Who is Jesus?
Have you ever been asked that question? Have you asked it of yourself? Or does this seem like nonsense? It would seem natural to think that after 2,000 years of Christian history, we should not have to pose such an inquiry. We might add that it’s obvious – Jesus is our Lord and Savior, the son of God, the second person of the Trinity to whom we pledge our faith through the creed every Sunday.
Still, the question presents itself to us today: Who is Jesus? St. Mark takes us back to the very heart of the gospel. It was a critical time in Jesus’ relationship with his closest followers, a moment when the truth of what God was doing in and through Jesus came into sharpest focus. It was an encounter that clarified once and for all the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”
Certainly, for each of us – as for every generation of Christians – an understanding of who Jesus is cuts to the core of our personal faith. What Peter and the others experienced so long ago is what we go through again and again as we decide whether we are willing to match what we say we believe with how we follow Jesus in the actions of our lives.
Today we find Jesus with his disciples in a decisive moment of teaching and of a gut-wrenching reality check. Near the end of his public ministry, Jesus sought an evaluation of its effectiveness. And he needed his closest allies to understand, really understand, what God was doing in and through him, to know where it all led, for the sake of the world. He asked the disciples what people were saying about him. Who was he in their eyes? He received several answers: John the Baptist, Elijah come back to life again, or maybe a modern prophet.
But that was just the warm up. What Jesus really wanted to know was who his disciples thought he was. Peter, always quick to act, spoke boldly for them: “You are the Messiah.” Peter had come to understand him as the one who would fulfill God’s promises, the one whom God had sent to save the world.
So far so good, Jesus must have thought. But no doubt, he knew that they didn’t fully understand what he meant. Jesus knew that Peter and the others still interpreted the meaning of Messiah according to the old order. They saw him as the one who would usher in a climactic day of God’s deliverance as a mighty warrior. One capable of returning Israel to independence, free from Roman oppression.
The truly revolutionary nature of what Jesus was doing required him to continue to teach, and perhaps test them further – to tell them what it meant for him to be the Messiah, what it would take for the world to be saved. He revealed what would result in the events of Holy Week – his trial and death, before rising again.
Proving that he really didn’t get it, and with his usual impetuousness, Peter responded to this news by reprimanding Jesus for having said it. He didn’t like what he heard. It didn’t fit his view of how God would save the world. Imagine how much it must have troubled Jesus to experience such treatment from his most trusted follower. So challenging was this rebuke that Jesus had to take the strongest of measures to make sure he was not misunderstood. He called Peter “Satan,” and insisted that his view was one of human thinking and not of God.
Jesus might have expected this. It is probably why he told the disciples not to tell the people about their knowing him as the Messiah. The people would surely have more trouble understanding than the twelve. They had to know that the gift of God in him – the love, grace and forgiveness poured out through him – would come at a price, not only to Jesus but to his followers, as well. To follow Jesus, to walk the way of God, would require going against the most basic urges of human nature. It would require that they deny their own needs and desires and – speaking words they would only truly grasp after his death – they would have to take up crosses of their own, like the one he would bear on his way to die on the cross of Calvary. It would not work to focus on saving one’s life – that would be the surest way to lose it spiritually. Every value of the world, he said, pales in comparison to what one could have in living a life with God.
That is the nature of “who Jesus is.” That is what it means to know him as Savior. That is what it means to follow him in the way of God. That is how it becomes personal for us. That is how we match what we say we believe with how we follow Jesus in the actions of our lives.
To say that Jesus is our Savior is to follow him willingly into salvation. Today’s gospel reminds us that to do so is to deny ourselves – to lose self, to let go of the ego, to put ourselves aside for the sake of greater values. It is giving up ourselves for others, in the way of sacrifice and unselfishness. It is giving up particular interests or time or possessions when the purposes of God require it. It is letting the will of God take the place of our own will. It is putting God, not ourselves, at the center of life. It is, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant, renouncing all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.
The figurative cross that we carry following Jesus represents the price we pay for our Christianity, the cost of discipleship, the way we remain connected with God, the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”
Though the answer – the response of losing our selfishness for the sake of God – is highly personal, we do not act upon it alone. We are lucky to be able to carry crosses in the company of a faithful band of followers of Jesus. We stand beside one another as we meet Christ at the Eucharist where we relive Jesus’ sacrificial death. Together we gain sustenance for the difficult challenge Jesus sets before us as we eat and drink with him and of him. We take what he is into our bodies and our spirits as we become renewed and empowered by the spiritual energy that is Christ. So empowered, we go forth into our weekday, workday world as we act out the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”