“Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?’ ” This is the quintessential question of all of life and history: Who is Jesus really?

“They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” Notice they’re choosing respected people, which shows they have respect for Jesus. They were also choosing people of God, sent by God, with a message from God, doing God’s work. So we see what kind of reputation Jesus has.

It’s also interesting to read that they believed in life after death, and in resurrection. Hmmmm….

“ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ ” Here it becomes personal, and a matter of individual belief. The issue isn’t public opinion, but personal faith. In one way it doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks. He doesn’t ask, “What do you think about what I’ve done?” He doesn’t ask, “Who do your friends think I am?” or “Who do your parents think I am?” What matters, in the final essence, is what YOU think. You have been asked some pretty important questions in your life: Will you marry me? Would you be interested in moving to a new home? Do you want this job? They are all dwarfed by this question.

“Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah.’ ” Peter probably says this because of the miracles Jesus had done (Mk. 1.14-8.21). Jews expected a Messiah who would do miracles (Mt. 11.2-5). What is most interesting is that Jesus doesn’t really accept his answer. He said not to tell anyone, and then he corrects Peter’s misunderstanding. The Christ was going to be a SUFFERER.

“And he said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’ ” This shows a marked difference in the content of conversation from anything that had gone before. Before this his teaching was all about the Kingdom of God, ethics, healings, and faith. Now suddenly it’s suffering, death, and resurrection. As it turns out, there were many different opinions about who he was, where he was from, and why he was there, but not a single person understood this part. Not a single one.
“Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’ ” OK, here’s what I see:

1. Following Jesus is a choice. No one—no one—is coerced. Love will have it no other way.

2. The invitation is open to all.

3. What you are signing up for is to follow in the path of suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. But he doesn’t mean that literally because of the word “daily.”

4. The way to follow Jesus is to deny self (humility, servant attitude, submissive to God, repent from sin, share what you have, don’t blame God for the world’s problems, deny the temptation to power, some self-deprivation, and love others), take up your cross (expect rejection, suffering, and death every day), and follow Jesus (catch men as he did, be like him in every way).

In one brilliant, concise statement, he teaches so much about renouncing self-centeredness and self-interest. The expectation of the rich young ruler, and therefore of us, is not “to sell everything you have and give it to the poor,” but to die to everything in your life. Paul says the same thing: “I consider everything to be rubbish” (Phil. 3.8). You can have things, but keep an open hand. Nothing matters.

“But how is that possible? We’re made to cling to things. We’re made to love things we can see.” In Luke 14.26 Jesus said you have to “hate [your] father and mother” to be his disciple. It is the paradox of distance and love. Every day I have to die to my life. At every turn we deny ourselves and follow him. We’re made to cling to things, but God is what we’re supposed to cling to. So every day I don’t have to just remind myself of this truth, but to die to it. Every day I need to distance myself from everything of this world. How? In prayer, and in my soul. God is SO important to me, and the things of this world just aren’t. It’s loss, and the experience of loss, that teaches us how to do this, that teaches us what doesn’t matter. Jesus affirmed in John 11.35 that bonding with people is a good thing, and we are supposed to love one another. But we also understand there’s a distancing. It’s not that when people who are close to us die, that we don’t care. It’s the paradox, though. When we lose a loved one, we cling to God, because God is ultimately the ring around us, not the people. It’s easy to understand but hard to live. These are deep truths.

Then Jesus plunges deeper: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” This saying of Jesus is most often taken as an expression of some ethereal truth for especially religious people. Instead, they are mere observations about how life actually works. As is so often the case with the statements of Jesus, they say nothing about what we ought to do. They simply state how things are. Anything with life in it can flourish only if it abandons itself to what lies beyond it, eventually to be lost as a separate being, though continuing to live on in relation to others. Life is inner power to reach and live “beyond”.

“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” Powerful. Who would think of this stuff? C.S. Lewis says, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

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