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Eugene Peterson: Four Words That Direct the Course of Our Lives

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Every once in a while a person speaks a brief sentence, three or four words maybe, that dams up a sea of wisdom and insight, that keeps the words available for the use of all of us. In an instant we know they are true, and we spend the rest of our lives pondering and living into them.

Socrates summed up a life of acquiring wisdom with two words: “Know thyself.” That is, “Don’t spend your days ransacking libraries and consulting experts. Get acquainted with who you are. There is no one quite like you. Start here.”

In the early church, when the community of the gospel was threatened by overwhelming attacks and the Christian churches seemed about to be overwhelmed by heresy and assault, a young pastor named Athanasius came successfully to its defense. Someone described it as Athanasius contra mundum: “Athanasius against the world.”

More recently Martin Luther King Jr.’s magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech has been a catalyst for the civil rights reforms that are taking shape in this decade of the sixties and after.

But for us Christians, four words continue to give definitive focus to the way we live our lives. The words came two thousand years ago from the lips of a fisherman who was walking on a country road in Palestine, with his friends, in the company of Jesus. The fisherman’s name was Peter. The four words were “You are the Christ,” spoken in answer to Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29).

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When Jesus began his public ministry in Palestine, he chose twelve men to be his companions. Peter was the first, along with his brother, Andrew. Eventually there were twelve. Every time they are listed, Peter is the first one named. He was clearly the leader.

The Twelve spent the next three years with Jesus, walking—always walking—along the shores of Lake Galilee, in the hills, and through the villages. When you are walking, especially with others, you tend not to be in a hurry. Conversations are relaxed. There is time to meet strangers. You have the leisure to do nothing. So in their time with Jesus those three years, there was plenty of time for the Twelve to observe him, ask questions, discuss what was going on in the world and their neighborhood, observe him in all moods and weather. It would never have crossed their minds that he was not human, just like them.

Everything Jesus said and did was done in a place, just as everything we do is done in a place. All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this workplace, these people. One of the seductions that interferes with mature Christian living is the construction of utopias, ideal places where we can live the good life totally without inconvenience. The imagining and then attempted construction of such utopias is an old habit of our kind. But it always turns out that we can’t actually do it. Utopia is literally “no place.” We can only live our lives in an actual place, not in an imagined or fantasized place.

Jesus lived almost his entire adult life in the hills and villages and on the lakeshore of Galilee, all parts of which can be reached in a single day on foot. And when Jesus began his public ministry at the age of thirty, he spent the first three years right there in Galilee, a kind of backwater cousin to Israel. The only exceptions were occasional three-day walking pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.

But once, suddenly and uncharacteristically, he led his twelve followers straight north of Galilee for about two days of travel on foot to the town of Caesarea Philippi. This is the only time this place is mentioned in the narrative, and understandably so, for most if not all of the people who lived there were Gentiles, Greeks and Romans mostly. Roman soldiers were garrisoned there. It was well known for its pagan shrines. And it was stunningly beautiful, having a temple of white marble dedicated to Caesar. A spring of water provided an attractive center for bathing and relaxation. The largest mountain in Palestine, Mount Hermon, loomed magnificently over the whole area and stayed snow covered all year. Four rivers came together to create the River Jordan, form the Lake of Galilee, and water all the land to the south, emptying finally into the Dead Sea.

So why at this point did Jesus leave the familiar world of the Galilee hills and villages and take his twelve disciples into the foreign territory of Caesarea Philippi, where Latin and Greek were spoken and pagan religions practiced?

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Here is a plausible conjecture. For Jesus, after three years in the public eye, two things were developing. First, increasing hostility from the Jewish high priests, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Jesus’s popularity had roused the suspicions of the professional religious elite. This “nobody” from “nowhere” was being talked about by so many. Their authority was threatened.

And second, crowds were flocking to him. Jesus, for the people on the street, had become a guru. People wanted to see him in action, hear him speak, observe the ways in which he was taking the common people seriously. For one segment of the people, he was fast becoming the enemy; for another segment, the latest celebrity. Jesus had become famous, whether as a rival or as the latest in fashions.

So Jesus needed a neutral place where he was not well known in order to clarify with his twelve disciples just exactly who he was and what he was about. It was time to clarify his core identity to his twelve followers and assimilate them to it.

So he took them to Caesarea Philippi on what I think of as a kind of contemplative retreat to a protected, quiet place where the events and conversations would come together and bring to recognition what had been slowly germinating: that this Jesus they had been following was both more and other than they supposed. I’m sure they had some sense there was something more to Jesus than they could articulate. Jesus now prompted them to give a name to it in an environment uncontaminated by accusations that he was the enemy and by larger-than-life fantasies that obscured who he really was.

Jesus cut to the chase.

“Who do people say that I am?”

“Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.”

“How about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:27–29, author’s paraphrase).

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Peter was the first to say it: “You are the Christ.” But the words were not spoken out of the blue. There were three years of relaxed, intimate conversation, eating together, getting to know one another’s stories. One thing they knew for sure was that he was human. But was that all?

In Caesarea Philippi, Jesus was away from those who didn’t trust him and from those who admired him for all the wrong reasons. Jesus was the enemy for some, a larger-than-life guru for others. Was there any other possibility? The unfamiliarity of pagan Caesarea Philippi provided an uncluttered environment for something not yet on their radar. Like, maybe, Christ?

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The Greek word Christ (in Hebrew, Messiah) is a word they knew well. Growing up as good Jews, the Twelve knew it meant something special. Translated into English, it means “anointed.” It marks the custom among the Hebrews of pouring oil over the head of a priest or king or judge. It symbolizes the presence of God’s Holy Spirit filling or shaping a person in the role of a representative of God. The word Christ had a long history of use in their culture, with which they would have been very familiar. They had hundreds of years of handed-down memories of anointing stories.

In some ways it was the most extravagant attribution that could be made. When Peter named Jesus as “the Christ,” he was saying that Jesus was set apart for something special.

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In the everyday speech around us, the term Christ occurs more often as profanity than as naming an actual person, an expletive without content. In Peter’s ears it would have been a witness to the presence of God’s Spirit-filling, shaping a person in a new role as priest or king. It had a long history of use in the Hebrew culture and Scriptures. In the Scriptures it meant that something special was going on here, that this person was set apart to represent God’s presence among them. So when Peter said, “You are the Christ,” he was saying, “You represent God among us.” Or maybe even “You are God among us.” In some ways it was the most extravagant attribution that could be made. It would have had both political and religious connotations.

This was the critical insight and recognition that the three years of association with Jesus finally produced. But what now follows is a total revision of what the Twelve must have understood the identity of Jesus to be. The concept of Christ brought with it an understanding and image that were quite glorious: God among them in Jesus, God coming down to their level, to their everyday, ordinary lives consisting of family, work, eating meals, and going to the market.

Jesus’s response to the confession was a stern command that they were to keep this totally quiet. It was as if he said, “If you talk about this, you will only be misunderstood. If people hear you use this word Christ, they will certainly jump to the wrong conclusions. So, shut up! Don’t say anything to anybody. Not one word.”

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But why would Jesus want this to be kept a secret? Isn’t this what had been going on all this time—preparing their imaginations to recognize God in Jesus?

It had taken three years to make sure that the disciples accepted and participated with Jesus as a human being, totally human. Now they were faced with recognizing him as Christ, the anointed of God, God among them. Jesus knew he had his work cut out for him in providing a way for them to understand that God was being God for and with them in a way they would never have come up with on their own: in a flesh-and-blood human being, just like them.

With Peter’s identification of Jesus as Christ, God-anointed, Jesus had to totally revise their idea of what it meant to have God among them. Jesus lost no time, saying 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” (Mark 8:31, NRSV). Jesus “said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it” (verse 32, MSG). Peter, who had just realized the true, underlying identity of Jesus, couldn’t believe his ears and told Jesus he didn’t know what he was talking about. Peter rebuked him and told him he was talking crazy. And Jesus just as emphatically told Peter to shut up and for emphasis called him “Satan”: “Get behind me, Satan! Right now you are the devil talking. You have no idea how God is working in me among you” (verse 33, author’s paraphrase).

Jesus then elaborated on what he had just said. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” (verses 34–37, MSG).

Annie Dillard, one of my favorite theologians, echoes Jesus with her pithy “A life without sacrifice is an abomination.” (Holy the Firm)

It had taken three years to saturate the apostles’ imaginations and for them to assimilate the fact that Jesus was indisputably human. We are at the midpoint of the story of Jesus as Peter preached it. It is now going to take three months, the second half of this gospel story, for his followers to realize that at the same time Jesus was also indisputably God among them, embracing the sacrificial death that became our eternal salvation.

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Jesus, the presence of God among us, was human, just like us. God in human form. A human form that I can verify simply by touching my nose, my elbow. A historical person who walked the paths and roads on the ground in Palestine in the first century, just as I walk the trails of Maryland and Montana in twenty-first-century America. Jesus spent nine months in the womb just as I did. We know not only his name but the name of his mother. There was a family. There are named friends. This takes a great deal of the guesswork out of knowing God.

Do you want to know what God is like, the form in which God reveals himself? Look in the mirror; look at your friends; look at your spouse. Start here: a human being with eyes and ears, hands and feet, eating meals with friends. Walking to the store for a bottle of milk, hiking in the hills and picking wildflowers, catching fish and cooking them on a beach for a breakfast with friends. There was work to do—carpentry and masonry and fishing. Prayers were prayed. He walked in and out of houses and synagogues and the temple, just as we walk in and out of houses and schools, Walmarts and churches. He died and was buried just as we will be.

What this means, and by and large Christians have insisted on it, is that Jesus is not a principle or a truth, nothing abstract, nothing in general, nothing grandiose. When God revealed himself to us, he did it in a human body, an incarnation.

There is, of course, more to it than this. Jesus is not just human; he is also divine. Not only very human but very God. But what we have to face first of all, and what the gospel writers do face, is that the divinity does not overpower, does not diminish by so much as a fingernail, does not dilute by so much as a teardrop, the humanity. First of all—our four gospel writers are emphatic in their witness—we are told in no uncertain terms that God became flesh, the human flesh of Jesus, and lived among us. We start with the human. This is the way God makes himself known to us. They are also emphatic in their witness to his crucifixion and resurrection—our salvation. Our human life is personal in Jesus; our eternal life is personal in Jesus.

Can you think of any other way that God could have made it easier for us to know him? To meet him? To follow in his ways? Jesus.

But for many, maybe most, it is far easier to believe in an invisible God than in a visible God. Jesus is the form in which the invisible God can be seen.

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You would think this would be enthusiastically embraced as good news, unqualified good news. But when it comes right down to it, I would rather be like God than have God be like me. It turns out that a lot of us, more times than we like to admit, aren’t all that excited that a very human Jesus is revealing God to us. We have our own ideas of what we want God to be like. We keep looking around for a kind of religion or style of spirituality that gives us some promise that we can be godlike, be in control of our lives and the lives of others, exercise godlike authority or at least be authorities on God.

When the know-it-all Serpent promised our first parents that they could be “like God” (Genesis 3:5), you can be sure they were not thinking of anything human with all the limitations of being human that we know today. They were thinking of something far grander: knowing everything there is to know and getting an edge on the rest of the creation. When they heard those words, “like God,” from the Serpent, we can easily imagine what went on in their heads: power, control, being in charge of everything, knowing everything, getting their own way, indulging every whim, able to do anything they desired without restriction.

The usual way we try to become like God is first to eliminate the God who reveals himself in human form and then to reimagine God as the god I want to be, invest this reimagined god with my own god-fantasies, and then take charge of the god business.

The old term for this reimagined, replacement god is idolatry. It is without question the most popular religion in town, any town, and it always has been. In previous generations these idolatry-gods were made of wood and stone, of gold and silver. More often these days they are made of words and ideas, abstractions and principles. But the common elements that define them as idols is that they are nonhuman, nonpersonal, nonrelational.

But idolatry always backfires. In the attempt to become more than human, to be godlike, we become less human, nonhuman: “Those who make [idols] and all who trust them shall become like them” (Psalm 135:18, NRSV). You’d think we would learn.

As we cultivate a relationship with God, we need to be wary of god-fantasies so we don’t end up less human, less personal, less relational, less than who we were created to be. I want to grow up fully human. I want to be as human as Jesus was human. I want to live the Jesus Way, robustly human. And I want to do it with you.

Amen.

Excerpted from As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God Copyright © 2017 by Eugene Peterson. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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Eugene H. Peterson, translator of The Message Bible, is professor emeritus of spiritual theology at Regent College in British Columbia, Canada. He is the author of more than 30 books, including the spiritual classics Run With the Horses and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

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