Are you on Facebook? I joined so I could sponsor a friend in a charity event. But then I discovered I could follow my children on it.
Facebook and other social media are all about creating an identity. On your page you put photos, life events, and general thoughts. You show the world the way you want to be known as a person.
This self creation of our identity happens everywhere now. I remember when I used to have paper cheques. The bank said I could choose my own style of cheque, with colours and pictures. I could present myself the way I wanted my creditors to know me. How special is that! Like every human invention though, cheques have come and almost gone.
This process of creating our own identity did not happen in the time of Jesus. In his day the community gave you your identity. It still works that way today in traditional societies in the Middle East and Africa. So I’ve learned that a Sudanese child today has several possible first names and surnames. Which ones they use depends on who is talking to them, because their name defines their relationship to that person. That person immediately knows where that child fits into the community, and the status and honour of the child’s family. The community defines the child's identity.
When Jesus asked his disciples who the crowds said he was, he was checking his community identity. The expected answer would have been a summary of his relationships: he was Jesus son of Joseph the carpenter from Nazareth, and his mother was Mary. What Jesus wanted to know was whether his community had learned anything different about him.
It turns that the community was still groping in the dark about Jesus' true identity. Some thought he was John the Baptist, who had been beheaded by Herod but come back to life; or maybe Elijah, for whom there was a prophecy about his return; or maybe another prophet.
Peter seems to us to get it right: he says, Jesus is the Christ.
The problem is that Peter actually got it wrong, and we often get it wrong too. Peter didn’t know what it meant to be the Christ. And often we do not know or live what it means to know Jesus as the Christ.
‘Christ,’ or ‘Messiah,’ means the anointed one. The Roman emperor was also the anointed one. Like the emperor, the Jewish Christ was expected to be powerful. He was expected to re-establish the glorious kingdom of ancient Israel as it was thought to have existed under King David.
If Jesus was going to be an all-conquering king with the highest place of honour in the community, it meant that those closest to him would share in his honour. Peter and the other disciples thought they would share in Jesus’ honour. They thought the secret to life was strength and power, not being powerless and loving.
Jesus knew he had to spell out what was his true job description: he would suffer many things, he would be rejected and killed, and after three days he would rise again. This would be the greatest act of love ever imagined.
Peter objected to this - it totally conflicted with his ideas of kingship. But worse than that, he knew that because he was Jesus' disciple, if he wasn’t going to share in the honour of a great king, he would share in the king’s dishonour. Peter's identity would be determined in the same way as that of Jesus.
Jesus told Peter he was Satan, or at least his thoughts were. In the end though, we would have to agree with Peter: who wants to share in persecution, suffering, and death?
Then Jesus clarifies: it is for anyone who wants to follow him. If anyone wants to follow him, they must also lose their life and taken up their cross.
People are losing their lives all of the time for different reasons. It can happen through an accident or a stroke, a marriage breakdown, or some other crisis. But what if there is a way to lose your life and then get it back? Jesus says this happens when we do this ‘for his sake and the gospel.’
What could it mean to deny ourself and take up our cross? To deny ourselves is a strong way of saying we put others first. This is the Gospel’s theory of everything – the more we give, the more we receive; the more we seek to be a friend, the more friends we discover; and the move we love, the more we are loved.
It means giving up sinful behaviour. It might mean giving up a power relationship we have over someone close to us, which might be abusive. It might mean learning to never use hurtful language in any situation. It might mean learning to be kind.
When Jesus was on earth, he had a lot of fans. They loved the miracles he did; they liked his free picnic lunches. At a soccer match in the MCG there will be thousands of fans sitting in the stands; but there will only be 22 players on the pitch.
Jesus didn’t want fans in the stands. He wanted players. One day he said to a crowd of fans that if they wanted to be his followers, they would have to give up being selfish and start being generous.
Here in this building we are surrounded by lots of things from Jesus’ fan club: this painting behind me, the icons, the stations of the cross, the candles. All of these are nice things - they help remind us to look to Jesus and think about him.
But being a follower of Jesus is much more: it’s aiming to be like Jesus every day, it’s being helpful in what we do, being kind in what we say; being a friend to someone who has no friends; showing respect towards those who are older, and care for those who are younger; and showing God’s love by the way we live.
We can choose to just be a fan of Jesus, with all the Jesus things; or we can decide to really follow him. Jesus said it’s like deciding to take up our cross just like he took up his cross.
We are helped in doing this by being within a mutually supportive community, where all are working out the same thing. That is what the church is for.
So that is where our identity is to come from - not from something we create ourselves, although that too can be a blessing and a gift from God, depending on how we receive and use it. And not through some greatly puffed up profile that we put on Facebook. Real identity is to be found in Christ, who alone has the keys to the kingdom of heaven. When we lose our life for him, he raises us up to eternal life. This is his work of grace and freedom in us.