“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked the disciples. And they hesitated. Many of the people they had encountered during their ministry in and around Galilee spoke of Jesus reverently as a reincarnation of his cousin John the Baptizer, recently executed by Herod. Or perhaps a returned prophet… maybe even Elijah! I believe the disciples knew that Jesus was none of these, that he was something different… something special. But still they hesitated. All but Peter. “You are the Messiah!” he blurted. Biblical scholars refer to this as Peter’s “confession,” and I suppose it was his confession of faith in the strictest sense. But it was also a blurt. Peter did that sometimes and it usually earned him a stern glance or word from the Master. In this instance, I can see Jesus fixing Peter with a steely gaze, nodding slowly, and then saying, “Don’t tell anyone.” Can you imagine Peter’s mixed emotions: on one hand, he had finally gotten something right! Over and over again in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus patiently tries to teach the disciples about the coming Kingdom of God, and their part in bringing it. And the disciples just don’t seem to get it. “Do you not understand? How can you not understand? Let those with ears hear!” But Peter had finally figured out something of the first importance: that Jesus was not only his teacher and his master, but the long-awaited Messiah! It was awesomeness revealed, and he, Peter, had figured it out. He probably wanted to do a little dance… and then Jesus told him to “zip it.” Grrrrr.
This is a pivotal moment in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus had chosen his inner circle, led them on a veritable preaching tour around Galilee, performing a rich, tapestry of miracles as they went, all of which was aimed at preparing the disciples to carry on after he was gone. It was critical that his disciples understood his true nature, but he wasn’t ready to reveal himself to the rest of the world just yet. Wait for it! But it won’t be long now. Caesarea Philippi was a city on the southwest slope of Mount Hermon… about as far north as you could go in the ancient Jewish homeland. Jesus is preparing for the last leg of his earthly journey, preparing to turn his feet south, towards Jerusalem, and the final act of the drama. Towards the Passion.
And Jesus is always teaching. Always teaching. Now that he has tacitly confided his true identity to his disciples, he tells them the rest of the story—how it’s going to end. I imagine the disciples looking on dumbly as usual, their heads spinning. I see Peter daydreaming about how the next few years were going to play out: would Jesus the Messiah be a King like David? Or a Prophet like Moses? Or, somehow, both? And then suddenly, unexpectedly Jesus’ words about suffering, rejection and death… cut through his reverie. I wonder if Peter even heard Jesus’ words about resurrection. Death?
And then Peter, the one who had discerned that Jesus was the true Messiah blurted again. Perhaps Peter asked Jesus something like, “Master, what are you thinking? What is all this talk about death? There are great days ahead… soon everyone will know… people will flock to you… you’ll take your throne… we’ll send the Romans packing… God will be with you and shower favor upon his Chosen People… peace and justice will reign… the covenant will be fulfilled at last!” And then Jesus spoke what must have been the most hurtful words Peter had ever heard. Words filled with anger… and agony.
What are we to make of this? Mark’s Jesus is perhaps the most “human” in all of the Gospels. In various places in the narrative, he expresses sorrow (14:34), disappointment (8:12), displeasure (10:14), anger (11:15-17), amazement (6:6) and fatigue (4:38). According to Mark, Jesus’ family was pretty sure he was crazy (3:21). He used his “spit” to heal people (7:33& 8:23). And when the folks in his hometown of Nazareth questioned Jesus’ pedigree, Mark wrote that it affected his mojo to the point that “he could do no deed of power there” (6:1-5). Only in Mark’s Gospel, do we read about the time it took Jesus two tries to heal a man’s blindness (8:22-25). And as hard as he tried to help his disciples understand what was happening, they mostly didn’t get it… and I expect it frustrated the dickens out of him.
One of the prime tenets of our faith is that Jesus was at once fully-divine and fully-human (Chalcedon, 451). I can’t even imagine how that would have played out in Jesus’ head as he approached the Passion. Did he know how it would play out? Certainly. Was he absolutely committed to the road upon which he had embarked? Yes. Was the human part of him yearning for some sort of Plan B? What do you think? I wonder if Peter’s “rebuke” spoke to Jesus’ human yearning for a Plan B that might not have been as painful and messy as what was coming. I wonder if Jesus’ hurtful accusation, “Get behind me, Satan!” was aimed less at Peter than at the Tempter that lurks around and within each of us humans… the Tempter that makes us want to take the easy road, and subscribe to a self-serving parody of Lord’s Prayer, “my kingdom come, my will be done…” to try and bend God’s will to our own.
Jesus knew that he needed to go to Jerusalem, take up his cross, and fulfill his role in God’s overarching plan for the redemption of the world… as painful and as messy as it would surely be. And he requires no less from us. As followers of Jesus, each of us has a role in God’s plan for salvation, and that means we all have crosses we must bear. The good news is that our crosses are likely more metaphorical than that of the Son of God. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’ll be any less of a burden for us. They’re heavy.
What’s your “cross to bear?” And what will you need to lay aside in order to take it up? When Jesus says we must “deny ourselves” he means that we must give up all of our preconceived notions about a “life well lived” in order to be his followers and, instead, live into our vocations as servants of the Gospel. We must “lose” our lives in the truest sense of the word. We must first die with Jesus before we can be resurrected with him. If you’re having trouble finding your cross, look for the pain… the mess… the brokenness in your own life, and the lives of those around you. Your cross will not be far away.
“Who do you say that I am?” As we would-be disciples hesitate, so afraid of getting it wrong, Jesus reassures us saying, “I am your Savior amid all of the brokenness. I am your light at the end of the tunnel when everything is falling apart, and hope seems beyond hope. I’ll be your calm in the storm. I’ll give you strength. No matter how far you wander, there is nowhere that you can go where I can’t find you. I’ll walk beside you and help bear your burdens, if you’ll let me. So, take up your cross and follow me. No matter the pain, no matter how dark it gets, no matter how intolerable the load, fix your eyes on me. I’ll be right beside you and you will never be alone.”