Crowds rush Jesus wanting to make him their king. Jesus runs the other direction to escape them. Peter agrees with the crowd, and says Jesus is King in waiting, the Messiah. For saying Jesus and Messiah in the same breath, Peter wins a new name – Rock, and Jesus hands him a set of keys for the new kingdom.
Now that’s done, Jesus can give the disciples a graduate level seminar on Messiahship. He tells them he must go to Jerusalem where he’ll suffer and die. No – he must have it wrong – that’s not what Messiah does. So Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him, which really means he’s giving Jesus a piece of his mind – and Peter’s mind sometimes can be as hard as a rock. “Forbid it Lord. You can’t mean this.” Peter has all sorts of reasons to try and redirect Jesus, not least of which Jesus might drag him along to Jerusalem and death. Yet Jesus insists he must do these things.
For Peter’s efforts, Jesus gives him another new name: “Satan – get behind me, Satan. You’ve got your head stuck in earthly things and you can’t see divine things. You, Rock, are acting like a stumbling block.” Then Jesus resumes with the other disciples: “If you want to be a follower, deny yourself, take up your cross and come along. Try and save your life, you’ll lose it. Give up your life for my sake, you’ll receive real life.” Wow – makes you think twice about following Jesus, yet he’s now handing us a “must” – that is if we want to be disciples, not merely onlookers.
I think we clergy today could do more to help people move from onlookers to participants. Too often a person is baptized and confirmed, then checks out before getting to the next step, which is learning how to follow Jesus. You can be a church member, and still not be a disciple. Churches have a lot of members are stuck there. Showing up some Sundays, unless have better things to do, won’t make you a disciple. Honestly, following Jesus is hard. He says we must die to ourselves, pick our cross, and then get in line. We won’t naturally do this. We must work at it constantly, a choice that confronts us continually.
We make choices sometimes because we are obligated. Do you pay your electric bill when you feel like it, or you want to keep the lights on? I must fill my car because it won’t pull over on its own when it gets thirsty for gasoline. A parent tells a child, “You must do your homework if you hope to go to college.” Must we do these things? No – we do them to avoid bad consequences.
Some choices we make because we really want to. Jesus must suffer and die, not because it sounds like a good time, or he’s got nothing better to do. He suffers and dies to attain God’s greater good, rising to raise us with him into the divine life. He does whatever is needed to show us, not just tell us. Divine love gets involved in our humanity – our sin, suffering and dying. Jesus must show us how good the news is of God’s unconditional love, from which we never be separated.
When we see such love for what it is, we want to choose God. To do so, seriously we must choose to deny ourselves for a greater good. We won’t fully understand divine matters until we do. And divine matters involve trusting God makes our deaths worthwhile. We’re not going to see the end while we are following, only when we get there. When we do, we’ll see what was painful and tragic at the time was a stage on the way to a resurrection.
Do you ever wonder if you’re a follower? I sometimes do – actually often. It’s something we must strive toward continually. If we’re not satisfied with where we are perhaps we need to choose to decide to deny ourselves, die to our egos agenda, again, for his sake. God won’t force us to choose this path. We can refuse. By refusing, we become part of a resistance-to-God movement, focused on earthly things, like Peter. If we choose to follow more closely, our resistance weakens by the onslaught of God’s irresistible love. We must deny and die to ourselves to make more space for God.
How does this happen? Be careful. If you sincerely try this, God will likely transform your life and passions. It begins with prayer. Here’s how – Stop where you are; focus on your breathing, in then out. Offer your mind and heart, not just your words, to God. Start with a few minutes, a couple of times each day. Become aware that you are sitting in the gaze of God’s love. In God’s presence we find our most authentic self: God’s beloved. Other ways open us to God’s life, too: meditation, reading scripture and paying attention, receiving sacraments, coming to church, serving others for Jesus’ sake. God continually desires to draw us into the divine life – so God’s love can reach us, touch us, fill, transform and form us. Then we’re ready to follow – embodying God’s love into this world.
Prayer – silence in God’s presence, think of it as hanging out with Jesus, opens our hearts to his presence. And the more we can be present to God, the more we will realize how much we are loved. The taking up our cross and following Jesus makes sense.
Oh, one final thought – Why didn’t Jesus ask Peter to return the keys? He evidently blew it. That’s just not the way the God who names you and me his beloved works. Once he gives, God never takes back. God forever calls us Beloved – always. May God help us live as God sees us.