Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
One of the central themes of our faith
is the theme of redemption.
And in almost every classic story of redemption,
there’s an identity crisis.
Before the protagonist can find salvation,
they have to ask themselves a fundamental question:
who am I?
And who do I want to be?
Am I a victim? Or am I a survivor?
Am I an addict? Or am I a recovering alcoholic?
Am I a slave trader?
Or am I a leader of the abolitionist movement?
Am I a timid prince defined by my stutter?
Or am I a king who gives leadership to a nation at war?
I’m sure you can think of countless other examples
in books and movies.
“Who am I?” vs. “Who do I want to be?”
Well-known developmental psychologist Erik Erikson
described the phenomenon of the identity crisis
in clinical terms, as a natural part of adolescence.
Erikson said that “Those who emerge from the adolescent stage of personality development with a strong sense of identity are well equipped to face adulthood with confidence and certainty. But an unresolved identity crisis leaves individuals struggling to “find themselves.”
In other words, they get stuck
on that defining question, “Who am I?”
At first glance, in today’s gospel lesson,
it sounds like Jesus is having a bit of an identity crisis.
He is, after all, asking, “Who am I?”
For 8 chapters, he’s been going all around Galilee,
making a name for himself.
He’s been preaching and teaching,
healing, and feeding people.
People are talking about him,
saying all sorts of different things.
So now he’s walking with his disciples,
his most devoted students,
and he asks them a question
that you can really only ask your closest friends.
“Ok, tell me the truth. What are people saying about me?”
“Who do people say that I am?”
His disciples are quick to respond with
the various theories they’ve heard floating around.
Some say John the Baptist.
Some say Elijah.
Or maybe one of the other prophets?
Then he asks a more direct question:
But who do you say that I am?
Peter speaks up on behalf of the group.
He says, “You are the Messiah”—
in Greek, it’s Christos, the anointed one.
So Peter is technically right, yes?
But what Peter means is that
Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting.
The one who will come fight for the Jews,
Conquer their enemies and save them
from living under Roman occupation.
The one who will be a powerful
and mighty soldier like King David was.
Except that’s not what Jesus describes.
He explains that he “must undergo great suffering,
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests,
and the scribes, and be killed…”
Peter can’t even fathom it.
He simply cannot comprehend the notion
that the Messiah will suffer and die.
He pulls Jesus aside and corrects him:
“Jesus, what are you thinking?
Messiahs don’t suffer. Messiahs don’t die.
Messiahs are in charge. Messiahs reign over everybody else!
Messiahs vanquish their enemies and claim all the power.”
Yes, there’s a crisis about Jesus’s identity,
but Jesus is not the one having the crisis.
It’s the disciples that have the crisis about Jesus’s identity.
When Peter says, you are the Christos, the Messiah,
he gets Jesus’s job title right.
But he completely messes up the job descriptions.
Jesus corrects him right then and there.
The phrase “Get behind me, Satan”
is such a harsh-sounding thing for Jesus to say.
But here’s what he means.
By Satan, he means that Peter is trying
to turn Jesus into something he’s not.
Peter is trying to control what God is like,
and that kind of attempt at control
actually distances him from God.
And by “get behind me”,
he means, literally “get behind me”
Follow me. I lead. You follow. Get in line.
So, yes, the disciples had a little identity crisis going on.
But all that identity crisis stuff is in the past, right?
Todays’ disciples don’t have to worry about such things.
On one hand, it’s not very difficult
to be a Christian right now.
In the early years of Christianity,
it was truly dangerous to be a follower of Jesus.
And some people died because of their religion—
we call them martyrs.
And that’s not to say there aren’t stories
of modern day martyrdom—there are!
But Christianity is the most popular religion
in the United States,
and has been since our country’s founding.
There are churches on every other block in Richmond.
The vast majority of our politicians
claim the Christian faith,
And it is highly unlikely that anyone tried to impede
your right to come here to worship this morning.
But that’s weird, right?
Because from the the way Jesus was talking,
it sounds as if following him requires some kind of risk.
“the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests,
and the scribes, and be killed…”
“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.”
It kind of makes you wonder,
If being an American Christian is so easy these days,
maybe we’re not doing it right.
If following Jesus isn’t causing us any real danger,
maybe we’re not following as closely as we ought to be.
Now, as one of you recently reminded me,
there are places in this world
where being a Christian disciple is a real risk.
In Pakistan, for instance, the Christian minority
lives under fear all the time that something they do
will be considered blasphemy
under the strict fundamentalist laws.
And that is important for us to know
and remember in our prayers.
But for most of us in this room,
it is been hard to even conceive of what it is like
to feel persecuted for one’s Christian faith.
Far too often, we have seen people
who claim to be Christians doing the persecuting.
On the other hand, in our own American society,
we see signs that the dominance of Christianity
in the public sphere is slipping away, and not slowly.
Once upon a time, in a land not so far away,
there was a reality called Christendom.
In this reality, stores were always closed on Sundays,
And when you met someone you didn’t already know,
one of the first questions you asked each other was
“Where do you go to church?”
In Christendom, nobody used words
like pluralism or diversity or interfaith.
But in our post-Christendom culture,
Sunday mornings are no longer spent just worshipping.
Sunday mornings are for brunch.
Sunday mornings are for drinking coffee
while reading the New York Times
or the Washington Post on your ipad.
Sunday mornings are for watching the kids
play in the soccer tournament
Sunday mornings are for walking the dog
around the neighborhood
Or going jogging on Belle Isle.
Or doing yoga while being spiritual but not religious.
Which all sounds pretty great!
(minus the jogging and the no religion)
Now, it’s important to clarify that
the fact that soccer matches and swim meets
sometimes get scheduled on Sundya mornings,
does not mean Christianity is being persecuted.
But it might mean that American Christianity
is in the midst of an identity crisis.
It brings up an important question:
Are we mainstream or countercultural?
As you might have guessed, the answer is:
An even more important question, then is:
“Which should we be?”
I can’t answer that one for you,
but I leave it with you to ponder.
We started out by thinking about redemption
and the identity crisis that is almost always
part of the process of redemption.
Well, even Peter has this same moment,
this same kind of choice.
Who am I?
Am I the one who denied Jesus three times?
Or am I the rock upon which Jesus will build the church?
Peter’s ultimate destiny is to be the rock,
the very foundation of the church.
The same church has a real shot at redemption today.
If only we come out of this identity crisis
by choosing the harder way.
Christendom may be over,
but the opportunity to follow Jesus is not.
And if it gets hard,
that probably means we’re doing something right.