A friend of mine reminded me recently how many Christians today believe morality means being neutral, polite and non-committal so we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
Jesus’ rebuke to Simon Peter as we read in Matthew 16: 23 then comes as a shock and a clear, sharp reminder about what Jesus expects of his disciples now. Jesus calls Peter a stumbling block!
Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. (Matthew 16:23)
This exchange comes after Jesus changes Simon’s name along with his sense of identity, following Simon’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (Matt.16:16).
Within a few verses, Jesus has shifted his ministry from being a local Jewish ministry to embracing the Passion or suffering he anticipates as the outcome of his teaching for the whole world. It reflects a transition in the nature and emphasis of Jesus’ teaching and focus. We see the disciples’ understanding of discipleship and faith shifting, as they start to see what is at stake and may be required of them.
In our world today, we would probably take Peter aside and have a quiet conversation after thanking Peter for his insight and then offer a more measured correction highlighting the direction being taken.
However, Jesus’ words are blunt. Peter has misunderstood the teaching like us and Jesus’ words resonate in our lives. My reflection is we have become risk averse in thinking and responding to God’s love. We play it safe. Christianity conforms to the principalities and powers which crucified Christ. We are neutral, polite and on the sidelines.
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 loses it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matt.16:24-26)
We live in a beautiful part of the world where we have not had our lives deeply disrupted. I think our understanding of this needs to be stretched and tested, as we begin to see the way of the Cross is not defined as any tragedy evident in our daily lives, such as being diagnosed with cancer, coping with the impact of the pandemic, or losing a child, or losing jobs, income, homes or natural disaster, all of which are dreadful and to which we respond with beautiful compassion and care. These horrors are the experiences of all humanity.
The Cross is not simply a psychological tension we understand intellectually and with which we empathise. The Cross is not a transactional exchange for salvation.
The Cross as Jesus defines it in these few short verses is the inevitable, expected, outcome of the consequences of Love refusing to comply with, and Love’s determination not to be overtaken by, oppression, injustice, violence, evil nor can Love be a withdrawal from all these things to keep ourselves ‘safe’.
Jesus reminds Peter he has set his mind on human things and human desires; and so the avoidance of risk, of hurt, of oppression and terror, and the willing complicity in systems of injustice to increase the benefits we have consequently acquired over our lifetimes for ourselves and our families mean we too echo Peter’s rebuke to Jesus:
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (Matt.16:22)
However, Jesus is clear. The Cross is not the defeat of love at the hands of evil, injustice, sin and death. Whether or not we die in the cause, we must be prepared to sacrifice our lives for the Gospel.
This explanation to the disciples is the second time Jesus has told them they must take up their crosses to follow him. Whoever loves a father or mother, partner or children more than Jesus is not following Jesus. We can see if we are devoted to our father for example, we will be making decisions he wants for us, not the choices we might wish to make for ourselves. We can see who is being prioritised. (Matt.10:36-39) It’s continuing the same message Jesus gives about serving two masters.
Jesus then shows us his own choice. He tells his disciples: he will go up to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed.
The recent protests around the world on the #BlackLivesMatter movement among all the other calls for justice, for freedom of faith, for safety from tyranny, for welcoming of refugees, for an end to racism, and corruption in governments, whatever it is striking a chord with you, are an altar call for churches everywhere longing to escape what it was Jesus came to free up from oppression and injustice.
Where we do not respond, I see a crisis in Christianity, an inability to see the way of the Cross.
Like Peter we have trouble putting aside our pursuit of human things. We strive to be independent, self-made and self-reliant. Getting ahead and getting enough to live comfortably is the goal. Most of us live where these goals are valued, respected and accepted. When we look for a Church, we look for one fitting our values, our needs and those of our families. The central figure here is the ‘self’.
There is some of this in all of us. We prefer a faith to look after us, rather than the Cross. We want to be victorious over our foes, we want to profit and benefit.
Maybe the real block is not Peter’s reluctance to accept a suffering Messiah. Maybe the Cross is the real problem, as Paul says: ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’. (1 Cor. 1:23) What was Jesus thinking about, when he said:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Matt.16:24)
This sounds like foolishness. In order to feel better about the embarrassment and fear of a symbol suggesting pain, suffering, weakness and failure, in a culture honouring fame, success and wealth, if we even bother to think about it, we dress up our Cross and use it as decoration. So little is surrendered in solidarity with those who are suffering.
The Cross must be raised again in the marketplace alongside those protesting, in the centre of our lives, not simply on steeples or nicely placed on walls between candles. This is not where Christ was crucified. He was crucified on the town rubbish tip, it is where he died after being tortured and beaten by his own religious leaders in collusion with the State’s powers and principalities, hung between two thieves. This is where the Church should be. [See Ref: George MacLeod]
It is where the Easter hope of the Cross then emerges from death and suffering. Love’s victory over all evil, injustice, violence and death is held by the nail-scarred hands of Christ
Together Peter and Jesus lay out our challenge as human beings: to put aside our personal claim to what is precious to us in this life, and to choose the risk and reality of pain and loss for the sake of Christ’s love for the world. The stark reality of taking up our own Cross then becomes hopeful in the light of Jesus’ continued explanation in Matt.16: 25-26:
Those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matt.16:25-26)
Following Christ is not denying the value and worth of our ‘self’ as a child of God, rather it is an affirmation our true worth is found in giving ourselves on behalf of others.
The community participating in formation of disciples who give their lives away for the sake of the Gospel will also walk the way of the Cross. Whatever we do in worship, education and mission as a Church and individually must be a witness to the Cross.
How we understand the Cross will determine how we, or if we, take up our own Cross. If we cannot discern the way of the Cross, we cannot share in God’s love which undoes all oppression and domination. To follow Jesus is to follow him into God’s healing justice. As we pray each day, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’
The Lord be with you.