Remember the famous line of Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” ? I guess that Jesus was more aware of his own identity than anyone who has ever lived. And when he asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’ he wasn’t seeking help in self-awareness but encouraging them into their own destinies.
Here’s the context (in Luke 9:18-27):
“Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’
19 They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’
20 ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’
Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah.’
21 Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22 And he said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’
23 Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? 26 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.
27 ‘Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’”
He starts off with the outer perimeters of reality: gossip.‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ What’s the “word on the street”?
The answers tend towards religious celebrity, past and present. “Everyone thinks you’re some great, powerful prophet-type.”
And you? Jesus takes it to the next level. He’s not asking their opinion of him but their perception of him. And Peter mouths what perhaps everyone is thinking: “God’s Messiah.” By which he means, “God’s chosen hero.” The one chosen to lead Israel to great things, like King David of old. Power, successs. Patriotic supremacy.
But Luke’s narrative takes an unexpected turn. He immediately challenges their view of what “Messiah” entails. That is to say, it involves physical pain, institutional rejection, death and resurrection. And to describe this, he uses the mysterious phrase “Son of man” which in this context is almost the same as saying “I.” This, he says, is the bleak path set before me.
And -worse still- the disciples are brought into the same reality. Jesus is saying, “This is not only my story but yours too! This is what lies ahead of you. To “Take up your cross daily” means to walk out to your own execution.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
And for nearly all of those listening, that was a grim, factual truth.Not a metaphor at all.
As it was for Bonhoeffer himself, of course.
Suddenly, what began with discussion about the identity of Jesus becomes analysis of the destiny of his followers. It has come quite quickly down to the stark choice that every disiciple must make: “Are you with him-or not?”
It’s like that familiar line: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
But though the choice is stark, it is not hard. It is the choice of life itself. Real life, the authentic life of God. This is the true meaning of “Messiah” – it is the One who live utterly for God.
Jesus phrases the choice as a paradox: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? ”
Do you notice the power of the last clause? Your real identity has nothing to do with the way the world lives and dies. It is wrapped up in God.
Here’s a quote from the wonderfully wise and warm Brennan Manning: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”
And once you have made the choice, you move beyond the world of the merely physical, into a brand new spiritual reality which Jesus describes as the “glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” It is further described in the story of the Transfiguration which is to follow in 9:28-36 and the almost teasing introduction, that “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
This then is the kingdom of God, this reality of being loved, of knowing completely who you are because you have chosen Christ completely. And the worst the world can fling at you is really very little in the light of the incomparable wonder of being loved by God.
And somehow here the text flips around. Knowing who Jesus is is where you begin, of course, but the corollary of that discovery is finding yourself and understanding your place in God’s world.
Since I have this Brennan Manning book open next to me here on the couch, let’s give him the last word:
“My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it….
“I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery. ”
“But what about you?”