It’s never been easy, or simple, for me to answer the question that Jesus asks the disciples,“Who do YOU say I am?”
I’ve often wondered, “Who is Jesus to me?”
Messiah. Savior. Redeemer. Jesus.
These words are heavy baggage in my lexicon.
As a child I was taught about “right” and “wrong” and that God was counting every infraction. What I heard was, being a person of faith was all about “following THE rules.” The rules were not necessarily the ten commandments, and I didn’t even hear about the greatest commandment to love God, love self, and love neighbor, until I was an adult. What I learned was God was counting my sins and holding every one of them against me. So I better follow the rules or else.
My response to the idea that God was counting my sins and keeping track of every one of them, even the one’s that stayed in my head and were never said out loud or acted upon, was to try and be absolutely perfect.
As if perfection is possible.
The effort to follow the rules in order to be perfect meant that I was unable to have a full understanding of myself. Life is much more nuanced and gray than black and white, and no matter how simple and small and risk free one tries to live there is no way to live without every making a mistake or a bad decision or treating other’s poorly for time to time.
The church of my childhood taught me that Jesus was the perfect example of someone who lived by rules and never sinned. Jesus was perfect.
It’s no wonder I had a complicated relationship with Jesus. I became my own worst critic, nitpicking and anxious over the slightest infraction, or denying that I ever did anything wrong - because I was trying to keep score, I was trying to get to Terri, 100% perfect, God, 100% pleased.
The end result is that I was keenly aware of, ashamed of, and disappointed in my self and my inability to be perfect. I was insecure and felt unworthy. Not that I could talk to anyone about this. It was easier, so I thought, to go on pretending. Ultimately this kind of thinking was not good for my faith life, nor was it good for my relationships. As I matured I began to realize that the stereotypical Christian messages popularized in the media, some of which I had learned as a child, did not mesh with the way I experienced God. As a child God felt very present to me. God felt loving and kind, accepting me in all of who I was good, bad, whole, broken. It was Jesus who was the problem, at least the Jesus I was taught about. Mr. Perfection himself. I kept my distance from him, from that Jesus.
I was in my thirties when I began to hear the human side of Jesus coming through the Gospel texts. I was astonished. Maybe, just maybe I could follow that Jesus?
In the reading from Mark today we hear this same struggle, the disciples, especially Peter, struggling to understand the human and the divine natures of Jesus. Peter thinks of Jesus as the Messiah, meaning, from the human perspective, Jesus is going to have power and authority, he’s going to over throw the Roman government with a grassroots movement that will change the world. Soon the disciples will all be wealthy government officials serving a wealthy emperor king named Jesus!
But Jesus defines both his humanity and his divinity differently. Being human is not about perfection nor is about a narrow and rigid obedience of rules. Being human and living as Jesus teaches us is about love and compassion. It’s about understanding that suffering happens, we all suffer. Living from that place of love and compassion, we walk together into the abyss of despair. Jesus’ death is not about redeeming a sinful people because God is keeping score. Jesus death redeems sinful humanity because through Jesus God enters into our brokenness and suffers as we do. Jesus suffers with us.
There are so many places in the world today where God is pleading with people, begging humanity to reveal God’s presence in the world through acts of love and compassion. At our worst we humans reject the broken people and a young refugee baby drowns, his photograph reminding people every where of the cost of selfishness. At our best, when we push Satan aside, push aside that which pulls us from God, and instead stand with signs and welcome refugees, the poor, and the marginalized, into our churches and communities, giving them clothing and shelter and food. When did I see you hungry, naked, and I gave you clothes and food? When did I see you, Jesus?
Jesus reminds us that we are to follow him, take up our cross, deny ourselves. Taken literally these words have been used to justify suffering. Women in abusive relationships - it’s their cross to bear. People who are poor and suffering - it’s their cross to bear. Justified suffering minimizes what people have to do in response. We don’t have to wonder how our life style has contributed to the corporate greed that impacts the global economy, the world’s political state, or the environment.
For those whose selves have already been denied by systems of oppression and violence, is “self-denial” really good news?
What is the life that needs to be lost in order to be saved?
Consider what it would mean if people were no longer greedy or selfish and the impact that would have on the world. Consider what it would mean if we none of us ever had to experience feelings of being unworthy and unloveable.
Denying one’s self is not about accepting suffering. We are to deny that part of ourselves that we think is unloveable, that part of ourselves that world tells us deserves the suffering we are experiencing.
Living as I was when I was trying to be perfect, when I could only see myself as good or bad, that too is a self that Jesus is asking us to deny.
These are all false selves, built on artificial concepts and values that deny what it means to be a human being, so loved by God that God took on human flesh to be like us.
Living a full life, one that embraces one’s whole self, means that we look at our failures and our successes, at what makes us good and the ways we are not good, and accept that together these make us whole. When we see ourselves fully, when we have compassion for ourselves, when we embrace the brokenness inside, we can begin to have compassion for others. To take up one’s cross, to suffer with another as Jesus suffered with humanity, is to put one’s self in another’s shoes, to walk their journey, and to feel their pain, and to help in anyway we can, because we acknowledge that we live this same broken life. This is life that Jesus is calling us too because he lived it too. Jesus knows us to our core.
Who are you Jesus?
You are me. You are you…and, you…and you…
(a reflection on Mark 8:27-38 for Proper 19B)