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, 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.”
We have one of the harder sayings of Jesus in our Gospel lesson. Whoever wishes to come and follow 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.
This is one of those passages that makes most of us pretty uncomfortable if we take it seriously. We prefer passages like Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Mt.11:28) or God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not parish, but have eternal life. (Jn. 3:16)
These are comfortable words, words that generate good, secure feelings of affirmation. But to tell us that we need to “deny” ourselves and take up our crosses, that’s hard. Especially when it’s tough enough just to keep the bills paid and to put food on the table; when it’s hard enough just to get up in the morning to face the challenges of an ordinary day.
We may hope that this was just a message for the disciples back then and not for us. Surely we get a pass, do we not?
And we all know folks who have taken this hard saying and made it their mission statement. They put themselves down all the time and they shun comfort as if it were poisonous to their souls. They deny themselves even the smallest pleasures of life and view themselves like death row prisoners, as if human happiness were somehow a deep betrayal of God’s Grace. Do we really have to die to show our love for him? Isn’t there some way to show our love for him by living fully?
This whole conversation came about because St. Peter was asking the same kinds of questions. The disciples were off by themselves with Jesus, taking a breather between rounds with their critics. In the passage just before this one, Jesus asks his disciples who they thought he really was. Peter gave the right answer: you are the Christ, the Son of the living God. It was then that Jesus proclaimed that Peter was the rock on which he, Christ would build his Church.
But Peter’s glory doesn’t last long. Jesus begins to tell all his disciples what is going to happen to him, how he is about to walk right into a trap set for him in Jerusalem, where he will suffer and be killed and then be raised from the dead. Peter explodes. “God forbid, Lord” he shouts. “This will never happen to you.” It is simply too much for Simon Peter to imagine Jesus coming to such an ignoble, bloody end. There’s a bit of scolding here as well. Peter’s outburst is not so subtle criticism and Jesus unloads on him. Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.
What a shock that must have been not only for Peter, but for the other Disciples as well. To hear Jesus call Peter, the foundation rock of the Church, a stumbling block is startling. What did Peter do wrong? What was his sin? All he did was protest the forecast that Jesus was to suffer and die. All he did was to say out loud that there had to be another way.
But as far as Jesus was concerned, it was Satan talking. Satan the ancient tempter, from the beginning of time has offered alternatives to the directives of God: easier alternatives, often flashier alternatives, all of them temptations for us to do and be something other than what God has called us to do and be.
In this particular case, the temptation for Jesus is to play it safe, to skip the trip to Jerusalem and to find another way to bring salvation to the human race. Perhaps he could direct the effort from a safe and secure place, to elude his enemies, staying just out of reach and leading his holy revolution without placing himself in jeopardy.
We need to assume that this was real temptation for Jesus, or why else does he rebuke Peter so harshly? Like the tempter in the wilderness at the start of Jesus’ ministry, Peter is offering Christ a way out, a detour around Jerusalem with all its risk of pain and death. For a moment at least, the possibility may have seemed real to Jesus, real and desirable. And then his head clears and the desire to shirk vanishes. Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.
There is something troubling about this. Does Jesus mean that those of us who pray to be delivered from suffering and death are on the side of fallen humanity and that the side of God is reserved only for those who are ready and willing to suffer and die? If true, then that is troubling.
If we step back, we can see that this is not the point. The point is that God cares more about our quality of life than he does the quantity of life. Although biological human life is precious and we are to fiercely defend the life of every person from conception to natural death, it must be said that God is not primarily interested in the continuation of my breath, the health of my cells, rather he is vitally interested in the depth of my life, the heft and zest of my life. And he is particularly interested in my life of faithfulness.
The deep secret of Jesus’ words for us in this passage today is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not living at all. The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to having abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and squirreled away any more than a kitten can be put in a shoebox and stored on a closet shelf.
It seems to me that Peter wanted Jesus to do that. He wanted Jesus to become cloistered, perhaps like some Eastern Guru and who had people climb the mountain to come to his cave to obtain wisdom and enlightenment.
Let’s look again at the first sentence of our Gospel lesson, Mt. 16:21: 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.
When we ponder this, we often get stuck on the suffering and death part. We get that far and then say “God forbid Lord! This shouldn’t happen to you and I especially don’t want it to happen to me!” When we do this, we are ignoring the final words that on the third day there is resurrection.
We don’t get there if we let the suffering and death throw us off track, if we let fear of those things keep us from sticking our necks out from taking the appropriate risks that make life worth living. We can try to stockpile it, being very, very cautious about whom we let into our lives, frisking everyone at the door and letting only the most harmless, benign people inside, and being very, very wary about going outside ourselves, venturing forth only under heavy guard and ready to retreat at the first sign of trouble.
We can live that way, but if we do, then we mustn’t expect to enjoy it very much or to accomplish very much. And if we do, then we’d best not expect to be missed when our safe, defensive life finally comes to an end and no one notices that we are gone. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it…But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues— but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Living the life of faith is not about being a daredevil. It’s not about signing up for bungee jumping at 90, however, for some that might be fun. Jesus is talking about living the life that matters. A life for Christ’s sake, a life about refusing to put our own comfort and safety ahead of living a life that pours itself out for others as an act of gratitude to the one who poured his life out for us. It’s a life that is generous without counting the cost, knowing that there is always more life where our own life comes from and that even when our own lives run out, God has more life for us, more than we can ask or imagine.
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me—said Jesus. These will never be easy words to hear, but they are not, in the ultimate and final analysis, an invitation to follow Jesus into eternal death, rather it is an invitation to follow him into everlasting life, both now and later on. We can only follow him if we do not get tripped up on the suffering and death part; if we get so frightened and anxious and preoccupied by all this that we forget “who we are” and “whose we are” and why we are alive in first place.
There is a certain amount of pain involved in being a human being, and a good bit more involved in being a human being dedicated to being fully faithful, especially in a world that counts on our fear of death and uses it to keep us in line. Jesus’ enemies counted on his fear of death to shut him up and to shut him down, but they were wrong. He may have been afraid, but he did not let it stop him. He did not get stuck on the suffering and death part. He saw something beyond them, something more wide and glittering than the sea, something worth every risk required to reach it, and he did not stop until he got there.
To follow Jesus with our crosses on our shoulders means going beyond the limits of our own comfort and safety. It means receiving our lives as gifts instead of hoarding them as our own possessions. It means that each of us is to share the life we have been given instead of bottling it up for our own consumption. It means giving up on the notion that we can build dams to hold back the bright streams of our lives and letting them flow instead, letting all the streams of living water swell their banks and spill their wealth until they carry us down to where they run, full and growing fuller into that wide and glittering sea.