And the Messiah—“
And Jesus cuts him off: “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
And then it gets worse.
Jesus calls his disciples over and tells them, “If you want to follow me, then you need to deny yourselves… and pick up your crosses… and follow me. If you try to hold onto your life—if you aren’t willing to give up everything—then you will lose everything. But if you pick up that cross—if you leave safety and security behind—then you will gain the kingdom!”
There are millions of pictures of Jesus. Some of them are paint on canvas. Some of them are words on pages. Some of them are just ideas in our heads. And they’re probably all a little bit right and a little bit wrong. They’re probably all a little bit about who Jesus is and a little bit about who we want Jesus to be.
Peter wanted a Messiah who would restore Israel to glory. I long for a Jesus who will fill the world with justice and mercy. There are folks who wait for a savior who will raise them into the air. There are people who want a Christ who will prove them right… and there are people who want a Christ who will prove everyone else wrong.
We all long for the Messiah who will meet our hopes and our expectations. And the problem, of course, is that Jesus refuses to do that. There is this gap between human things and divine things. And when I tell Jesus to be who I want him to be, he cuts me off.
And then it gets worse.
If I want to follow Jesus, I need to deny myself and pick up my cross. If I want to save my life, I will lose it. If I am willing to lose my life, I will save it.
It turns out that it’s not about who I want Christ to be. It’s about who Christ wants me to be.
A while after Jesus says these things, he takes James and John and Peter—the one who said, “No! You are the Messiah! And the Messiah—“… the one who Jesus accused of being too focused on human things… the one who Jesus called Satan—up a mountain.
And there, on top of the mountain, Jesus is transformed.
James and John and Peter are stunned by the light of Christ. They see before them Moses (the law) and Elijah (the prophets). They are terrified. They do not know what to say. And a cloud rolls in… and a voice thunders around them… “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
And then, as suddenly as it started, it ends. The voice is silenced. The cloud dissipates. The light fades. Moses and Elijah are gone. And standing before them is only… Jesus.
The story goes on. James and John and Peter have questions: “Why does Elijah have to appear to announce the Messiah? What’s up with this rising on the third day thing?”
“Does this mean I really do have to pick up my cross and deny myself and follow him down that road?”
I don’t know exactly what happened on that mountain. But I think that they went up that mountain with all of their pictures—with all of their expectations—of a Messiah. And then they experienced their Messiah. No pictures. No paint, no words, no images in their heads. Just the raw reality of the law and the prophets and the Messiah. Just a moment in which the chasm between the human and the divine was closed.
We like our pictures. There is comfort in looking at a painting and saying, “That is Jesus.” There is peace is reading some words on a page and saying, “That is Jesus.” There is rest in the image in my head that is a little bit about who Jesus is and a little bit about who I want Jesus to be.
So we have a room with pictures of Jesus… and we have books and sermons full of words… and we have a million other things that are a little bit right and a little bit wrong. And they can be good things: they can point us towards Christ. And they can be bad things: we can confuse them for Christ.
But every so often… every so often… we can have a moment when the images fade and the words are silenced and we are overwhelmed by the experience of Christ. Every so often, we meet Christ and we know Christ. And the pictures are burned away.
And when it fades, we want more. When it fades, we want to follow. And that is a holy thing.
Part of why those paintings are comfortable and those words are peaceful is that they are human things. They are ours and we can control them. We can use them to make Christ—to make God—look and act and think like us.
But Jesus is not just human; he is also divine. And he not ours; we are his. And this whole thing isn’t about making him more like us; it’s about us becoming more like him: more perfectly reflecting the image of God… more perfectly, really, truly human.
And that means picking up our cross. It means being willing to give up the world-as-we-know-it for the world-as-God-intends-it-to-be. It means being willing to lay down the lives that we have made so that we can pick up life abundant and eternal.
It means walking through the wilderness… into an undiscovered country… wild and dangerous and full of grace.
And that is not an easy thing to do.
We are about to enter the season of Lent. At the end of this service, we will retire the alleluia. On Wednesday, we will be reminded of our mortality. And for forty days we will wander through the wilderness… just like the Israelites did between Egypt and Canaan. We will face our temptations… just like Jesus did between his baptism and his ministry.
We will share bread and wine. We will pray for salvation. We will see our friend and teacher betrayed and crucified and buried. We will pick up our cross. And that will not be easy or comfortable or peaceful.
But we can do all of that because we have faith. We have faith that at the end of this season, Christ will rise again and lead us into the kingdom that God has prepared for us.