What a contrast in today’s Gospel passage from that of last Sunday. Last Sunday, Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus blessed Peter in return, designating him as the “rock” on which he will build his church. As the episode continues in today’s passage, Jesus addresses Peter with some of the harshest words ever directed toward one of his disciples: “Get behind me Satan!” and calls Peter a “stumbling block.” Such an incredible reversal must have been very painful for both of them.
Now the popular idea at the time was that the Messiah would be a new “David,” a conquering Messiah, a warrior king, who would sweep the Romans from Palestine and restore Israel to power. Jesus’ followers associated victory and glory with the Messiah, not suffering and death.
As soon as Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to correct the disciples’ understanding of what that meant. “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21-22).
Peter, unable to accept or understand Jesus, takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, saying, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.” For Peter, the idea of a suffering Messiah, connecting the cross with the work of the Messiah, was absurd. “The savior of the world suffer? God’s Messiah die? Are you mad?”
Jesus rebuked Peter with the strongest rebuke he gives anyone in the New Testament. Why the strong rebuke? We’re obviously not dealing with a simple disagreement here. This is the voice of the tempter seeking to turn Jesus from God’s purpose and Jesus feels the presence of Satan as strongly as in the wilderness. Because in that moment the temptations that he had faced in the wilderness, in the beginning of his ministry, came back at him with cruel force.
In the wilderness Jesus had been tempted to take the ascending way of power: “Give them bread, give them material things,” said the tempter, “and the people will follow you.” “Give them the sensational,” said the adversary, “and they will follow you.”
At the end of the temptation in the wilderness story, Luke writes, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). This was an opportune time. And here, Peter is offering temptation to Jesus again.
Now here’s something to ponder. Are we really all that different than Peter?
We may not be looking for a new Moses or a new David, but don’t we yearn for a strong God who will vanquish our foes? Don’t we want a powerful God to protect us from disappointment and tragedy? Don’t we want a potent God who will lead us, and our congregation, to a brighter future?
Of course we do!
But what we get is not the Messiah that Peter longed for, or perhaps the Messiah we desire, but rather…Jesus, the son of peasant parents, the itinerant preacher who proclaims God’s kingdom where losers are blessed, the poor are honored, and those considered the least among us in the eyes of the world are invited to God’s banquet table.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25).
Is there a road to God’s kingdom that by-passes the cross? Clearly Jesus is saying there is no other way. Jesus gives a warning here that will ring down through the centuries: to follow the will of God means denial of the “self.” Jesus doesn’t mean abolishing the self, or dismissing the self as evil. He means to offer one’s self to be transformed by God for God’s purposes.
“For what is the cross but the process by which all that is not God dies in us, and all that is [God] lives and grows in us (William Porcher DuBose).
Jesus invites us to imagine that our self-worth doesn’t come from our accomplishments or possessions, but rather as a gift from the God that loved us into being. Jesus invites us to find our sense of worth and dignity from the fact that we are God’s beloved children.
When Jesus calls us to self-denial and the cross, he isn’t advocating acceptance of injustice, needless suffering or cruel self-degradation. He urges us to take hold of God’s promise to conquer hate with love, to overcome fear with courage, and to defeat death with resurrection life.
Yes, like Peter, our hearts may break when we realize that we’re not getting the God we want, but instead, the God we need. The God we need urges us to take up our cross and follow the way of Jesus.
For the God we confess is the One who came to us in Jesus, who became like us so that we can become like him, that we may share in God’s love, a forgiven people forgiving people, and sharing God’s love with the world.
Yes, by picking up our cross and following the descending way of Jesus, we may end up just like he did. Perhaps not on a wooden cross, but crucified just the same.
Jesus says to us, “Don’t be afraid. You and I know what’s on the other side of the cross. ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Mt 28:20).
Thanks be to God!
Resources: William Barclay, 1975; Synthesis, 2014, 2017; David Lose, 2014, 2017; William Porcher DuBose, 1864; Craddock, et.al., 1987; Henri Nouwen, 1998.