Confession: I do not like a single one of the texts for this week. Not one. Jeremiah is whining on, as he does through pretty much his entire book. The text from Romans makes Paul sound like a father with a list of advice for his kids as they head off to college. It reminds me of a speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when a father rattles off a list of paternal advice to his son. Each time I re read the epistle text, I kept thinking at any moment St Paul was going to say “Neither a borrower or lender be, for a loan oft looses both itself and friend!”
And the gospel text?! Oh what a downer! Particularly after all the exciting texts of the past few weeks, with miracles and walking on water and grand confessions of Jesus as the Son of God, even a trip to the Gates of Hell and a declaration from Jesus that faith like Peter’s was the very thing upon which he would build the church. But now, things have changed and taken a decidedly darker turn.
I just didn’t want to deal with any of it! Haven’t you ever felt like that? We probably all have. Everything has been going great, everyone is happy and enjoying life. Sort of like Summer vacation. Then something happens and everyone is brought back to reality. The tone of life changes. We change directions. Nope, I just don’t want to do it either.
And neither did Peter. There is a change in the air in today’s Gospel lesson. Up until now things have been really exciting for the disciples, particularly Peter, and for the most part, really good. Just imagine being part of the crowds witnessing Jesus healing the sick. Standing right there beside him while he healed. Imagine handing out fish and bread to thousands of people, food that had barely been enough for a single family, much less for these countless hungry mouths. Yet no one…no one went hungry that day. Imagine hearing all those cryptic parables from the storyteller himself. Wheat and weeds, yeast and bread, pearls of great price, and faith like tiny little mustard seeds. Then that fateful morning with the wind and the waves, sitting in the rocking boat and seeing Jesus walking across the water. Peter’s chance to step on the waves himself. And walk.
Who was Jesus to Peter? The one who immediately reached to save him as he sank into the sea. The Messiah. His Messiah. His savior.
But now, things were changing. Jesus’ tone is changing. Everything is about to change. Instead of agricultural tales of wisdom, Jesus is now talking about going to suffer. About going to Jerusalem, right into the territory of the Pharisees and scribes who had opposed them every step of the way. This was disturbing enough, but then Jesus also says that he is to be killed.
Truth is, this is more than just a downer. This is terrible news. It’s a terrible idea! Peter doesn’t like it a bit and is having none of it. Who can blame him? Things are going so good! Why does Jesus have to suffer? Why does Jesus have to die? Peter does not like this at all and surely he must do something about it! He must convince Jesus that this isn’t right. God forbid it!
We can understand Peter. When things are going well, we don’t want to stop to deal with what might go wrong. More than that, we do not want to hear someone talk about the bad stuff that may happen, the challenges we’re going to face, just around the corner. Even more than that, who wants to hear that we must face difficulties if we are going to continue on the path we’re on.
God forbid it, Lord! Peter says.This must never happen to you!
And to make matters even worse, was Jesus thankful for Peter’s concern? Did he say, ‘thanks for worrying about me, Peter, but I’ll be fine.’? Did he say, ‘Yes, maybe God will forbid it. Maybe we will be ok.’? Did he say, ‘April Fool! Just kidding!’? Nope. Instead, he calls Peter the devil and tells him to get out of the way. You’re a stumbling block for me, he tells Peter.
You’re setting your mind on human not divine things.
Divine things? Going to suffer is a divine thing?
Jesus then tells all of 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 lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
It is a jaw dropping moment, one that was bound to be a surprise to his disciples. It is one thing to think and talk about the kingdom of heaven, to follow this amazing rabbi all over the country and another thing altogether to hear him talk about suffering and dying. To hear him talk about the necessity of crosses, loosing lives to gain lives.
I remember when the bumperstickers that said WWJD? first became popular. What would Jesus do? It’s a good question, of course. You can still see it from time to time on all kinds of Christian paraphernalia. What would Jesus do? The idea for this question actually came from a book written by Charles Sheldon called In His Steps. Sheldon, a pastor in Kansas, wrote the book in an attempt to encourage Christians to consider their faith as an every day imperative. In your everyday life, considering what would Jesus do in a given situation can greatly affect the choices you make.
That’s a fabulous idea. When we’re talking about healing and fish and bread and walking on water and telling parables. But that isn’t where Jesus stopped. He also suffered and died. Suffered greatly and died painfully. What would Jesus do? He would go to the place where it is going to hurt, he would suffer and he would die.
That’s the part that Peter didn’t want to hear about. And, if we are all honest, it isn’t something we want to hear either.
But that is exactly what he says and does. But there is something else here, too. Something else that is easy to miss. Just a tiny little phrase in what Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples that is so easy to overlook. Jesus tells them that he must go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed. And on the third day be raised.
On the third day be raised. Raised from the dead. Raised to new life. He must do these things, yes, these very difficult things that Peter would have God to forbid. But he must also be raised to new life. Divine things are not merely suffering and death but something far greater than these: being raised from the dead to new life.
Jesus speaking about the crosses we bear, losing our lives to gain it, all of this is not merely in the light of his going to Jerusalem to suffer and die but also in his resurrection. That’s the life we gain. The new life in him. Sometimes, people will use these words of Jesus’ and those in other places of scripture to indicate that it is good for people to suffer in general, that people who are abused or harmed in some way are actually better because of the suffering itself. This is not what Jesus is talking about here. And, in point of fact, I think the notion that the suffering inflicted upon others comes from anything other than evil is probably contradictory to Jesus’ teaching.
It isn’t just any kind of suffering he’s telling his disciples about. He’s talking about suffering that is brought about by those who are opposing the Son of God. Jesus is not saying that it is a divine thing for someone to be put to death. He is saying that forces that try to harm him, the disciples or us are the kind of suffering we all may have to face at some point in our lives, but facing these difficulties with the help of God is faithful. The cross he will bear, the crosses that all of us bear, the mark of the cross on our foreheads, is not a divine thing because of the painful suffering that may come but because of the new life we gain in Jesus.
The new and eternal life it brings us in him.