We continue, in our Gospel reading this week, to see the world, and to see discipleship and travelling with Jesus through the eyes of Peter – that particularly human figure, courageous (remember his walking on water), sharp (last week he saw in Jesus what others could not), yet impulsive and doubtful as well. And yet, perhaps the most important of Jesus’ male followers. Peter, who has just spoken in pure faith, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah – the anointed one, the great hoped-for figure who would lead Israel out of Roman oppression and to glory once again – and for his faith and fearlessness he has been rewarded, blessed, and given great responsibility as the rock upon which this shakey new church would be built.
And this week we see him come crashing down, back to earth with a bang. These few passages seem to me to be full of contrasts between heaven and earth, of this life and the next, and Peter here is firmly back in the realities, and the rebukes, of this world. The rock, firm and stable, becomes the stumbling block, haphazard and designed to trip people up. Get behind me Satan, Jesus scolds – get out of my sight we might say, or perhaps it’s more like, know your place, remember, you are a disciple, literally in the original Greek, someone who follows. Remember, you are following Jesus, not the ways of the world.
And here, that means following even to the cross – this news, that Jesus would be tried and put to death in a notoriously shameful, painful way would prove at first too much for Peter – and here he shows some of that – no way, never ever he proclaims, is that going to happen to you – the man who has only just proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, now tries to keep him how he thinks a messiah should be – powerful, glorious, exalted, and mostly… alive. What is a messiah who is put to death? This is not how it is meant to go.
Not in Peter’s earthly schemes, in his human things as Jesus puts it. But it is exactly how it’s meant to go in the divine way of things. In that topsy turvey world of God. Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and be tried and ultimately crucified. That he must. The author of Matthew uses one of my favourite little Greek works – dei, and it often reveals God’s plans, the things that are absolutely necessary. It is necessary, dei, it come from the word to tie, or bind – it is necessary that he go…
And we find out why – so that on the third day he can be raised. This is the way of the cross, this is a death into resurrection. The two are intrinsically linked. A death that births life. An ending which is just the beginning. A way of love which shatters violence and death. For God so loved the world, remember, that he sent his only son, to live and die amongst us – to open wide his arms for us on the cross.
And then comes the sting – if they, if Peter, if we, want to follow Jesus, then we are to take up the cross, deny ourselves, not to deny him, as Peter would do, and follow. We are to turn from earthly ways, and walk the way of divine love, faithfully following in the steps of the one who bore that cross, with all the sins of the world upon it, for us in love.
Now, I think this idea of crossbearing, of taking our cross, of ‘everyone has a cross to bear’ is so often used for earthly things, in earthly ways… It can be used to keep people in situations of suffering, to say that this is your lot and here you must stay, to say that even if terrible things are happening to you, you must put up with it, to link the idea that suffering means guilt – when the cross of Christ does the exact opposite – it forever smashes the idea that if you suffer you must be somehow guilty. Jesus is that unblemished lamb.
Maya Angelou wrote that love liberates, it doesn’t bind. As does the cross.
Many people bear crosses. Some are forced to. Some feel as if they have to, to be a good person, or a good Christian. This isn’t true by the way. Yet some do tremendous things, bear incredible burdens, go willingly to terrible places, even to death, out of simple love.
For what else are we commanded to do but to love. To give of ourselves freely, not through guilt or fear or shame. To love God and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. And to know that that love, as strong as it may be, however brightly is burns, is only a fraction of the love which has walked the way of the cross, which has endured pain and shattered death. Which, on the third day was raised, so that all may live. And which, in the end, will judge us, on how we love.
Our beautiful anthem which we will hear later today contains these words:
But even could I see him die, I should but see a little part
Of that great love, which, like a fire, Is always burning in his heart.
And yet I want to love thee, Lord; O light the flame within my heart,
And I will love thee more and more, Until I see thee as thou art. (Ireland – Ex Ore Innocentium)
What comes next for Peter, our strange, faithful and foolish model of discipleship is a glimpse of Jesus as he is. The transfiguration – when Peter sees God’s glory and hears God’s voice is coming next in Matthew. Because of the way the church readings work, we won’t get to hear that bit next week, but remember it’s there, and that Peter, doubtful, rebuked Peter is shown wonderful things as he follows Christ. The way of the cross is not easy, and it may seem odd compared to the ways of the world, it may ask a lot of us, but beyond it lies glory.