Today’s Gospel is the immediate continuation of last week’s. There Simon Peter in a moment of extraordinary insight understood, or so we thought, who and what Jesus was – in his words then declares “The Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Today, following Mark’s order of things, St Matthew takes the narrative forward. Jesus continues to instruct his disciples and to show them that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things… and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter “Get me behind me Satan!”
It’s quite a dramatic turn around, is it not? Just before this Simon son of John is named formally as the Rock, the foundation of the Church itself, against whom the powers of death will not prevail, and then at the next turn, this rock-solid foundation is being addressed by Jesus as Satan, the accuser, the tempter, the antithesis of God’s plans and directive power.
And then to the punchline perhaps: Jesus makes clear that any who follow HIM, must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. To be saved is to lose, to lose is to find true life in Him.
Taking up the cross, each of us having a cross to bear – tend to be slightly pietistic, and possibly rather depressing terms that Christians use. Sometimes one might even say of a difficult friend or relative that they are the cross we might be having to shoulder. It’s not difficult to see how this terminology has become pretty standard. In the United Kingdom at least, persecution is not something most Christians are acquainted with. I am sure when this term was used, almost certainly, by Jesus, and remembered as the Gospels were being written down, persecution was a reality. Peter had been crucified, by tradition upside down, and most of the Apostles, including Paul had died martyrs’ deaths. For most, crucifixion would have been normal, although Nero took mass torture and capital punishment, particularly for Christians, to new depths of awfulness.
At a personal level now, the recognition of our frailty, our inabilities, the difficulties which life has dealt us, all of these, we might characterise as our cross. The human condition, upon which thinkers of all kinds have reflected in so many ways, might itself be a way of describing what Milan Kundera termed The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I am not absolutely sure that Jesus meant that, that life itself was a cross. But for so many, weighed down with the intolerable anxieties of existence, it’s understandable that life itself might be seen as a cross, however tragic that this is the case.
The character of sin, our fallen nature, and living with an acute awareness of human degeneracy, for many towering Christian figures has been of profound importance. Martin Luther’s terror at his own sinfulness, triggered a Reformation, the shock-waves of which we are still feeling. We may ourselves feel burdened by shame, guilts and fears which threaten to overwhelm us. Ministry to those affected by suicide, acquaints us with the after-effects of just such overpowering feelings of despair at human limitation. There are so many in the history of the Church, saints and sinners alike, who have borne the weight of the cross, it takes so many different forms, but let it not leave us in despair.
Without being glib or morose, might we seek from the great treasure-trove of the Church’s medicine chest? Sin’s darkness can overwhelm, that’s its danger if we are not careful, but Jesus’s words to Peter about the gates of hell not prevailing against him, take us towards the Church’s teaching on forgiveness and grace. Repentance, confession together are the sacramental reality which unburdens us the weight of sin. When we confess our sins, however inadequately, the promise of forgiveness outweighs anything lacking. The chance for personal confession is always on offer in the Church of England, with the comforting words that “none must, some should, all may.” The unburdening of the weight of sin in personal confession can be a very wonderful release, the weight of the Cross can be laid down.
May we return to the cross itself for one moment before concluding. I am very struck by a contemporary writer, who, rather despite himself, has found that from being a popular ancient historian he has become something of a Christian apologist. You may have come across his excellent podcast, recommended to me by a parishioner: The Rest is History. This is Tom Holland, whose book Pax, has been recently published and I have not yet read, but his book Dominion I have, and really enjoyed. It is the cross itself with which he begins in the discussion of what he calls, the making of the Western Mind. Drawing on Horace, Tacitus and Seneca, Holland reminds us who view the cross as a symbol of a faith, and possibly an adornment, that in the 1st c. it was a brutal instrument of utter humiliation. It existed in a coercive society as the means of suppressing those who underpinned it, slaves. The Romans knew it was abhorrent, they avoided mention of it. “Some deaths were so vile, so squalid that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely.” St Paul of course said it first, “we preach Christ crucified, the cross a stumbling block to Jews and to Greeks (that’s everyone else) foolishness.” When Jesus said “take up your cross” and how necessary it was for the Messiah to die this way, he would have revolted his hearers. This is why Peter is so vehement in his reaction.
Simon Peter had been named the rock, but he wanted to disassociate the Messiahship of Jesus from the Messiah’s need to die. In this the rock became himself a rock of stumbling.
If Peter is in some measure us, let us learn from this, not to make God is our own image. Words from what for many was their confirmation hymn:
O let me see thy footmarks
And in them plant mine own
O guide me, call me draw me
Uphold me to the end
And then in heaven receive me
My saviour and my friend.