by Bill Carroll
“But who do you say that I am?” The question echoes down through the ages. On one level, it is a question Jesus asks us about himself. But every question about Jesus is also a question about God, about ourselves, and about the world. By asking us about his own identity, Jesus is asking us about the origin and destiny of the cosmos and about our own place within it. It’s important that, in the story, Jesus is asking his disciples who they say he is. He is asking those who have already chosen to follow him. Peter’s answer, “You are the Messiah,” suggests that they already see the life and ministry of Jesus as the decisive event in human history, as the fulfillment of all God’s promises and commandments. The question, then, is not for outsiders, but for those who have already staked our lives on the answer.
Jesus’ question is a self-involving and existential question. It is also a question about hermeneutics, or the theory of interpretation. Jesus is asking how we interpret his own ministry, in light of our understanding of the Scriptures, of human history, and of God’s world. It’s a rabbi’s question, really: “How do you read and why?” I suspect that there might be as many answers to the question as there are Christians. Even the big answers upon which most of us agree—things like Son of God, Savior, Messiah, Redeemer, Lord—mean different things to different people at different times. To name one example, what does it mean to call Jesus our Savior? It depends on what he saved us from. From danger? From sin? From other people? From ourselves? From social oppression? From disordered desire?
There is a story behind every confession of faith. Often this story is intensely personal, the kind of thing we share with few people, if any. Often the details are known to God alone. Moreover, the meaning of the confession changes as we live our lives and add to our stories. Let me tell you, Jesus is someone very different to me than he was five or ten years ago, even though he remains fundamentally the same person. He is still Savior and Lord and Son of God. He is still the Crucified and Risen One, but I understand new dimensions of what that means. He has brought me through new crises and turning points in my life. He has shown me new graces and asked me to take new risks. And what I once thought was important has become less so, even as previously unimportant details of his story and mine have taken on new significance over time.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel, Jesus does ask what outsiders are saying about him. “Who do people say that I am?” Their answers, as the disciples report them, are impressive enough: “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.” Clearly, they think highly of Jesus. But none of their answers satisfies him. “But who do you say that I am?” he asks. And Peter, in typical fashion, answers for all the rest. “You are the Messiah.”
But Mark never lets us stay insiders for long. Not even Peter is that lucky. It is important to note that, in Mark, Jesus neither approves nor disapproves of Peter’s confession. Instead, he sternly orders the disciples to keep silent and tell no one. Then, he begins to tell them that he must suffer greatly and be rejected and killed before he will rise again. At this news, Peter protests—but to no avail. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus says, and Peter is turned from an icon of faith into the Great Adversary of God. Jesus goes on to explain the necessity of the cross, not only in his own life, but in the lives of his disciples. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”
I have to think that Jesus is teaching Peter. He is leading him—and us—to a deeper understanding of what it means to be the Messiah. Expectations for a great king and military leader, who would drive the Romans and other invaders out of the land would not be met. The concrete story of Jesus resists any such interpretation. He shatters any predetermined mold or concept that we use in order to define him. We must reread and reinterpret what it means to be Messiah, Lord, and Savior in light of Jesus himself, especially in light of his suffering love, boundless compassion, and death on the cross. Jesus defies our expectations, and, because of him, we must reinterpret our experience and our Scriptures. Peter is quite correct that Jesus is the Messiah, but he doesn’t yet know what that means. Jesus is decisive for human history, but not in the ways that people expect the Messiah to be.
What does this show us about God, about ourselves, and about the world? For one thing, it puts in question any simplistic idea that the world—or at least the good parts of it—will be receptive to the Messiah when he comes. The world may be good, but it is also fallen, deeply mired in sin. Even we in the Church will be just as suspicious of the Messiah as everybody else. Perhaps more so. Even—perhaps especially—religious leaders will reject him when he comes.
Whether we are speaking of contemporary religious leaders or the apostles or ourselves, no one seems to get it. I suspect that this has something to do with the surprising newness of God’s Kingdom. The Good News would hardly be news if we had already heard it. There is more than enough bad news to go around. And religious people—I assume that includes you and me—like to be confirmed in what we already know. We want a safe and domesticated God, who will confirm our prejudices and leave us unchanged. But Jesus is his own person, with his own story, and he will not less us off that easy.
Another thing this story does, the central thing really, is to question our assumptions about power. Suffering, vulnerable love is far stronger than the things we think are strong. Too often, we picture divine power in categories borrowed from human empire. We think that God is like a particularly powerful ruler, able to compel and coerce others. We do not think that God really wants us to be free and responsible adults. Whether in Church or in society, we secretly harbor authoritarian ideals that run counter to our best democratic instincts. We equate vulnerability with weakness, and as we strive to imitate God, we think that we must become invincible, independent, and isolated. We do not seek God where Jesus tells us to, in our very human relationships and out among the poor, the despised, and the lowly.
Peter is scandalized by the picture Jesus paints of his coming suffering and death, because he thinks that God’s representative must somehow be immune from these things. He does not yet see that the Messiah, like all human beings, must pay the price for his faithful solidarity with us in the flesh—namely, rejection, suffering, and death. There is no way to the end of history—or to the end of any human life—that does not pass through the cross. We do not need to seek it out. The cross is inevitable. One way or another, it will find us. The Son of man must undergo great suffering, be rejected and killed, and only then, after three days, rise again.
Ultimately, this story invites us to take sides with Jesus. In stark terms, he denounces any way that would evade the cross, whether his cross or our own. Jesus asks those of us who have already given our lives to him to go a little deeper, to walk a little farther, and to ask ourselves what following him might mean. If we wish to be his disciples, Jesus tells us, we must take up our crosses and follow him.
Just who do we think he is?