How quickly the mood changes, the tone darkens. Only moments earlier Peter’s insight has been declared by Jesus to be heaven-inspired, something beyond the capacity of flesh and blood, providing the rock on which the future will be built. But now Peter is sternly reprimanded and firmly put in his place; he is called Satanic, his mind, his outlook, are said by Jesus to be governed by human considerations; he is a stumbling block, an impediment, an obstacle.
The moment is one of powerful emotions. Clearly something new and hitherto unforeseen has begun to emerge in the unfolding awareness of Jesus’ self-understanding, something seems to be coming into focus for him in his response to what he believes to be the claims of the Father and of the Kingdom.
There has been all the excitement and the apparent success of his ministry in Galilee – the preaching of the Kingdom, the Parables, the Miracles, and the amazed response of the crowds; there has been the cut and thrust of debate and discussion and argument with the ecclesiastical authorities. And there has been a growing sense among the people that here was something new, something fresh and authentic, that here was authority, but an authority not like that of the scribes.
Who is he? Who is this figure who speaks like no other man, who has authority over the unclean spirits to cast them out, and who cures the sick?
So the questions begin to be asked. And questions can be tricky – dangerous even. Questions can be thresholds leading to unexpected places.
‘Who do people say that that the Son of Man is?’ ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Was Peter’s reply a considered response? Was it the result of much reflection? Or was it, as it so often seems to have been with him, something which burst out of him spontaneously? And was he speaking for all of them, or just for himself? ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed’. Jesus accepts the designation, but immediately interprets it in terms which few, if any, would find intelligible or acceptable. Messiahship and suffering were in the common mind mutually exclusive and totally incompatible.
But Jesus is clear and unwavering. Some realisation has come into focus in his understanding of himself and of what he is to be about. He sees that his mission involves suffering, and not only for himself, but also for those who would be his disciples, his followers – they too must be ready to embrace it. Jesus sees that the Gospel, the Good News, is incomplete without the Cross.
It is a deeply disturbing challenge which he offers. In Jesus’ time crucifixion was the most horrifying and horrific form of execution imaginable. Invented by the Persians it was adopted by the Romans as the form of capital punishment reserved for the lowest of the criminal classes who were not Roman citizens. It was utterly brutal, agonizing in the extreme, totally degrading, dehumanizing, indecent and obscene, and it was a public spectacle, carried out for all to see.
Over the centuries we have sanitised and indeed glamorised the Cross. We have turned it into an artefact, a decoration, a pious adornment, and made what in its brutal reality was unbearable, into either an object of artistic beauty and repose, or a triviality and a trinket. But when Jesus spoke of his own destiny, and the cost of discipleship, in terms of the Cross he was speaking of the profoundly radical nature of his claims, indicating that that to be a follower of his costs us not less than everything – dignity, honour, worldly respect, life itself. The Cross represents the radical refusal of all those strategies of self-serving and self-love which we adopt, for the most part unconsciously, in order to survive and get through life.
Possibly what was so dismaying for Peter and the other disciples about this talk of the inevitability of suffering and the necessity of the Cross, was that it seemed to them to be an entirely new element in Jesus’ teaching. Hitherto in his ministry everything about him and about the things he said and did, seemed life-affirming and life-enhancing. He had given people the confidence to believe that life was on their side.
But now there is a shift which he asks them to recognise and take into account. He asks them to recognise and accept that the way to the Kingdom inevitably involves diminishment, contraction and loss before it can yield fullness and gain. He asks them to embrace and walk the dark way of faith, the way of unknowing.
So Jesus talks about having to lose one’s life in order to find it, about letting go in order to find true security.
For human beings this is more than we can manage, more than we can bear. We need to know that we are acceptable to those with whom our lives are set, and that we are accepted by them; we cannot live without that assurance. So we put a great deal of effort and energy into self-promotion and self-projection. In all kinds of ways we seek the attention, the approval and the good opinion of those around us.
The Cross reminds us that the world’s point of view is far from being the last word. It reminds us that there is a truth which is not defined by what others may think of us, or indeed by what we ourselves may think of ourselves. We are told that S. Francis would spend the whole night with the simple, but deeply penetrat-ing prayer ‘O GOD, who are you? Who am I?’
Jesus shows us that to walk his way, the way of self – dispossession – turning from the choices and preferences which one’s will makes and clings to, in order that we might come to a better and fuller will, his will – is the way of our discipleship. It is the way he himself went. Who having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end – to the end – for that is love’s will, that is love’s way.