Who do you say that I am?

My senior year in high school I had last period study hall in this dank, basement room that no one really knew existed until it appeared on their schedule. When I entered the room, I was disheartened to see that no one I usually spent time with had study hall at that hour. Many of the tables were filled up already; one had a few chairs open but the other chairs were filled by girls who were not the most welcoming clique, to put it politely; and then there was a table with three boys I had never spoken to at it. But they all seemed to be minding their own business, so I joined them, sitting down next to Gabe.

As the semester progressed, Gabe and I went from exchanging polite “hellos,” to complaining about homework, to discussing sports (which we discovered we both loved), to debating philosophical topics (like how do we know what it means to be good), to giving each other a hard time about our various shortcomings. Study hall went from a time I dreaded (because of how socially awkward I felt) to my favorite part of the day.

Then over Christmas break, Gabe went to Guatemala on a service trip. When he got back, it felt like I did not know him anymore. Whereas we had previously bantered and never taken ourselves too seriously, now Gabe was really serious. All the time. It seemed that all he wanted to talk about was all the poverty in the world and what we could do about it. It was such a downer at the end of the day. I found myself making excuses when I got to our table in study hall: “I have a big test I need to study for,” or “I have to go to the library to check out some books.” Slowly, we fell out of friendship.

[Now that I am older and have seen how people often react after having gone on a service trip, I wish that I had been able to be a better listener to Gabe as he processed this life-changing experience. And I also wish that I had let his concern about poverty and passion for making a difference wear off on me a bit more.]

Have you had an experience when someone you thought you knew turned out to be different than you expected? How did you feel? What did you do? Were you able to maintain a relationship with this person?

In this week’s Gospel from Mark, the disciples have a similar experience to mine: just when they thought they were figuring out who Jesus was, Jesus challenges them again. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” After hearing that people say he is John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, Jesus asks the disciples directly, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s immediate reply is that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of God.

This week’s Gospel reading comes about half way into Mark’s Gospel. The disciples have seen Jesus work miracles, like healing a leper, casting out demons, and feeding the 5000. Having seen these miracles with their own eyes, Peter and the others seem very confident that they know who Jesus is: the Messiah. The problem is that they see Jesus as a certain kind of Messiah. In the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ time, there was a popular belief that a political Messiah would come, an avenging warrior who would restore Israel and the Jewish people to their former glorified status among the nations. This is the sort of Messiah that Peter is expecting.

This is when Jesus throws the disciples a curveball. He predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection after three days. Peter cannot understand how this could possibly happen to the Messiah, so he rebukes Jesus. In response, Jesus rebukes Peter vehemently, saying, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus goes on to tell the disciples that those who wish to follow him will have to “deny themselves and take up their cross… For those who want to save their life with lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Can you imagine how the disciples would have felt hearing this from Jesus? The Gospel of Mark leads us to believe that the disciples were shocked and continued to have trouble understanding exactly who Jesus was and what kind of savior he would be. As I imagine it, Jesus surely lost some followers at this point, followers who were hoping for political salvation and not spiritual salvation through the path of the cross. This would have been (and continues to be!) a difficult message to hear: that to save our lives we must lose them!

We know from history that some of Jesus’ followers did come to truly understand his message and his identity. For instance, Peter eventually gave his life as a martyr for the faith, thus laying down his life for the sake of the gospel. But fortunately for us, we have in Peter and the other disciples a model of faith as a lifelong journey in which there is room for us to grow in our understanding of Jesus and our ability to follow him.

If someone asked you “Who is Jesus?” what would you answer?

What parts of Jesus’ identity are easy for you to accept? What parts of Jesus’ identity are harder for you to understand?

How do you react to Jesus’ challenge to his followers to take up their crosses to follow him? What crosses have you taken up in your life?


Photo courtesy of Flickr user bitzcelt via Creative Commons License


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