by Ellen Sims
texts: Genesis 17:1-7; Mark 8:27-36
This week our 15-month-old granddaughter hit a new developmental milestone. She said her own name. For awhile now she has been calling the names of “Mommy” and “Daddy” and “Doc” (her dog’s name) and “Baby” (her doll’s name). And she’s been responding to her own name for months. But she has only recently started saying her name and recognizing herself in pictures. Last week George and I watched via Facetime as Molly identified herself in recent pictures her daddy had taken at a trip to the zoo. When her father pointed to her in the pictures, he’d ask, “Who’s that?” and each time she answered with “Mol-ly” and with a smile and tone as if she’s kind of in love with her little self.
Everybody’s gotta have a name. Everybody’s gotta know who they are.
Another sign that Molly’s developing a sense of an autonomous self — which usually happens by year 2 — is that she has started saying “I,” and now, when she wants to do something herself, she says “I do.” When her mother soaps up the washcloth for Molly’s bathtime, Molly takes it from her and says, “I do”– meaning “I will do this myself.”
Developing that sense of “I” is just the start of a lifelong pursuit to answer the question “Who am I?”
But at different junctures in our lives we reassess our identity.
The identity question surfaces in today’s Hebrew Bible story — with God renaming Abram and Sarai for the next stage of their journey with God — and in our Gospel story — with Jesus, midway through his ministry, asking the universal question “Who am I?”
He first asks the disciples what other people are saying about him. We, too, come to understand who we are through others’ perceptions of us. Jesus’s followers report that the people in the villages they’ve visited describe him as prophet, like John the Baptist and Elijah. But Jesus wants to know how they, the disciples, view him. Isn’t it the people we live and work with everyday who can best answer that question about us? I mean, the waiter you tip well at your favorite restaurant may think you’re a great guy. But does he really know you? So Jesus asks those who’d seen him day in and day out in difficult situations, “Who am I?”
Peter goes for it: “You are the Messiah.” He does not, like the villagers who’d come to see Jesus, compare him to the recently beheaded John the Baptist or the ancient prophet Elijah. He describes Jesus with the term for the anointed one, perhaps because he was hoping Jesus would become the messianic, regal figure, the promised one who would reclaim the throne of King David.
But Jesus takes great care to correct Peter’s misperception. “We’re not seeking glory, Peter. The Son of Man is going to suffer.”
And Peter, God help him, “rebukes” his teacher.
Jesus comes right back at him, calls him “Satan” for tempting him to turn from his true path. These are heated words. It’s a critical moment. Maybe it would become a struggle for leadership as all the other disciples look on. And Jesus might be struggling inwardly, too, because it’s possible he is feeling that tug of temptation to leave the difficult path he is on.
But he once again, plainly, forcefully, enunciates his vision. Which is not the vision statement the disciples had been formulating. They’d been imagining their future together differently. That’s why Jesus deliberately takes time to differentiate his vision from theirs. Jesus says that he will head to the seat of power, yes, but will suffer, will in fact take up a cross, and that’s what those who follow him must do, too.
As you can imagine, at that point as they are brainstorming to create their Vision Statement, Peter probably drops his magic marker and stops recording on the flip chart, thinking, “That’s no way to create a following for our organization, Jesus. That is no way to plan for a successful future.”
Maybe the reason the disciples continue with Jesus after that horrific revelation of his insane plan/vision statement was his subsequent explanation for such a suicidal strategy,
Jesus shares that in God’s realm, you have to lose your life before you find it. Paradoxically, the only way you find out who you are is to give up your life. The only way you find yourself is to become lost in God. We have to hold ourselves lightly so that we can give ourselves to others.
Friends, the prosperity gospel, which I critiqued last week, promises that God will give you what you want if you just pray hard enough or if you just give enough money to the church or the television preacher. But that’s not the Jesus gospel. He insists that you must deny yourself (the self that God knows fully) and follow him in the Way, a way that can lead to suffering.
As we’re working on our congregation’s Vision Statement, I’m not recommending we say this: “We are Jesus followers who aim to suffer.” Of course we’re not seeking suffering.
But I wonder if our vision statement needs to signal in some way a reminder to us and as a distinguishing mark of our Jesus allegiance that we are here to serve, to identity with the lowly, to care about those on the margins, and to do some unpopular things, some things that may not guarantee financial stability, some things that will not gain popularity among Mobilians. Because that’s the Jesus way.
Of course, the God we know in Jesus is not wanting us to suffer. But suffering is a potential consequence of resisting hatred and living bravely and compassionately.
Jesus is not pointing us to a God who requires bloody sacrifices to appease the deity. Those who love God and God’s children sometimes experience trials, for that’s the way of the world. But God does put suffering in our paths.
Every year during Lent I describe and refute the version of blood atonement theology that I was taught as a Southern Baptist girl. By the time I was six I was duly catechized in the notion that God required Jesus to go to his death in order to pay the penalty for my sins. My church believed that a perfect (but apparently not a very clever) God created a system of morality that required him (God was male) to send me to hell for even the slightest sins of childhood–yelling at my little brother or snitching chocolate eggs from my sister’s Easter basket. I would be spared the fires of hell only if I prayed “the sinner’s prayer” and asked Jesus into my heart. Because God was perfect (but apparently not very flexible or merciful), he was unable to forgive me or even “look upon me” if I didn’t claim Jesus as my “Get out of hell free” card. That’s why long ago God sent his son Jesus into the world, to die, to die in my place.
I no longer understand Jesus’s purpose and the Christian meaning of salvation in that way. In fact, that particular bloody version of atonement theology is a fairly recent development dating to around the time of the Crusades and refined and further narrowed in the last century. Instead, I believe that Jesus’s Way saves us and opens us up to the kingdom of God. Of course, we understand his way of nonviolence and compassion best by observing his response to the violence done to him. He did not pack an AR 15 to ward off his arrest. In fact, when Peter, still not “getting” Jesus’s vision, pulled out a sword to prevent Jesus’s arrest, Jesus again admonished Peter. And he refused to return violence with violence.
Jesus was crucified not because God needed a human sacrifice to pay for our sins. Jesus was crucified because he threatened the authorities of his day, those who were taking advantage of the weak. The cross was the consequence of human violence, not God’s violence. The cross was never required for the forgiveness of sin; it was the result of human sin. Jesus “saves” by refusing to play the oppressor’s game. Human beings trapped in an oppressive imperial system are saved by the justice and mercy Jesus advocated, and so the system set out to kill him.
Perhaps you, too, were taught that God required Jesus’s death to forgive you. If so, you may want to know that sacrificial atonement is relatively new to Christianity and, I believe, is harmful to a healthy spirituality.
We may try to pull Jesus aside this Lent and say, “Listen, we want to take the easy route to God’s ways. We want you to be the Messiah/King who makes life cushy for us, your favorites. We just want to have to say a little prayer and then you’ll be on our side and we’ll get a free pass into all the good stuff in this life and the life to come.”
But I suspect Jesus will say, “Get behind me, Satan. You don’t get it. No one wants to suffer. But there is suffering in this world. And if you don’t stand up to it, the suffering won’t go away. Because God has no hands and feet but ours.”
We have hard and beautiful things to do and experience together, dear church. Jesus’s vision was of God’s reign where the meek and merciful are blessed and where peacemakers inherit the earth. It is a vision of a kin*dom where love reigns. It’s a vision that won’t be easily realized. But it’s a vision that will earn us the name Christian, little Christs. It is a vision that can save this world.
Who am I? I want to answer that I am a Christian. But it’s said the late poet and sage Maya Angelou used to reply, when someone declared himself or herself a Christian, “Really? Already?” I am someone who hopes to be a Christian one day. And you?