Are you the Messiah?

A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 119:57-64

Jeremiah 26:1-15

Mark 14:53-72

“Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

This question from the high priest is at the centre of the first trial which Jesus faced following his arrest. This week and next, when I will be preaching again, I want to take a little time to explore the two quite different trials, and the different charges made against Jesus.

But let’s backtrack a little first. Throughout 2021 we will be reading through St Mark’s Gospel – mostly in the mornings at the Sunday Eucharist. On Palm Sunday, as is our custom, we will read, in dramatized form, the whole Passion narrative according to Mark. Last year we read that according to Matthew, and next year we will read from Luke. Every Good Friday we read St John’s account of the events surrounding the arrest, trial and death of Jesus.

At Evensong we are currently reading large chunks of the Passion of Jesus according to St Mark. This gives us the opportunity to spend a little more time focusing on particular elements of the story; and noticing what individual Gospel writers actually have to say, and thought worth recording, rather than the four Gospel accounts simply merging into one another. Each Gospel writer – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – approaches things from their own perspective. While there is much overlap, as you’d expect from eye-witness accounts, there are also significant differences, additions and omissions.

Mark loves his questions. On many occasions the question of the identity of Jesus is raised. Sometimes it is by the demons who seem to know (or think they know) exactly who Jesus is; mostly it is the crowds and disciples who wonder about the identity of Jesus, the source of his authority and ability to do mighty works. In the middle of the Gospel Jesus asks outright who the disciples think he is – “But who do you say that I am?” Tonight’s question comes from the high priest: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61)

To discover the setting for this question we need to go back at least to the beginning of Mark 14 – we read it two Sunday nights ago. Two days before the Passover Festival the chief priests and scribes are looking for a way to get rid of Jesus – a troublemaker and stirrer as far as they are concerned. Mark slips in two sneaky, and rather sinister, sentences at the beginning of the chapter just before one of the most beautiful and poignant incidents in the Gospel – the anointing of Jesus by an unknown and unnamed woman. It leads into the preparation for the Passover meal, the disciples being sent into the city and finding a man carrying a jar of water. We join Jesus in the upper room where he gives some unwelcome news. One of those at the table will betray him. Each denies that it could possibly be them but Jesus goes on: one who dips bread into the common bowl will do the act. That’s a breaking of the deepest bonds of trust. Jesus takes bread, blesses, breaks and shares it. He does the same with a cup of wine. From this we get our central act of worship – the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, focused on the breaking of bread and sharing of the common cup.

Last week’s reading continued from the Last Supper to the time of prayer, agonised prayer, in the Garden of Gethsemane. I refer you to Lynn Arnold’s interesting sermon based on the perspectives of Jesus praying alone in three different paintings by Eugene Delacroix. As Jesus wakes his disciples for the third time Judas arrives and betrays Jesus with a kiss. This most intimate action of love and trust is utterly destroyed.

And so, tonight, we find ourselves going with Peter. Sneaking along in the shadows for he does not want to be recognised. At the same time, he can’t abandon Jesus. It’s cold and the fire brings some temporary comfort. The trial begins. It soon becomes clear it is a farce, a put up job. There is no clear evidence. There is no clear understanding of what Jesus is accused of other than some far fetched idea that he talked of rebuilding the temple in three days! To all of this, and we can imagine it went on for some time, Jesus remains silent.

Then the high priest speaks and asks him directly: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” The tension must have been palpable. I imagine there was dead silence. It is quite a question. There can surely only be one expected answer! To their enormous surprise and the outrage of the high priest, Jesus does not give the expected answer. He dares instead to say, “I am!” I am the Messiah. I am the Son of the Blessed One.

What’s going on? What is the issue? To the high priest Jesus has uttered the worst blasphemy possible – claiming, as he does, to be the Messiah, is to claim to be God. This is not about using God’s name in vain; not about a few swear words such as we hear all to often in our daily lives – perhaps even using them ourselves. No – this is the ultimate blasphemy. A human being claiming to be God.

Of course, this is exactly what Mark the Gospel writer has been building towards. Exactly what the demons have been saying all along. What the crowds have been inching towards as they have marvelled at the great things Jesus did, at his wise teaching, the power to heal, to calm the storm. But now it is out and Jesus himself claims the title with the words “I am.”

I am. There can be no doubt that the high priest, along with the chief priests and the learned scribes – those experts in the Jewish Law or Torah – immediately thought of the Book of Exodus, chapter 3. At the burning bush, having been told he is on holy ground and to remove his sandals, Moses asks who is speaking to him. God’s answer, for it is God speaking, is “I AM – I Am who I Am” (Exodus 3:14) This most holy name, which is no name at all, identifies the God of the ancestors – the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. There can be no holier than this. And Jesus dares to claim the name! Little wonder the high priest is horrified and sentence is quickly passed.

So ends the first trial – the trial and sentence of blasphemy, of claiming to be God.

But tonight’s reading is not quite finished and there is a fascinating and disturbing interlude between this first trial and the second (which we will look at next Sunday night). Peter, remember, has been enjoying the fire, keeping well hidden in the shadows, out of the limelight. The last thing he wants is to draw attention to himself.

It’s a mere servant girl who gives the game away. It must have been one of those moments when a flash of recognition occurred. I know I’ve seen you before. Where was it? Ah yes, now I remember. “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” (Mark 14: 68) Peter denies it and tries to make his escape. But the girl is adamant. “This man is one of them.” He squirms again and again denies it. Then others join in too. “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” Again, for the third time, Peter denies it is so. The cock crows. Peter breaks down and weeps. He has done exactly what he said he would never do. What Jesus said he would. Three times, and before the cock crowed twice, he has denied Jesus.

Mark is ready to move to the next scene – so well set by the trial for blasphemy and the denial by Peter. But that is for us to consider next week.