Who do you say that I am?
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”
He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
“Who do you say that I am?” It seems like such a simple question. As we know, sometimes, simple questions are often the most difficult to answer. And so it is with this first question of Jesus.
Throughout Luke’s gospel, there is a lot of speculation swirling in the air about who Jesus is and who he is not. The disciples initially respond to Jesus’ question about his identity by repeating many of the rumors circulating among the crowds who come to listen to Jesus. Some people understand Jesus to be like Elijah or Jeremiah, one of the great prophets who have come before him. Others identify him with John the Baptist, a reformer who challenged the status quo approach of Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. None of these guesses are too far outside of expectations. All of these were figures whom Jewish tradition held would prepare the way for the coming Messiah. Perhaps Jesus is like one of them?
Jesus, however, is interested in more than the answers circulating in the rumor mill, or traditional expectation. He shifts the question from popular speculation to deeply, personal confession. He asks the disciples: Who do you say that I am? You can practically hear the uncomfortable silence that follows. I imagine all the disciples standing in a circle looking at their feet, no one wanting to accidentally make eye contact with the teacher.
Why would this simple question be so difficult for the disciples to answer? After all, they have been traveling with Jesus, watching him heal the sick and cast out demons, listening to his preach and teach. In the previous chapter of Luke’s Jesus has fed an entire crowd of people with five loaves and two fish. Surely, Jesus’ identity is a subject they know something about. Why is this simple question so hard?
As Martin Copenhaver points out, “Well, we know, for instance, how difficult it can be to be the first to say, ‘I love you,’ to another. It is difficult to be the first to break the silence with such a large truth. One does not say something like that for the first time without sweaty palms and a dry mouth. We may hesitate, not because we doubt the words are true, but because having spoken the truth, we can no longer ignore its implications for our lives.”
It is a question that all of us, in way or another, must answer. Peter, never the shy one, finally speaks up and says: “You are the Messiah (Christos) of God (v 20).” It took a lot of courage to say something like that. If it is true, it is enough to turn the world completely upside down. If it is not true, it is enough to get you killed for blasphemy.
Jesus follows up Peter’s brave confession with an explanation of his own. He tells the disciples that Messiah will undergo great suffering and death. He ends by explaining that those who follow will also need to, “deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me (v. 23).”
Peter offers the correct answer. And yet, once again, it is not that simple. Jesus is the Messiah, but not the one that people expect. Jesus not the conquering warrior but the Suffering Servant. The confession of Jesus as the Messiah is empty apart from following his cruciform way of being Messiah. Which also means any confession of Jesus as the Messiah is empty apart from the costly discipleship that his life of faithfulness to God enacts.
 Martin Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question: 3017 Questions that Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered,” 100.
Luke, like the other Gospels makes clear that believing or confessing thingsabout Jesus is not enough. We are to link our confession of who Jesus is with a life of faithful discipleship. Believing in Jesus and following in the way of Jesus are inseparable. Being a person of faith is not simply about saying or believing the rights things, or even a single heroic act, but about an ongoing way of life.
Luke’s Gospel reminds us that way of life is the way of the cross. So, what does it mean to, “take up one’s cross?” Taking up one’s cross is living in accordance with the will of God. It is the result of the decision to “take up . . . daily” Christ’s life of self-giving love.
Sometimes, Lent is a time when we traditionally, “give things up” as a way of drawing nearer to God. And while this can be a valuable spiritual practice, taking up ones’ cross, is not about denying yourself various things, but putting the way of Christ above your other desires. It is not about resigning to a certain fate, or succumbing to victimization, or glorifying suffering for suffering’s sake. It is not even about a hardship to be endured.
Taking up your cross embraces the hard work of vulnerability, and open-hearted love for the sake of the world God loves and is at work actively redeeming. It is believing that God’s promise of life is even stronger than any threat of death we might face as a result of living out that good news. Especially, when it places us alongside those who suffer.
Jesus reminds us paradoxically that, “all who save their life will lose it, and all who lose their life for my sake will save it (v. 24).”
People who often come to mind as examples of those who have lived the call of cruciform discipleship are Dorothy Day and her ministry among the poor, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his leadership in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, or Martin Luther King Jr. and his witness throughout the civil rights struggle. Yet, it is not only those who are exemplary who are called to bear the cross of discipleship but all of us.
Dear God, help me to live my faith in the world. Amen.
About the Author
Rev. Sarah Johnson is the Senior Associate Pastor for Adult Learning at Preston Hollow. She earned her Master's of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary and is working toward her Doctor of Ministry at Duke University.