This scene strikes me as a really vulnerable moment between Jesus and his closest friends, when he turns to them and asks, What are people saying about me? Who do you say I am? Obviously people have been talking about Jesus– how could they help it? And these twelve men are Jesus’ closest companions, who ought to know him best of all. But even they can’t escape hearing the whispered conjectures and wild gossip. So Jesus asks them openly, taking an informal opinion poll: What are people saying about me? Who do you say I am?
Jesus has fed people miraculous bread from heaven. But do the disciples really understand what it’s all about? Jesus has restored sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. But do the disciples really see and hear him? Jesus is preaching “The Kingdom of Heaven is near; repent and believe the good news!” But do the disciples really know what way they are walking?
There are brief moments in the story that suggest just maybe the disciples are beginning to see in part, just like the blind man from Bethsaida healed by Jesus in the previous verses, his sight first partially restored then completely. Here we see the disciples with partial sight– a moment of true revelation, seeing God’s reality as clear as day, declaring Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the one to put everything right, the Son of the Living God.
And yet, the ones who confess Jesus’ Kingship misunderstand his mission. They see only partially, and don’t understand wholly. The curtain has been pulled back for a moment to reveal Jesus’ identity, but the disciples still need their sight to be fully restored if they are to understand and share in his mission. I imagine they still come with certain expectations, hopes, and plans for this King– and with all the talk they’re hearing, all that wild gossip, who could blame them?
Perhaps, these expectations, plans, and wild gossip are the things Jesus rebukes when he stares down Peter and says “Get behind me, satan!” The Greek here means an adversary, enemy, hostile opponent. All their expectations, plans, and wild gossip are the enemy of Jesus’ actual mission in the world: the journey to the cross. Their ideas about Jesus– the person they have constructed in their minds– is the enemy of the very real and present Jesus. What expectations, plans, and wild gossip keep us partially blinded to who Jesus really is and who we are called to be as his followers? In what ways might Jesus be saying to us and our pre-made ideas about Jesus: “Get behind me, satan”?
So, gently and firmly and always with compassion, Jesus begins to teach them, bringing them to new understanding, leading them through these paradoxes: the King is also the Servant, the way to glory is the way of the cross, the journey to true life is through a death to self. Who do we say Jesus is? How are we responding to the call to discipleship?
I don’t think anything has been more influential in my understanding of the call to follow Jesus than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. He writes:
“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christian suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death– we give our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
We also know that we are not only called to come and die, but that the journey to the cross is also a journey of resurrection, and this fundamentally shapes our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus here and now. Theologian N. T. Wright says: “Once we get the resurrection straight, we can and must get mission straight. […] People who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.”
This question Jesus poses is still posed to us, every single day. The call is immediate and present and here now. We must respond. We seem to assume the call will be something unpleasant. But in following Jesus to the cross, we are also following Jesus to the resurrection, and we find that the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace and love and freedom. God comes to us as one of us and calls us to follow. When we understand the Lordship of Christ and the demands it places on us, we respond with immediate obedience. We learn who we are by learning who Jesus is. We are most fully ourselves when there is less of Self and more of God, when we “embrace the will of God, however painful, daily, hourly, continually,” when we move forward in the way of the cross toward the resurrection life.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship. Page 89.
 N. T. Wright. Surprised by Hope. Page 193, 214.
 From John Wesley’s notes on this passage: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.i.iii.ix.html