How did St Peter get it so wrong? Only a couple of verses before this morning’s gospel reading Peter had declared that Jesus is the Messiah. Hole in one. Go to the top of the class, Peter.
But when Peter hears Jesus telling the disciples that He must suffer, be put to death and rise to life in three days, Peter can’t take it. He doesn’t want openly embarrass Jesus in front of the others so he quietly takes Him aside. “Look Jesus, old chum, you’ve got it wrong. Your movement is destined for success. If you end up on the wrong end of the authorities and the Romans, what about us? Are you going to make fools of us all?”
In reply, Jesus devastatingly compares Peter to Satan. “You godless person!”
Do we get it wrong about Jesus? Are we like Peter?
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus speaks twice more about His death and resurrection. No further comment is made, but immediately afterwards Mark gives little snapshots of the disciples talking about power. Which of them is number two in Jesus’s organisation? Which of them will be Jesus’s right-hand man in the Kingdom of Heaven? So perhaps Peter’s rebuke of Jesus was based on fearing that he would lose status – if Jesus went down, he would too.
And sadly it’s true that in past history as well as today people have seen following Jesus as a path to power, respectability, perhaps even wealth. For Jesus to talk about death was to admit to ultimate failure.
But Jesus says to the disciples and the crowd – that’s us – that following Him is about forgetting self and taking up the cross. “Forgetting self” – not a moment of temporary amnesia, but a complete denial of the self and whatever gives you your identity.
“Taking up the cross” – after so many centuries we don’t realise how shocking Jesus’s words would have been to His hearers. The Romans made their victims carry the cross in the same way the Nazis made prisoners in concentration camps dig their own graves before shooting them. It was total humiliation and degradation. Jesus Himself carried His own cross on Good Friday until it broke Him. To take up our cross is to lose our identities in His.
Jesus says that if we are willing to lose our lives for His sake and the sake of His gospel message, we will save them.
“For His sake” – we often say that we are doing things for the sake of something in a sense of grudging self-sacrifice, doing a favour. Like not saying anything for the sake of peace and quiet, instead of having the quarrel. But taking up our cross doesn’t mean we are doing Jesus a favour. It means on His account and through His strength that we will find our real and true existence. Our new life and new creation. We cannot do enough, we cannot give enough, to accomplish this. Only Christ can and has done this through the Cross.
Like Peter, many find the concept of Jesus’s death on the Cross very difficult. Even some Christians do. How could such a good, kind and wise person end up in this way? It seems so messy and unnecessary.
Sometimes at its crudest, Jesus’s death is seen as the vicious act of an angry, vengeful Father God on an innocent child. Or we might find the image of sacrifice almost pagan, unsophisticated. Yet there is something really deep happening – Jesus taking the rap of sin for us, the curse and weight of sin of all humanity, present and future, upon Himself. Making us right with God. As Paul puts it as the end of our Romans reading, [he] was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.But Jesus’s death is inevitable. It was the only solution to the human predicament, and gateway to new life. Jesus’s death is the acting-out and fulfilment of the suffering servant story in Isaiah 53. We may never fully understand what happens through Jesus’s death, but we shouldn’t shy away from it.
Lent may be a time when we are taking up the cross again in the sense of self-denial and penitence. But it must also be a time when we should think again who died on the Cross on Good Friday for us and why.