Peter had just hit a grand slam. Jumping right up to the plate when Jesus asked his team to give their best shot on what they thought of him, who he really was, in spite of the local gossip, Peter made his famous declaration that Jesus was “the Messiah, the son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). This was an incredible statement, blasphemous for many an upstanding Jew, to equate a human being with God, if that is what he really meant. Jesus affirms his reply, not only by acknowledging its veracity as a personal revelation from “my heavenly Father” — a statement that itself reinforces its implication of his divinity — but promotes Peter as “the rock” upon which he will build his church. To this office is attached a sweeping authority of binding and loosing — the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” — that hell itself will not prevail against.

Yet after this remarkable revelation, Jesus explicitly commands his disciples not to speak of him as Messiah publicly. And for good reason. He goes on to speak of his suffering and death as inevitable before his glorification. It is a corrective definition of messiahship as meaning more than one of glory and triumph, a popular understanding at the time and, evidently, one that Peter and the other disciples likely held. For Peter immediately takes Jesus aside to correct him, suddenly abandoning his role as a disciple, putting himself forward as if he were Jesus’ campaign manager and knew what was better for Jesus.

The immediate response to Peter must have been devastating to him — or, at least, his ego. Peter was no doubt proud that he had “gotten” what Jesus was all about, that he really knew him and had been promoted for it. Instead, Jesus tells him that his first action as the “rock” of the Church is satanic: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). So the question is, which Jesus was Peter going to bat for: the real Jesus or the one he wanted to make for himself?

We commonly hear people say things like, “the Church says, but I think…” Or making comparisons between “the God of the Old Testament,” perceived as stern and remote, and the “God of Jesus Christ,” somehow imagined as kinder and gentler. Clearly Peter, a Jew, did not share a view of God as harsh or unapproachable. He could not understand how the Father would expect his Son to suffer and die as Jesus foretold. Jesus offers some counsel on this to his disciples: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24).

Notice he says “his” — our — personal cross, not the cross that he himself will take up. What is this cross? Is Jesus just affirming the obvious, that there will be pain and suffering in human life? Everyone suffers, whether or not he or she believes in Jesus Christ. No, there is something more in the passage that is often overlooked. Following Jesus means denying oneself.

No other statement of Jesus, I would submit, is more of a scandal — a stumbling block — to the mindset of our world than this. It sounds like Jesus is asking us to give up our personal identity and to become, as it were, pawns or puppets with no will of our own. Some religions actually do prescribe such a detachment from or even annihilation of selfhood as the way to happiness, seeing the human will as the source of all conflict in personal and communal life. This is not the Christian understanding.

God is not at war with our wills. The Satanic impulse is to see God as a threat to our freedom, a competitor. Some of the existentialist philosophers of the 19th century, most of them self-described agnostics or atheists, saw the human problem as rooted in the inevitable conflict of wills. “Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre described his feeling that, due to our wills, we can only stare at one another as objects to be manipulated, the so-called “Sartrian stare.”

Jesus looks on us with love, however. Though he is God — and, strictly speaking, because he is God — he loves the human creature made in God’s image and likeness. So then, how can he be asking us to give up our wills, our very identity? Well, he is not — unless we believe that our wills, or more precisely, our egos are the sum and substance of our identity.

For one thing, the very fact that Jesus is inviting us to take up our cross — to deny our self — implies that he respects our will. It is a choice that he is asking us to make, just as he himself chose to do the will of his heavenly Father in taking up his own cross for us. The Trinitarian nature of God is the divine image in which we are made. The three persons of God are different, yet they share one will. Their identities are unique, yet they share the same nature. This harmony amid diversity is something the world so hungers for amidst the tangle of clashing egos, all trying to define not only themselves but what the other person is, indeed what entire groups or classes of people are.

The “ask” of Jesus is, at heart, very simple: make God and not our ego the center of our life. Peter may not have realized it, but what he was doing is giving Jesus advice on how he should be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, whom he had just acknowledged, and then proceeding, effectively, to deny. Apparently, he had not yet “gotten” Jesus. In rebuking him, but not taking back his title, Jesus obviously forgave him. It would not be the last time.

What Jesus is inviting us all to do is to accept the reality of whom Peter correctly said he was, the real Jesus. Not just the Jesus who is my pal or buddy, who sees things my way and agrees with me. Not just the “nice” Jesus who makes me feel good, but the Jesus who really loves me enough to lead me to discover my true identity, which is always more than what anyone has called me, or even how I name myself.

So much of the social conflict we are experiencing today is about the exchange of blame among self-identified groups, often using self-venerating slogans and disparaging labels against others with little respect for the personal identities on either side. We seem to be labeling ourselves and one another to death, losing a sense of the dignity of every human person. Indeed, our center does lie outside ourselves, but neither can it be found in just a clan, a race, a movement, a nationality or even a religion. To find ourselves we need to go deeper.

Jesus offers us a solid foundation upon which we can find our true identity and be at peace with it. It is much deeper than the color of our skin, our wealth or health, where we live, where we are from or the party we vote for. It is found in him, the real Jesus. If we only “use” Jesus, like Peter tried to for a moment, to affirm our own ego-driven preferences, politics or “life-style,” we will lose our moorings and miss the offer or grace. If we ignore the one real God entirely, we will find a lesser god, an idol, who will end up devouring us. God waits for our choice.

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