Tuesday, September 11, 2018
Who Are We Really?
When Jesus asks the disciples, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter replies, "You are the Messiah," but what Jesus didn't let them know, at least at first, was that Peter's reply implied a second, equally critical question: "Then who are you?"
Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 8:27-38) comes right in the middle of Mark's 16-chapter account of the good news. As many have pointed out, Peter's confession is a turning point for the gospel story. For the first 8 chapters, we're trying to figure out who Jesus really is, which is why they are full of miracles. For the second 8 chapters, we're trying to figure out the significance of who Jesus is, which is why the narrative begins a long trek toward Jerusalem and the cross and empty tomb. All of that is synthesized in this little exchange between Jesus and the disciples. Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus then predicts his passion and death. But the fall out is what really interests me.
Peter isn't ready to hear it. As soon as he identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus predicts his rejection, torture, and death, and Peter will have none of it. We know this story. We know how Jesus reacts. We have rehearsed the consequence of Jesus' messianic identity. We know that, as Messiah, he must be rejected by the powers of the world and reveal God's true power. But do we remember what that means for us?
It's easy to get so wrapped up in Peter's mistake that we forget that we, too, are being asked a question. Who are we? Who are the ones who follow Jesus? If our Messiah is the one to be crucified, that changes what it means for us to follow him. It's one thing to confess that Jesus is God's anointed one. It's another thing entirely to confess that the one who will be rejected and crucified is the one whose self-emptying victory we make our own.
Who are we really? I'm writing this on September 11, the anniversary of the coordinated terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the failed attack that ended in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, and I've spent the last few days wondering who we are as a nation. We are a nation that believes in freedom. We are a people that value liberty. But confessing freedom as an ultimate expression of our identity is a costly thing. It isn't easy to honor the personhood of those who are different from us as fully as we honor our own, but that's what it means to be the Land of the Free.
The identity of our country that is most deeply threatening to terrorists of all stripes is our freedom. It is baffling and even frightening to those with narrow-minded, radicalized self-interest that we would allow and even promote a culture where difference is accepted. One doesn't need to be a Christian to be an American. One doesn't need to be a Republican or a Democrat. One doesn't need to love this country. One doesn't need to support one's government. As a nation, we believe that even those who disagree with freedom are free to do so. But that's hard in a culture of suspicion. And that's the greatest threat that terrorists pose to us. On September 11, 2001, buildings were destroyed and precious lives were lost, but equally at risk was our freedom.
Who are we? It is easy in the aftermath of a terrorist attack to abandon the principles of freedom that make us emotionally and, perhaps, physically vulnerable. It is easy to stop accepting those who are different from us, those who pray faithfully to Allah, those who wear the traditional hijab, those whose skin color or accent or language identify them as other, as part of our national family. Are we a nation that believes in freedom, or will we let fear allow us to give up our tolerance of others? Seventeen years later, we've regained some of that identity, but Islamophobia still threatens our national identity far more substantially than any specific terrorist plot.
Sunday's gospel lesson reminds me how much easier it is to claim an identity with our lips than with our lives. Following Jesus isn't simply an intellectual choice. It's a way of life. That's true for freedom, too. It's a lot easier to read about it in civics class than to live into it on the streets of our country. Are we really who we say we are?