Romans 12. 9 – 21
Matthew 16. 21 – 28
Well it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster for poor St Peter hasn’t it. Just last week we heard Jesus say that Peter was “blessed;” that he was the “rock” on which Jesus will build his church.
Now, in the very next passage, this ‘rock’ is no longer a foundation stone, but a stumbling block. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus shouts.
Having just been given the power to ‘bind’ and to ‘loose,’ Peter’s first act with this new-found power is seemingly to try to bind Jesus himself.
“God forbid it, Lord!” Peter can’t come to terms with the fact that the one he confesses as the “Messiah, the Son of the living God” will suffer torment and die.
Last week Fr Kenneth reminded us that the ‘rock’ on which Christ would build his church wasn’t just Peter himself, but the rock of his faith: his faith as focussed on the person of Christ, the Son of God.
And today Christ directs that faithful gaze towards the cross, and puts it to the test.
I have some sympathy with St Peter. His rebuke of Christ comes from his faith; from a place of love, and devotion. How could he stand by and let his Messiah be taken away and killed?
When Jesus is finally arrested, Peter still can’t control himself; he will take up his sword and hack at the servant who tries to take Jesus from him.
It comes from a place of love and devotion. But it comes too from a place of misunderstanding. Even right to the cross, Peter and the disciples still cling on to the hope that none of it will come to pass. That Jesus will triumph over their oppressors and set himself up as the righteous king of a righteous kingdom.
But this hope is for something that doesn’t exist. This is hope on Peter’s own terms – focussing on his own desires, driven by his own fears: rather than setting his mind on what God is focussed on.
Because God is focussed on the reality of things. In the incarnation, the glorious gaze of God is focussed right into the heart of reality: how things really are, in all their messiness.
Jesus came to earth not as a prince waiting to be crowned, but as a despised Jew in a backwater of the Roman Empire; a lowly Galilean outside the Jerusalem establishment, born in the muck of a stable and beginning his life as a refugee.
His mission was set within the real world, with real people; not some imaginary kingdom. And today he calls his followers to take up their cross and follow him into the heart of the darkness.
This call means surrendering entirely to God – total faithfulness to him, and not to our own desires or our fears. And for Peter, and for countless disciples through the years, this call has been hard.
Our Church today is gripped by anxiety about its own survival. And how often do we respond by trying to imagine a better Church – by thinking that we know better than God, that we can fix things where the Holy Spirit is failing?
The diocese is running out of money – ‘God forbid it, Lord! Let’s turn our clergy into good managers and fundraisers, instead of doing all that unprofitable pastoral stuff.’
Fewer people come to church on a Sunday morning – ‘God forbid it, Lord! Let’s set up a load of new churches in people’s homes, and get rid of those outdated traditions.’
How often in our own journeys do we cry ‘God forbid it!’, when carrying the cross takes us into dark and difficult places? How often do we try to control God and place conditions on our own discipleship, rather than surrendering to his will?
Jesus directs our gaze to the cross because that’s where the reality of the injustices and sufferings of the world is brought to light. There is nowhere to hide, on the cross – no place to explain it away, or pretend it’s something different.
The cross is where God acknowledges the sin of the world: but the cross is also where God determines to do something about it.
In his death and resurrection, Jesus turns the cross from an instrument of suffering and shame into the ultimate symbol of freedom and life. And that’s what makes sense of his paradoxical teaching today, that those who lose their life for his sake will find it.
When we take up our cross with Jesus – when we seek to die to our own desires and fears and surrender totally to him – that’s where true life, and true freedom are to be found.
St Paul gave a practical idea of what carrying this cross looks like for the followers of Christ in our first reading – a way of living a Christian in the mess of reality. To another Church in crisis, the church in Rome that was persecuted almost to extinction, the answer was not more strategies and bright ideas: but rather simply to love genuinely, to hate what is evil, to hold fast to what is good: and all the rest of what we heard.
It can, perhaps, be summed up in some advice that I read from a commentator in the Church Times recently.
In the midst of all this anxiety over falling numbers and so on, when our natural instinct is, like Peter, to cry “God forbid it, Lord!” and try to fix it ourselves in ever more creative and futile ways: this advice was simply to “do less; and know God better.”
“Do less, and know God better.” By seeking to know God, by taking up our cross and surrendering to him: he will bring us into his great work of renewal and recreation that we can be sure is happening, despite everything.
It is by focussing on the cross, and learning how to die with Christ, that we will discover truly how to live. Amen.