But that’s about to change! Mark’s brought us to a climactic moment. But first a moment of reflection. Identity is anything but something else we know about someone else or ourselves. It’s a whole life makeover! A new identity is something that changes us. How we see the world and respond to it can never be the same again. Even if we, at a later date, try to flee or renounce it. When Jesus and his disciples arrive at Caesarea Philippi such a decisive moment comes for the disciples.
Mark has already shown us how God’s affirmation of Jesus’ identity and vocation transformed him from a peasant carpenter to leader of a messianic movement at his baptism. At the river Jesus experienced
-a revelation (“My Son”),
-a revaluation (“the beloved”), and
-a revolution (“with you I am well pleased”).
Jesus’ identity as God’s messiah, his royal world ruler is reaffirmed and ready to go public. His intimacy with his Father is declared. And the shape and practice of his rule, his messiahship, is determined.
In knowing his identity, his followers receive their own, discover intimacy with God, are inducted into his subversive, counter-revolutionary movement. That’s what’s at stake as they follow Jesus to Caesarea Philippi.
The latter was a pagan Hellenistic city originally named for the god Pan who came from an earlier Canaanite Baal cult. What more appropriate place for this moment! Here, in a bastion of the gods, God reveals to Jesus’ followers who he really is: “You are the Messiah” (8:29).
Mark has given us clues, however, that discovering Jesus’ real identity and embracing it is a more complicated matter than a one-off moment of insight or “conversion.” The disciples did not understand about the loaves and the story of the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida immediately prior that took two touches for complete restoration of sight. To grasp Jesus identity will be contested matter for the disciples (and also for us!). It will not come in a moment but in a lifetime of moments. A lifetime of moments filled with as much failure as success in remembering who he truly is. A struggle all the way but a struggle that finally gives meaning and focus to our lives.
We should be grateful for God’s willingness and faithfulness to reveal himself to Peter and the disciples, to vouchsafe to them this most precious of insights. We can be certain that knowing, really knowing, Jesus for who he really is remains God’s chief agenda for us. He will always be working on it.
But we will fail from time to time. Too often, truth be told. It should not surprise us, then, to discover Peter immediately rejecting Jesus’ declaration of his own vocation (more on that next time), rejecting it so thoroughly that Jesus rebukes him by calling him “Satan” (8:33).
This is the crucible we all live in: between understanding and disbelief. Between God and Satan. A combatant in a battle who’s constantly tempted to seek refuge on the other side. Some of this is ignorance and can be cured by growing awareness of and familiarity with Jesus. But some of it is a residual core of resistance to God’s call and claim on our lives through Jesus. Something Paul calls the “flesh.” He doesn’t mean our material, physical being when he uses “flesh” this way but rather that part of us that remains committed to our own lordship over our lives and unwilling to cede lordship to God’s rightful and gracious rule. More about all this in the next post.