Reading Matthew 16.21-28
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Poor old Peter! If you were here last week, you may remember the gospel reading telling us it was Peter who had the insight to recognise in Jesus the Messiah promised by Hebrew prophecy. And he had the courage to say so. In doing that, he received Jesus’s blessing and commission: ‘You are Peter…on this rock I will build my church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’
Today’s gospel follows on immediately from last week’s, yet the tone couldn’t be more different. As Jesus begins to speak about the kind of Messiahship he embodies – that he has come not as some sort of conquering warrior, but instead anticipates his eventual suffering and death in Jerusalem – Peter realises this is not at all the sort of Messiah he had in mind when he had made his declaration. So he rebukes Jesus, saying suffering and death cannot possibly happen to him, even if it does lead to being raised on the third day. The shocking response he gets from Jesus takes Peter from last week’s hero to this week’s Satan and stumbling block, all in the space of just a few gospel verses, as Jesus makes it clear that anyone wanting to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross. Only then can they be true followers.
We sometimes use the phrase ‘We all have our cross to bear’, don’t we? And we know what we mean by it. It can, of course, be used quite flippantly as people refer to a slightly difficult patch in their life as their ‘cross’. Sometimes, it is used – with greater authenticity – of someone whose life is full of struggle. But in gospel terms, to take up our cross is not just about putting up with the burdens that life has deposited on our shoulders – nagging arthritis in the knee; the awkward neighbour; the struggle to pay off the credit card, or give up the bottle. Nor is it a neat metaphor Jesus is using to remind us to do our Christian duty; a way of nudging us to be kind and polite and to go to church. To take up your cross means exactly what it says. It means to be ready to pick up a horrific instrument of torture designed to kill. In Roman times, it was a common means of execution, deliberately chosen because it was so horrendously painful. A Jewish historian of the time reports, on one occasion, that 2000 men were crucified by the Roman governor following an uprising against the Emperor – a pretty effective deterrent to anyone wondering whether to try their hand at opposing the Romans.
By no stretch of the imagination can ‘take up your cross’ be described as encouraging words. Was Jesus intending his hearers to accept that, if they followed him, it would lead inevitably to their own execution? Well, actually, it did – for some of his contemporaries. But is there another possible interpretation, bearing in mind that crucifixion was dispensed with by Rome about 300 years after Jesus’s death, thus making a literal interpretation no longer possible. So it doesn’t mean that, what then might it mean for us, here and now, to ‘take up our cross’?
In 313AD, something happened that divides opinion. It was the year the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, ending years of persecution of Christians. However, some say that this was the greatest dis-service the faith ever received, because what seemed at first to be welcome news, at a stroke also made Jesus part of the establishment. And the problem with that is, he most certainly never was, and his gospel was the most radical message ever preached. Jesus’s gospel was very much about the reversal of social norms, turning the established order upside down. The Jesus gospel is counterintuitive. Just a few brief examples make the point: the last shall be first and the first shall be last; it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than rich man to enter the kingdom of God; the tax collector is justified before God, but the Pharisee is not; prostitutes and sinners enter the kingdom ahead of the conventionally religious; bless those who persecute you; let him who is without sin cast the first stone. And that’s just for starters: there’s plenty more where that came from.
If we want to understand Jesus, we need to be prepared for truth that often goes counter to what the world assumes is true. Today’s gospel is extremely challenging in this counter-intuitive way. ‘If you want to keep your life, you must lose it… deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me’, says Jesus. Taken literally, there was no reason to carry a cross other than for it to result in death. But even though it may no longer be literal, the call to follow Jesus does entail allowing something to die. In one way or another, the Christian is constantly being unmade and then re-made in the image of Jesus, as aspects of ourselves are confronted, found to be wanting, challenged, and replaced with something closer to the image of God that lies within us. This is a kind of death leading to new life, even though we clearly don’t become literal ‘martyrs’. If we persist in holding on to those things that Jesus’s gospel asks to be allowed to die in us, we will never even stand a chance of achieving our true human potential as demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
It is salutary to reflect, in this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation that, important though Reformation ideals may have been in the life of the institutional Church, the gospel calls us primarily to a reformation within ourselves. And that is not a one-off event; it is a continual reformation, for we are all a work in progress, as we continually try to discern which bits of ourselves need to die in order to let Jesus’s new life grow in us. It is an ongoing process of becoming, through daily experiences, discernment, prayer, reflection, challenges and personal decisions, some of them painful and entailing loss, confession, and humility. Modern life does not prepare us well for all that, which is why it might cost us so much. Denying ourselves is counter-cultural, involving a willingness to face our need to be transformed, to look outward to others rather than putting ourselves at the centre of our own universe. Jesus sums it up in one sentence, ‘Love God with all your heart, and your neighbour as yourself’. The goal of self-denial and taking up one’s cross is not about obsessive self-abasement or adopting a martyr complex, but about allowing those things to die which make us constantly resistant to reflecting the divine image in which we are made, and heeding the words of Jesus.
Jesus makes it clear that God’s kingdom can only be established by subverting many of the things the world assumes are the norm, and by a willingness to embrace lowliness and humility. He himself modelled that when he took a bowl of water and a towel and got down on his knees to wash the feet of his disciples. No picking and choosing whose feet. Everyone’s feet, even the feet of those who would betray him. And when that happened, it was Peter, again, who didn’t understand – ‘You, Lord, washing my feet?’ But let’s not pretend that Peter doesn’t speak for all of us….
It would be dangerous to think that a true Christian faith glories in suffering and pain and, as a result, seek out our own version of the cross to carry through life and adopt a victim mentality. The point is not to imitate Jesus literally in his suffering, but to live life as best we can in a spirit of solidarity with him. The gospel implies this is what gives us our true identity as human beings, and reveals to us what our life could look like, if we seek, in the spirit of Jesus, to work on our personal transformation, and thereby help to transform the world. Jesus said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me’.