“Who do you say that I am?”
That is a scary question. I remember as a young high school kid crazy about girls and when a girl would ask me a question like that? Like, what do you think about me? Or worse yet, what does your friend think of me? Being asked that question was scary because you know that it isn’t a simple question and your answer is to affect a great deal of many things afterwards.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Really, it’s kind of a loaded question. What I say you are could be completely different from what you say that you are. Or worse yet, it could be completely different from what you were hoping or expecting me to say that you are. Like if I were to answer that you’re my one and only, the apple of my eye, my definite soul mate and you’re just like, oh, I just wanted to borrow a pencil. I mean, that kind of thing could be heartbreaking for one and really really awkward for the other.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Just hearing those words gets me scared and super anxious. I could only imagine that it was worse for the disciples. I mean, what if they get it wrong? What if they offend Jesus? What if they are nowhere near what Jesus expected them to say?
“Who do you say that I am?”
Better let Peter answer, that guy will say anything. Hey Peter, who do you say that Jesus is?
Bang on, Peter. Way to go man. You did it. You hit the nail on the head and said exactly what Jesus wanted you to say. In fact, in some versions of this story, Jesus praises Peter for his answer, declares him the rock upon which the church would be built, even goes and gives Peter the keys to heaven. Dang, Peter, that is some serious game you got there. Never once did someone give me their keys whenever I’ve answered that question. Way to go, man.
But it doesn’t last, does it. This euphoric moment where their eyes meet, words said are so beautiful that maybe a single tear rolls down their cheek, and there are birds singing in the air as a rainbow hovers over their heads, all that comes crashing down to a “get behind me, Satan”.
Funny how words can do that. Funny how understanding and interpretation can do that. Funny how faith and belief can completely change everything we say and do and essentially, are.
But what happened? How did the words, the interpretation, and belief change things so drastically? In other words, what did Peter do this time? It always seems like he’s doing something to mess things up. And this time it seems worse than others. The guy went from hero to zero in a matter of seconds.
Well, the problem is that while Peter says the right things, it was clear that was as far as his understanding went. He knew the right “Jesus” answers to give, but he wasn’t willing to get into what that really means. He was able to use the right lingo and talk the talk, but it all came from the wrong place and he couldn’t walk the walk.
Peter, and likely the rest of the disciples, can call Jesus the Messiah no problem, but what does that mean? Uhm… that he saves… right? It means that he’s not just the good guy, but he is the ultimate good guy, the one to solve all their problems, the one in whom we’re going to find all our happiness and joy and basically everything that we want. Well, yeah, that is essentially true. But how does Jesus save? How does Jesus bring us joy and peace and all that good stuff? How does Jesus be Messiah?
Easy, you might think. Answer all my prayers, take away all the bad things in my life, smite all my enemies, pretty much just be my personal genie in a bottle and consider me saved. That is how perhaps a lot of people would think, I admit that is probably what I would have thought if it weren’t for the years and years of pastor school, and I am pretty sure that’s how Peter thought as well.
So of course he’s going to rebuke Jesus when he says he’s going to suffer and die and take Peter’s hopes and dreams with him. Of course it’s going to try to stop it when this very person who was just admitted to be the one to save them all says that actually, I’m not going to save you all, at least in the way they expected to be saved. Of course Peter is going to disagree with Jesus here when Jesus is talking about the exact opposite of what Peter was thinking this whole dang time.
Yes, Peter said that Jesus is the Messiah, but it’s clear he didn’t know what that meant, because he expected the Messiah to embody power as Peter has only experienced it and knows it, and that is through authority and force. Peter can say that Jesus is going to save him, but he only understands being saved like how most of even today’s population would understand being saved, like being rescued or defeating my enemies for me or unlocking my cage or untying my ropes. Peter can use the lingo that is expected of him and him thinking that it’ll set him apart, but he most certainly doesn’t understand it all.
Doesn’t that still happen these days? I mean, I see people in the south and around the world who vehemently say that they are Christians, but it seems like they don’t really know what that means as they don’t display the compassion or welcome or love that Christ calls us to. I read about people in the news who say they serve God, but still commit unspeakable acts of hatred and exclusion. I see people in our country, in our city, even in our churches who claim they have picked up their crosses to follow Christ, and through their actions devoid of love and divine joy, I often wonder if they know what picking up one’s cross means.
We can say the words. We can use the lingo. We can talk the talk. But it is a whole different ball of wax to mean the words, to understand the lingo, and to walk the walk.
On the surface, many of us might think that picking up our crosses means to suffer, to sacrifice, to give up that what makes us happy in order to show our complete devotion and dependence on God. We hear about the penance that people go through in order to be absolved of their sin. We hear about the hoops that people jump through in order to prove to others and likely themselves that their faith is strong. We hear about people to do everything they can to “deny themselves” by actually denying themselves in hopes that they might just be obedient to what Jesus is asking.
But the thing is, I don’t think that is what it means to pick up your cross. I don’t think that we are called to unhappiness and suffering. I don’t think that we aren’t supposed to or even allowed to enjoy life because we think that Jesus probably didn’t like being nailed up on that cross, so why should we have it any better?
Instead, I think picking up your cross is about finding the joy in places the world tells us there is no joy or glory. Places like service, or charity, or humility. Places like among the outsiders and marginalized. Places like turning the other cheek, giving away your last bite, and donating your last two pennies. Picking up our crosses and following Jesus means really to be held up in the face of adversity, and see and embrace the joy that God gives anyway.
See Jesus was arrested because people didn’t understand and were prideful. Jesus suffered because people were evil and selfish. Jesus was killed because people were full of anger and hatred and didn’t want to let go of their own paradigms of power and might and the ways of the world. But, Jesus let them accuse him and mock him because in his unsurpassed humility he knew that fighting back would do no good. Jesus allowed them to beat him and lord over him because in his obedience to God, he knew that his message of grace and mercy would be heard. Jesus followed the orders of those unrightfully given authority over him, picked up his cross out of the heart of a servant, and followed his path out of his great love for all people.
Picking up our crosses doesn’t mean to give up everything we love. It doesn’t mean to intentionally suffer just for the sake of suffering. It doesn’t even mean we should unwillingly sacrifice until it hurts. But it means to cherish the things we do love. It means to find joy and fulfillment in service and community. It means to see how true power doesn’t lie in authority and intimidation, but in compassion and love.
I get that there are times we just don’t want to serve others. There are times when we’d rather be like, “tsk, you had that coming” and not have compassion. There are times when people very very honestly are hard to love. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t called to serve. It doesn’t mean that others are worse than we are or we are better than them. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t joy in loving others as then that love is increased in us.
So as we talk that talk we are empowered to also walk that walk. As we see and experience more the grace of our Lord Jesus we can learn and be strengthened to reflect it onto others. As we feel and know the love of God, we find the joy and peace in picking up our crosses, bestowing and sharing that love upon and with others, filling us with compassion and creating in us community.
As we enter into this fall season of our hemisphere, may we put aside the part of our lives that are holding us back from realising the full potential that God has in store for us as we pick up our crosses to follow Christ with all joy and peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.