A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew:
Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly
from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world
and forfeit his life?
Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,
and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”
Simon Peter is moments out from his great triumph.
Simon, the disciple who always has something to say, hasn’t had the best time lately. He recently made a fool of himself trying to walk on water in the fourth watch of the night. He may still be stinging with embarrassment as Jesus asks all of His followers “Who do you say that I am?” And for once, Peter has the exact right answer. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
His theology is spot on and impeccable; even Christ seems impressed. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” Christ goes on to give Simon his new name and the keys to the Kingdom besides. What he binds will be bound and what he looses will be looses; the gates of hell will not prevail over this new institution.
And then, of course, Simon Peter flubs the whole thing.
Now that His disciples have figured out who He is, Jesus starts explaining the plan. Myriads of righteous people from the very beginning of the world have begged God to reveal His plan, and these twelve lucky ones get to hear it first. This is God’s plan: God must go up to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the leaders of his faith. Then he’ll be handed over to be lynched by the Romans in the most ignominious way possible, the way the Romans use to strike terror in their occupied subjects so that no one dares to step out of line. The worst thing that could possibly happen will happen to Him. The trauma and the terror that constantly nags at the back of every disciple’s mind will come true for Him, and they’ll have to watch. And then, the Son of Man will be raised on the third day. That’s the plan.
Peter doesn’t like this. “God forbid, Lord! No such thing will ever happen to you!”
That is the wrong answer.
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
A minute ago, Peter was blessed, the rock on which the whole Church would be built; his theology is perfect, he owns the keys to bind and loose, the gates of hell will not prevail. Now, Peter is Satan and a rock which is an obstacle to the living God. He’s stopped thinking as God does, and started thinking like a human again.
Humans think all kinds of ways, but some of the ways we think are totally foreign to God. One of the things we think is that God is far away from human things, up a mountain somewhere in the clouds, looking down. This is a way of thinking that God cannot abide. God descends. God loves creation and goes where creation goes, dwells among us, eats our bread, drinks from our chalice. If the chalice we drink is joy, God rejoices with us, but it usually isn’t joy. Humans are very good at thinking up terrible thing to do to one another. God insists we do them to Him as well. When the blood of Abel cried out from the ground, God heard it because God was with Abel on the ground. When a poor man who is the victim of injustice cries out to God, God hears the cry of the poor because God is right there with the poor. Now, here is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, walking among us in a new way. He has to be about God’s business. And here’s Simon Peter thinking like a human being, messing everything up.
Jesus also calls Peter “Satan.”
The last time Jesus sparred with Satan, it was out in the desert. Satan wanted Jesus to prove His power by turning rocks into bread and defying gravity, but Jesus didn’t want to do that. Jesus wanted to dwell among people. Satan wanted Jesus to rule over all the kingdoms of the earth, but Jesus didn’t want to do that either. Jesus wanted to serve. Now here’s Peter, acting like Satan. Peter wants Jesus to do the things humans want God to do: to stand apart from ordinary human experience, work wonders and be powerful. Jesus is having none of it.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”
They all have to take up their crosses and follow Him. There isn’t any other way to be a disciple.
I’ll bet they didn’t think of themselves as carrying crosses, but they were. Everyone who lived in that part of the world at that time in history was carrying a cross. They were always trying not to think about crosses. The cross was always before them as a warning of who was in charge. The cross was always looming as a sign of what might happen if the worst came to the worst. That’s what they have to carry with them, if they want to follow Christ. They have to carry their own lives and not some other life.
Whoever wishes to go after God must deny his most human way of thinking, imagining that God is far away instead of right here in the present moment.
Whoever wishes to go after God must take up his cross and follow Him. You can’t follow God without that cross, because the cross is in you. The cross is the thing you carry. The cross is your life, with your struggles and the things you suffer. That is where God is. You can only follow Him as you live your own life, not some ideal life somewhere else. You can’t be a Christian in some imaginary place. You have to be a Christian here where things go horribly wrong, and trust that God is descending into the chaos with you. There isn’t anywhere else to be a Christian.
Whoever wants to save their own life will lose it. That’s the human condition. No matter how we struggle, we all die.
If you go ahead and spend that life with God, you may find you’ve lived for something worthwhile. But it’s only your life you can spend with God, not some other sort of life. Because God is here with you.
Human beings think that God is far away, but God doesn’t see it that way.
God descends to be with His creation. God descends to the very lowest place, and rises again on the Third Day bringing creation with Him.
Whoever has ears, let him hear.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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