It had been one hell of a time.
Ever since that mystical baptismal experience for the forgiveness of sin, Jesus had seen his world slowly crumble around him. And it had all started so promisingly, too, with the dove descending and the voice proclaiming him as a beloved son.
It didn’t take long for his parents and siblings to become more than a bit disconcerted with his message. They thought he was crazy, and told him so, in public no less. Nothing like a public shaming in such a small town. News traveled fast, and pretty soon everyone in his hometown thought he’d just cracked.
John gave him some solace, his mentor in some ways. At least he wasn’t alone and eating bugs in the woods. He had his friends, at least. Without his own family, he had begun to think of them as his true family, the ones who he could depend on and the ones who gave him a new familial identity.
And it hadn’t been all bad. He had done some pretty impressive work, had learned some shattering lessons and had made some impact. Still, on par, things seemed to be trending upward for him.
But, then, he got the news that John had been murdered by the government, beheaded to be specific. John, the one who had set him on this path, the one with whom all this had begun. The two had many parallels. Some folks even confused them at times. The news of John’s death, the brutality of it, had a profound effect on him. He had gone off to grieve. Suddenly, his calling and mission had a darker edge to it. For the first time, maybe Jesus got an inkling about where he was heading, the end that awaited him, the very same end as John — death at the hands of the government.
Perhaps this grim harbinger gave him pause. Is this who I am? Is this really my destiny? Almost like an early echo of that prayer in Gethsemane for the cup to pass from him.
Then, he had been a bit embarrassed by the holy and profound response of the gentile woman. Her response had so completely rearranged, in a single breath his understanding of the breadth of his own ministry and purpose. The whole ordeal had called into question that fundamental prayer of identity he had said since he was a boy, about being thankful he was born a man and a Jew and not anything else. He hadn’t prayed it since that day, as a matter of fact.
So in a span of a few months, Jesus had been disowned by his family, run out of his childhood home, lost his foundational mentor to a state-sponsored beheading, and had his religious identity turned upside down by none other than a pagan woman.
It is against this backdrop that Jesus sits down with his friends and asks them what has become a famous exchange.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Now, if you or I have a bit of an identity crisis, I doubt any of us would go to our closest friends, or worse, our spouses and ask them, “Who am I?” But imagine, for a moment, what it would feel like to ask such a courageous question of those who know you best, and sometimes better than yourself.
I don’t think I would ever ask this question of my friends, or even my wife. I would be afraid of the answer, to be honest. I’m much more comfortable with who I think I am. Their answers might shatter my fragile identity. They might talk about so many of my faults, or how I fail them, or how I hurt them. And I would probably ask them not to repeat it and forget I asked, because it would confirm a lot of what I assumed was true about me.
Or they might say something so surprisingly positive that I would be stunned, or embarrassed. And, in that case, I would certainly ask them not to repeat it. But I could not forget it, because their idea of me had made a claim on who I was, because then I would wonder whether what else I assumed about myself was untrue.
And I would likely pay more attention to how I lived.
No surprise, I tend to reserve this question of identity for moments of solitude, and I only look for an answer through introspection, quietly diving down to the bottom of me, hoping to find some truth about me in the caverns and cobwebs of the lonely places of the soul.
Or, I might wipe away the fog on the mirror after a shower, and stare at my bluish eyes, hazy with a little gray, until I am confused by my own face, until it becomes a bit of anatomical nonsense, pieces of humanity hastily pasted together. An ear, slightly higher than the other. Eyes, the slightest bit uneven, unless I cock my head at just the right angle. A self-important nose that takes up more room than it should on a face with such a slender jaw. A beard, half a mask.
“Who am I, really?” I ask.
And it is a question that only I — me, this mishmash of features assembled from my ancestors — can answer.
Many of us, I’d wager, share this attitude, the one so aptly summed up that in the popular aphorism that reminds me that the real me is the person I am when no one is looking. That person who picks his toenails in bed, eats dessert before, and after, dinner, who spends too much time on the computer, or keeps driving on long roads in hopes the children will fall asleep. The real me, I have been told, is the person I become when the judgmental eyes of the world no longer bear down, when I am free to be the secret person I don’t let very many people see, the person who lives behind the public mask.
At its heart, this ethic of identity is a profoundly individualistic one. When we meet potential friends and lovers, we bring our identities to the table of fellowship and play a kind of mix and match game. We have this in common, but not this. We could talk about these things, but not this. And, if our selfish identities match enough, then perhaps we can schedule another date, another cookout, another time to get the kids together. There is rarely a sense of forming an identity together with friends and neighbors, only a standard of whether someone else’s identity is compatible with my own. Which is just another way of being unwilling to change for anyone except myself.
Of course, in a world where our contexts and friendships can change rapidly and drastically, perhaps it is safer to place our identities in no one else’s hands but our own. If friendships fracture through changing locations and circumstances, then any communal identity is scrubbed. At least, in crafting our identities in private, I can avoid the risk of truly morning the loss of a friend, the loss of love.
It is easier to stare into the mirror, our own eyes, like Narcissus or Alice, and ask, “Who I am?”
And then fabricate the answer — good or bad — that suits us most. When no one else is around, I can lie to myself. I can see a demon or an angel in the mirror.
But Jesus asks of his friends, “Who do you say that I am?”
To Jesus, though, it probably wouldn’t have readily occurred to him, as it would to us, that identity is something he must uncover alone. It simply wouldn’t make sense to him. In our modern world, loaded with an individualistic notion of identity, this can be difficult to grasp. And it is even more difficult to strip away these notions from this story. It is easy to assume that Jesus knows with certainty the answer to this question of identity.
Perhaps he had some inklings of what the answer might be, or even a strong suspicion of what the truth of his identity was. But identity in the first-century was couldn’t be constructed apart from the relational world. In our world, identity is self-focused. But, for Jesus’ contemporaries, identity was others-focused. Identity was communal, centered around family and generations of relationships. Who you were depended on who your family was, which is why when people are amazed at the teachings of Jesus, they ask incredulously whether this could be the son of the carpenter. Social mobility didn’t really exist at the time. A carpenter’s son was a carpenter, not a rabbi. The response of the people is perfectly understandable, because to them, identity was decided by the family and the community.
In this world, Jesus has no identity that would have been meaningful for a first-century person. He is estranged from his family, chased from his home, had his mentor murdered and had a gentile woman show him the error of his ways. This has all the makings of an identity crisis, but instead of introspection, he turns to his friends, whom he has begun referring to as his true family.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answers, echoing the heavenly voice at Jesus baptism, that he is God’s Christ, God’s anointed one. Jesus tells him not to repeat it.
It is an odd exchange, if we think of the conversation as one in which Jesus is asking questions with answers he is already certain of. But if viewed in light of identity construction and Jesus own context — familial abandonment, execution and religious disorientation — then the whole episode carries more dynamism. The question comes across as not merely a rhetorical teaching device, as Christians have often understood it, but with a probable element of searching to it as well.
Another clue that there might be more to this story than is often thought is what happens next in the conversation. There is an odd change in tone. The the intimate first-person (who do you say that I am?) abruptly switches to third person (teaching them that the Son of Man must suffer). In short, let me suggest that the first part of this conversation is about Jesus’ identity and calling, which was, at least, in part dependent on his community, his disciples. The second part is about the role in which Jesus’ identity and calling, was, at a minimum, crucially confirmed by Peter, will place him.
The irony, of course, is that after Peter identifies Jesus, he immediately regrets it because of what it means in light of Jesus’ understanding of that role! Peter has just unwittingly helped to set Jesus on the path to his own death. Up until this point, the disciples had heard nothing of the darker ends of Jesus’ life, of suffering and death. To the disciples, there has only been water-walking, miraculous feedings and healings and profound teaching, astute enough to parry the powerful priests. They had found their identities in following Jesus, and surely, given all they had seen, Jesus was the Christ. How could Peter have known that he was affirming his lord’s path to death? No wonder Peter pulls Jesus aside to convince him to change his mind. In all likelihood, he feels guilty! He knows implicitly that he has played a crucial role in how Jesus understands himself.
If Jesus was in the midst of an identity crisis here, it isn’t impossible to think that he had realized exactly what role the Son of Man was to play and that he wasn’t quite sure if that was the role he was intended to carry out — or even the role he wanted. In a sense, he could be asking his friends whether this cup of suffering is for him. Unwittingly, they say yes. The divine confirmation that comes shortly after — the transfiguration — has often been understood as meant for the disciples that Jesus is the Christ. Perhaps it was meant, too, for Jesus, a reminder of that first divine calling at the moment of his baptism, a reminder, as all callings are, not to forget who he really was.
Anyone who has gone through the process of discernment in certain mainline churches knows well the feeling of submitting an inkling of an identity to a group of peers. In October, when I met with my diocese’s commission on ministry, I was reminded often of this conversation Jesus had with his disciples, where he discerns his own identity in community and for the community. Knowing he has a call, he probes his disciples, asking them who do people and who do they say that he is. And essentially, this is one of the primary questions being discerned in the ordination process: what is my identity within the church which I feel pulled to serve?
Certain circles of the blogosphere have been none-too-friendly to the mainline ordination process, and many remain skeptical and wary of letting members of a denomination decide the fate of a would-be minister. I wonder how much of this is a latent remnant of an American religious individualism that highly values bootstraps and personal faith. But, this ethic remains the safe one, the narrow-minded one and, in many cases, a misguided one. While certainly not perfect and mistake-prone, the discerning of vocational identity should be a communal one that asks the open-ended ambiguous question of identity that could have hundreds of answers, or even multiple answers.
Which is precisely why the discerning identity in community is so powerful and so disarming. It requires me to set aside my assumptions about myself and give up my autonomous power over my future and share it with others. It requires me to hand over my bootstraps, my broken mirrors and the beliefs and hopes buried in my soul to others. It demolishes the last vestiges of individualistic religious belief in me. The process itself is an identity crisis that, rather than resolving it, places us on the path toward further crises.
When Jesus discerns his identity in community, it does not sew up his life tidily. Rather it propels him toward messier crises, to his prayer to forsake his identity in the Garden of Gethsemane, to his prayer that he himself has been forsake on the cross. The identity of Christ, even for Jesus, is always in crisis.
Sources: Rohrbaugh, Richard L. “Ethnocentrism and Historical Questions about Jesus” in The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Wolfgang Stegemann, et al. Fortess Press: Minneapolis, 2002