13 PENTECOST - PROPER XVII - A - 17 MATTHEW 16.21-28
In comparison last week’s gospel had Peter being rewarded by Jesus for having made his confession, although divinely inspired, of Christ as the king Israel had been waiting for, the long awaited Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus called Peter’s confession the “rock” on which he would build his church.
Here, just a few verses later the “rock” has turned into a stumbling stone. Jesus rebukes Peter for his human response to Christ’ announced destiny.
Where Peter had been the spokesperson for the others in confessing Jesus as the Messiah, he now becomes the unwilling spokesperson for Satan, as the devil did not want Christ to fulfill his mission and save mankind through his suffering and death.
Peter thought that he had Jesus figured out and what Christ’s next move would be, or should be. Going to the Holy City was going in the right direction. They should march on Jerusalem, pick up supporters along the way, choose the moment, take over the Temple, cast out the rulers and enthrone Jesus. That’s how it should be done. That’s how the Son of Man would be exalted in his kingdom.
That is not what Jesus is saying. Peter has his mind set on worldly power. That is not the way God will bring salvation to all mankind. God’s victory will come through suffering and death.
I “must go to Jerusalem,” Jesus said, “and undergo suffering…“ He will confront the rulers and authorities, the chief priests and legal experts in Jerusalem, but they, not he, will appear to win the battle. He will be killed. And on the third day, God will raise him from the dead.
Peter and the disciples failed to discern the connection between his death and the coming of the kingdom. They cannot figure out for the moment what Jesus means by this. This is but Christ’ first prediction of the Passion, others would follow. Obviously, it has diverted the disciple’s thinking. Jesus makes it clear what God’s plan is - without his suffering there is no redemption.
Moreover, this is not the first time Jesus has talked to his disciples about the cost of discipleship. They had already seen him rejected in his own village. Yet they see no connection between that and what will become of him in Jerusalem nor what will eventually happen to all of them, save one.
His mighty works and his teaching about God and his kingdom had kept alive their hopes of worldly power. Human reasoning based on worldly things can blind us so that we are unable to see as God sees. Like Peter, we sometimes think we have God all figured out and what it is God is up to, or should be up to, especially in regards to meeting our needs. Like Peter, we find ourselves in the wrong.
The recent confession of Peter and Jesus’ approval must have greatly strengthened those worldly hopes. It was expected that Messiah would reign forever, so the idea that Christ would die was perplexing to Peter and remained scandalous to the Jews even after the resurrection.
Jesus sets the record straight. The one who until now had been the teacher and the wonder-worker endeavors from henceforth to have them see him as Redeemer - the one who must suffer in order to save.
Having set the record straight, Christ now issues the call to any and all that would follow him. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The cross is a symbol of suffering and self-denial.
We may not be called to physically suffer for our faith as Christians, at least not yet. Nevertheless, we are called to follow him and imitate him in denying our self for the sake of the love of God and the gospel. To imitate Christ and deny self is the way in which we witness to a fallen world that our allegiance belongs to him.
Our love of God has to be genuine as St. Paul says, and needs to be demonstrated in our relationships with other people. St. Paul gives us a blueprint of how this is to be done in today’s Epistle - by loving one another with mutual affection…blessing those who persecute us, and living in harmony with one another all of which depends upon our denying our self and our self interests.
When we think in human terms, as Peter did, we react in human ways rather then respond as Christ would. St. Paul warns against that too. “…do not repay anyone evil for evil… do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.“ For too often, we choose to follow our own instincts based on worldly power. When we do we demonstrate the very opposite of the imitation of Christ.
To deny oneself is much more than to deny particular pleasures. It is, as Thomas Merton wrote, “to cease to become what I always wanted to be and become what God wants me to be.” Or, as St. Paul says in another place, “to die to self and live to Christ.” That is what it means to deny our self. That is what it means to take up our cross.
This is what Peter and the others would one day learn to do by surrendering their self-allegiance and giving all their allegiance to Christ. Self-denial is self-renunciation, not the seeking of the cross, but an acceptance of it in whatever form it may take.
The paradox of Jesus’ own life must be the paradox of the life of his followers. Self-discovery through self-surrender. This was the law he laid upon them because he had himself learned its everlasting validity. It is not impossible to live life selfishly, but what an impossible life it is.
We can’t profit by holding onto temporal things. If we do, the loss is in the eternal. To give up life is only to lose a lower and find a higher. There are no half measures in following Jesus. There are no short cuts to the kingdom. Jesus did not attain glory without the cross and neither can we.
In every generation there are, it seems, a few people who are prepared to take Jesus seriously at his word, and who willingly take up their cross and follow him. What would today’s world look like if we all did? AMEN+