The Heartbreaking Messiah

Have you ever heard the sound of a heart breaking? Do you remember what it sounds like?

Maybe it was your son or daughter's heart breaking when they graduated from high school or college only to find the job market had disappeared, taking with it any chance for the future they'd dreamt about. Or maybe it was your sister's heart breaking when the doctor called to say the cancer was back and she had to face the fact that she wouldn't see her children grow up. Maybe it was your friend's heart breaking when he called to say that his marriage was over.  Or maybe it was your own heart breaking when your house went into foreclosure and so many of the dreams you'd held seemed to vanish into thin air.

Have you ever heard the sound of a heart breaking? Do you remember what it sounds like?

I think we hear that sound again in today's gospel reading. It might be hard to detect at first; but if you listen closely, can you actually hear a human heart first tremble under the stress of an uncertain future and then actually fracture amid severe disappointment and shame.

It happens just outside of Caesarea Philippi, a village 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is walking with his disciples when he asks them what the people are saying about him. It's an interesting question, 'cause by this time in Mark's story the disciples have been with Jesus for some time and have seen him cure the sick and lame, cast out demons, feed literally thousands of people, even restore life to a young girl. Little wonder, then, that Jesus might ask what the crowds thought of all this. And the disciples do not disappoint, reporting that the crowds indeed recognize that Jesus is clearly a prophet, a holy man of God.

Then Jesus gets to what seems like his real question, asking the disciples themselves, directly, "But who do you say that I am?" And, again, the disciples come through, one disciple in particular, as Peter declares that Jesus isn't just a prophet but is actually the long-awaited Messiah, the one anointed by God to save all of Israel.

Now we'll never know whether that confession had been brewing in Peter for some time and only needed Jesus' question to bring it forth or whether it came to him in the flash of divinely guided insight. But it's not hard to imagine that making that confession had to be one of the best moments in Peter's life. For there's something indescribably wonderful about recognizing and participating in a truth bigger than yourself, about naming truth in a way that somehow makes it more true in your own experience. It's like saying "I love you" for the first time to a beloved and in saying it realizing just how true it is, even truer than it was just a moment before. That's what happens with Peter just outside of Caesarea Philippi, as with that confession his heart, brimming over with insight and faith, begins to sing.

...And then, only moments later, to break.

Now, I can guess what you may be thinking--that Peter's heart breaks when Jesus rebukes him. "Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" Who, after all, could endure such words from the Lord?

But I don't think that's when it happens. No, I suspect it happened just a moment earlier. Let's listen carefully to Mark's story once again:

Jesus asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man 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. He said all this quite openly.

There - did you hear it? First it's faint, just a little tremor, as after Peter's great confession Jesus neither affirms or congratulates him but instead sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone. What? How can this be? This is the greatest news in the world and you don't want us to share it with anyone? Are you kidding?

Then it gets louder, as Jesus' words etch tiny fissures into the depths of Peter's heart and hopes, fissures that spread like cracks in a windshield. Can you hear them? "Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering"--crack--"and be rejected by the elders"-- crack --"the chief priests"--crack--"and the scribes"--crack--until at last comes the final blow, "and be killed"--and there it goes, Peter's heart, fracturing into a thousand shards of disappointment so loudly that it drowns out Jesus' final promise, "and be raised on the third day."

No wonder Peter rebukes him. This sounds like blasphemy. The savior of the world, suffer? God's messiah, die? Are you mad?

Peter, you see, wants and needs a strong God. Like so many of his day, he's looking for a descendant of mighty king David to come and overthrow Roman rule and restore Israel to it's rightful place among the nations. Jesus has to be that person. After all, he's already brought relief, comfort, healing, and life. So what's all this talk about suffering and death?

Peter wants a strong God...and who can blame him. Are we any different? When the crushing weight of hardship bears down upon us, when the voices of despair drown out all others, when it's one disappointment after another, don't we also want a strong God to avenge our hurts, to right all wrongs, and to put us back on top of things?

Except...except that it's precisely when I'm down and out, when life's setbacks and disappointments have conspired to make me feel like I'm nothing, that I wonder what a God of might, strength, and justice--the God of winners, that is--has to say to me, an ordinary schmuck and everyday Joe, who often feels far closer to defeat than to victory.

I think this is what Jesus means in his rebuke to Peter by contrasting divine things and earthly ones. By our human reckoning strength is everything, might makes right, and the one who dies with the most toys wins. But God employs a different calculus and measures strength not in terms of might but of love, not by victory but vulnerability, not in possessions but in sacrifice, not by glory but by the cross.

Jesus knows this; but Peter does not, at least not yet. For this isn't the last time Peter's heart will break. Twice more, if we listen carefully, we'll hear it go. The next comes much later in Mark's story, this time not in response to what Jesus says but in response to what he himself says, as with his own lips Peter denies his Lord three times and then must watch Jesus beaten, nailed to a cross, and die...alone.

No longer strong, but desolate, no longer thirsting for victory, but desperate for a measure of relief from the pain, Peter will take his twice-broken heart and hide, hoping against hope that his despair will some day pass. Until, on the third day, the rumor begins to circulate that Jesus has been raised. And soon enough Peter will hear that the messenger who heralded these tidings said, in fact, not just to tell the disciples, but to tell the disciples and Peter-- yes, Peter, who denied and fled, Peter, who is now broken and defeated--to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus would meet them in Galilee, just as he promised.

And at that moment Peter's heart breaks yet a third time. Can you hear it? It is broken wide by a mercy he couldn't formerly comprehend and knows he doesn't deserve; it is split apart with sudden insight into a divine vulnerability that transcends human measures of strength. It is cracked wide open to the possibility that mercy, grace, forgiveness, and life surpass our earthly categories and for this reason can promise and grant new and eternal life.

Peter's heart breaks in today's reading because he doesn't get the God he wants. It breaks again at the end of the story when he realizes that instead of getting the God he wants, he gets the God he needs.

So it will also be with us, as we recognize that the God we worship comes not for the victorious but for the vanquished and seeks out not the mighty but the down trodden. Our God comes, as Scripture bear witness, to feed the hungry, to heal the lame, to free the bound and to bind up the broken-heartened. Our God comes, that is, for us.

And so we pray: Come, Lord Jesus, break open our hearts that we might perceive your profound love for us and all people and receive your mercy and grace. Amen.