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Jesus: Former of a New Community
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"Jesus said to them: 'Who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter replied, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.'" (Matthew 16:15-16)
Matthew 16:13-27 (Peter’s Confession of Jesus as Messiah & Jesus’s Declaration of What Sort of Messiah He Will Be)
Matthew 26:26-29 (Last Supper – "This is my blood of the new covenant")
What Sort of Messiah Is Jesus?
At the beginning of a Jesus Movement within Judaism, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter answers with his famous confession of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Like any good Jew, Peter had a picture of what the Messiah was to be—formed from the Hebrew Scriptures and from the tradition of his people. Although there were a variety of expectations about the coming of Israel’s Messiah, the most common expectations revolved around hopes for a kingly warrior, modeled on King David, who would overthrow the Roman oppressors occupying the land of Israel, make Israel a great and independent nation again, and inaugurate the Messianic Age, when hunger, poverty, injustice, sickness and early death would be no more. Although we cannot know for certain what sort of Messiah Peter hoped Jesus would be, it is likely he wanted Jesus to fulfill these prevailing Messianic hopes.
But Jesus clearly has another picture of the sort of Messiahship God has called him to live out. Not a conquering hero Messiah. Not a powerful king. But a suffering, dying, and rising Messiah. (see Matthew 16:21) Jesus’ understanding of the sort of Messiah he is to be is so utterly different from the usual expectations of Messiah that Peter can’t comprehend what Jesus is talking about. He can’t stomach it, and so he rebukes Jesus in the strongest possible terms. But Jesus refuses Peter’s rebuke, and the temptation to go along with the prevailing hopes for Messiah. He rebukes Peter as a “Satan,” a tempter. (see Matthew 16:23)
In the words that follow immediately, Jesus lays out the implications of what it will mean to follow him as Messiah. For not only will his Messiahship be different from what had been hoped for and expected, but this will mean also that anyone who follows in Jesus’ way will need to be walking a way that is distinctly not that of powerfully triumphing over others, but will mean taking the path of what Henri Nouwen called “downward mobility,” as a cross-bearing, life-giving servant of others. This way will take great courage and strength, but a very different kind of courage and strength from that required of the followers of a warrior-king. Jesus will be a servant king. His followers will be servants of one another and the kingdom Jesus is proclaiming and forming, not rulers over that community/kingdom.
By these words and actions, Jesus sets out the beginning of a new community within Judaism—the community of followers of the suffering, dying, rising Messiah who is servant rather than king. From these followers of Jesus, the suffering-servant Messiah, comes the Church—what began as a “counter-cultural” movement within Judaism, a movement led by a different kind of Messiah who believed God had called him to form Israel (and others) into a different kind of community. Eventually the Jesus movement within Judaism could not be contained within the parameters of the old covenant given to Israel by Moses.
And so the Church and the Synagogue go separate ways, though their separation into distinctly different communities takes several generations after Jesus. And Jesus’ followers eventually compile the Christian Scriptures, the New Testament/New Covenant, to reflect the development of this new community and to set forth the path that this new community—the Church—will follow. This separation of Jews and Christians into different communities probably was necessary, in that their disagreements about the kind of Messiah God wanted for Israel (and the world) became too opposed to be contained within one community of faith. But the splitting of Church from Synagogue also laid the foundation for horrific problems in the years following Constantine. For when Constantine legalized Christianity and made it the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Church gained the very sort of power that Jesus had refused when rebuking Peter. And at times the Church began to exercise that power in ways deeply harmful to Jews, and anyone else who did not become followers of Jesus. Not to mention the supreme irony that the Jesus who refused power and chose the way of servanthood is nearly forgotten by the community he inaugurated, as it becomes enamored of the way of power more than the way of servanthood.
Last Supper – Passover Meal to Seal the New Covenant
There are myriad ways to understand the Last Supper, and the Eucharist that has developed from it over the centuries in Christian churches. But one way to understand the Last Supper is as a meal to seal the new covenant that Jesus is making with his disciples, as he himself prepares to walk the way of the cross, and thereby illustrate for his followers the way they are to walk if they are to live their lives as his followers.
Within Judaism, the yearly Passover meal was—among many other things—a remembering and a renewing of the covenant that God had made with the Jewish people through the Exodus and the giving of the Torah on Sinai. Each year, Jews—both in Jesus’ day and in every year since—have gathered to renew that covenant through the Passover meal we know as the Seder meal. The Last Supper can be understood as the covenant meal whereby Jesus reinterprets the original covenant, and then gives that meal to his followers as a way of renewing their covenant with him and the God who sent him. This meal is a perfect illustration of what the Christian covenant—the new covenant—is to be about. A piece of bread becomes the symbol of a body freely given by a servant Messiah to servant people. And a cup of wine becomes the symbol of life-giving blood poured out for them by their servant leader. By eating and drinking him—in his servant body and life-giving blood—they are to become fellow servants of one another, laying down their lives as bread for one another, and pouring out their life-blood as live-giving sustenance for one another. This meal seals them to Jesus, the covenant giver, and to one another, and anyone else who will participate in the meal with them in the years and centuries to come. The goal is to have the courage and power—the life-giving food and drink—to be what Jesus was: a servant, whose power resided only in the self-giving of his life and ministry, and finally in his dying and rising. Power given away. Power shared. Life shared. So that separation and brokenness and sin—and even death—could be overcome, and a new way of living could be shared. A way of living for the transformation of the world. A way into the new kingdom with the new covenant, of self-giving, life-giving love and servanthood.
Questions for Reflection
- When you name Jesus as Christ/Messiah, what does that mean to you? What sort of Messiah is he for you? And what impact does that have on the way you are to live your life?
- When you receive Communion, is it a time of covenant renewal for you to walk the way of servanthood? Does it strengthen you for that way of living? How? How not?
"Diary of a Church Mouse" by Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984)
Here among long-discarded cassocks,
Damp stools, and half-split open hassocks,
Here where the vicar never looks
I nibble through old service books.
Lean and alone I spend my days
Behind this Church of England baize.
I share my dark forgotten room
With two oil-lamps and half a broom.
The cleaner never bothers me,
So here I eat my frugal tea.
My bread is sawdust mixed with straw;
My jam is polish for the floor.
Christmas and Easter may be feasts
For congregations and for priests,
And so may Whitsun. All the same,
They do not fill my meagre frame.
For me the only feast at all
Is Autumn's Harvest Festival,
When I can satisfy my want
With ears of corn around the font.
I climb the eagle's brazen head
To burrow through a loaf of bread.
I scramble up the pulpit stair
And gnaw the marrows hanging there.
It is enjoyable to taste
These items ere they go to waste,
But how annoying when one finds
That other mice with pagan minds
Come into church my food to share
Who have no proper business there.
Two field mice who have no desire
To be baptized, invade the choir.
A large and most unfriendly rat
Comes in to see what we are at.
He says he thinks there is no God
And yet he comes ... it's rather odd.
This year he stole a sheaf of wheat
(It screened our special preacher's seat),
And prosperous mice from fields away
Come in to hear our organ play,
And under cover of its notes
Ate through the altar's sheaf of oats.
A Low Church mouse, who thinks that I
Am too papistical, and High,
Yet somehow doesn't think it wrong
To munch through Harvest Evensong,
While I, who starve the whole year through,
Must share my food with rodents who
Except at this time of the year
Not once inside the church appear.
Within the human world I know
Such goings-on could not be so,
For human beings only do
What their religion tells them to.
They read the Bible every day
And always, night and morning, pray,
And just like me, the good church mouse,
Worship each week in God's own house,
But all the same it's strange to me
How very full the church can be
With people I don't see at all
Except at Harvest Festival.
"The Last Supper" – Byzantine Museum, San Giorgio, Venice - See Above
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