I guess you heard about the guy who was heading downtown and realized that another fellow was tailgating him. As the two men approached a traffic light, it turned yellow. The first man did the cautious thing and stopped at the crosswalk, even though he probably could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tailgating fellow behind him hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration as he missed his chance to get through the intersection.
Still cursing and making not-very-nice hand gestures, the tailgater heard a tap on his window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer. The officer asked for the man’s driver’s license. He frowned as he examined it, and then he took it back to his squad car, saying to the driver, “You stay right here.” The officer stayed in his car for a long time before returning to the driver’s open window.
“I’m very sorry for the delay,” the officer said. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him. But then I noticed your ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the “God is my co-pilot” sign hanging from your rearview mirror, and the chrome-plated Jesus fish on your trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.”
Mistaken identity. That’s one major theme in the crucial central section of Mark’s Gospel, which we enter today and through which we will continue to move for the next several weeks. Today’s Gospel reading turns on a question of identity. Jesus asks his twelve closest followers, “Who do people say that I am?” That question sets in motion a number of things, including the most heated argument Jesus ever gets into with one of his friends. But to understand what happens here, first we have to look at the strange passage that comes just before today’s reading, which our lectionary frustratingly leaves out.
This earlier passage is the only place in Scripture where it takes Jesus two attempts to heal someone. At the village of Bethsaida, a blind man is brought to Jesus. Jesus puts saliva in the man’s eyes, lays his hands upon him, and asks, “Can you see anything?”
And the man, opening his eyes replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” In other words, the man is just beginning to see. New light has begun to shine in his eyes, but as yet his sight is still fuzzy. So Jesus lays his hands on the man again, and then we are told, “The man looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
Most likely this story is built around an actual healing, but the import of the story is more than literal. This passage sets the stage for the entire central section of Mark, and the point is this: Like the blind man at Bethsaida, the disciples risk mistaking the identities of Jesus and everything around them if they trust their eyes when they have only begun to see the world in the light of Christ. New, clear vision does not come in an instant. Only if they—and we—stay with Jesus, only if we look intently at and through him, will we clearly see.
And so, today Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And people aren’t sure. They know Jesus is compelling. They follow him around the countryside and bring their friends who are sick in body and sick in soul to him. They claim he is a prophet, Elijah or John the Baptist, reborn. They see him, but he is like a tree walking, a wondrous but fuzzy character in their eyes.
I feel sure the disciples hope Jesus will end the conversation with this initial question and let their own blurred vision off the hook, but Jesus does not. Next he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?”
And for a split second we think that maybe their vision is clear. Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”
But Jesus, like an optometrist with a letter chart, tests that sight. He talks of his unavoidable Passion. He talks about sacrifice and the necessity for any who claim him to take up their own cross. He holds up before Peter and the others the truth of what it means to be the Christ, and what it means to be a follower of the Christ. It means dying. It means giving up one’s life and claiming new life on the Way of Jesus himself.
But what does that look like? To those of us with still-blurry vision, the metaphor is confusing. It can be helpful to consider those who have experienced actual death. Those who have had near-death experiences, experiences that took them to the very brink of the grave and back again, often share an outlook that is essential to the death Jesus commends. They return to new life having drawn close to a love that surrounds them and infuses them, and when they come back they can’t help but view the whole world through the prism of that love. Their lives are reoriented, and the world from then on has a kind of afterglow. Their attachments in the world are loosened or let go entirely, and their very reason for living and breathing ceases to be what they have, or can obtain, or strive to achieve. New life is rendered infinitely more valuable than anything in the old life, because of the love they know and now have the gift to pass on. In dying, all the old attachments, cares, and priorities are sacrificed, and in their place the priority of God’s love reigns.
Well, that’s not a prism through which Peter wants to see. “Shut up!” Peter says to Jesus (which is the force we can take from Scripture’s use of the word rebuke). “Don’t tell me that,” Peter says, “Don’t show me that. Things are fine right now. We’re doing well. People are following you. Everything we’re about is gaining steam. We’re about to arrive! Why would you talk about sacrifice? Why would you talk about giving everything away? Why would you talk about dying?”
The text gives the sense that, were Jesus to lay his hands on Peter at this point, it wouldn’t be to heal, but to slug him across the jaw. “Get away from me,” Jesus says, “You’re the devil.”
Those are strong words to say about one who is arguably Jesus’ best friend. Strong words, because Peter presents Jesus with strong temptation. You see, there is nothing more intoxicating than walking through the world with fuzzy vision. Nothing feels better than understanding the truth, the good, the claim of God upon us just enough (but no more) to convince ourselves that we are being faithful. What is it like to walk through life with such fuzzy, partial vision?
Partial vision allows us to forward inspirational e-mails and champion prayer in schools, without actually leaving the computer to seek out those who are hurting or work with school children who lack a stable home.
Partial vision allows us to put Christian bumper stickers on our cars and claim Jesus as our own without defining ourselves by the things that defined Jesus, like peace when others cry violence, compassion when others look cynically and callously at those under society’s boot, generosity when others counsel us to cling to what’s ours.
Partial vision fools us into believing that we are already living new life when in truth we have not yet died to the attachments of the world.
You see, Jesus’ question about who he is, is also always a question about who we are. If we mistake his identity and make of him a slogan or a fetish or a cipher for the lives we’re already living and don’t want to give up, then we mistake ourselves for disciples when, in Jesus’ own words to Peter, we may look to those with clear vision like those who walk the tempting way of the devil.
Jesus has laid his hands upon us, and where we were blind we are now just beginning to see. With our new but blurry vision we catch glimpses of Jesus here every week in the Gospel and the Eucharist and in countless other places as well. And it’s wonderful! The glimpse alone reveals that no matter how broken we have been we walk through the world as people bathed in love! But even as refreshing as this is, we mustn’t mistake faint glimmers for clear sight. When Jesus asks us who we believe him to be, the deepest desire of his heart is that we will proclaim, unabashedly and without shame, that he is our salvation and God’s hope for the world. But to say these words with clarity requires that we understand and embrace what they mean. They mean our own essential identities must change irrevocably. They mean we must die. We must die to self and to the world. And though this happens most momentously when we make that first decision for Christ, smaller dyings are required everyday. Everyday we must take up the cross and walk alongside Jesus, defining our new lives by the things that define his. When we, like the blind man in Bethsaida, keep our eyes on Jesus, looking intently at the Way of the Cross, then our sight will clear. The blind man will be gone, and the whole world will appear to us differently. We will discover that death truly leads to life abundant. We will become disciples, following in faith.