I have to tell you, of all the disciples, I’ve always had a soft spot for Peter, maybe because I identify with the guy. Peter is headstrong, doubtful, confused, impulsive – he is SO human. In just last week’s gospel, he’s the only disciple to speak up to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, to which Jesus responds by calling Peter the “rock” on which He’ll build His church. Then in this week’s gospel, Jesus is trying to explain to the disciples that when they get to Jerusalem, He will undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, be killed, and on the third day be raised. It’s not long before the rock on which the church is to be built becomes a stone that is a stumbling block. Peter hardly lets Jesus finish before he puts his saintly, dusty foot in his mouth as he exclaims, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” Jesus reacts so harshly I think because after all the time they have spent together, Peter still doesn’t get it. When Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, I can’t help but wonder if in his mind, his idea of Messiah was still a King in the worldly sense. Like maybe on this trip back to Jerusalem, they were going to pick up some more supporters, form a small army, stage a surprise attack on the temple at Jerusalem and crown Jesus as the long-awaited King. Peter was so quick to speak that he didn’t even hear Jesus finish his statement that on the third day he will be raised – the REAL sign that Jesus is Messiah not of this world, but of God’s kingdom.
Jesus then tells his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Now all of a sudden what Jesus is talking about – about how he will suffer – starts to get real. The disciples could not have imagined what Jesus was about to endure upon their return to Jerusalem, but when Jesus starts talking about taking up a cross, they know what a gruesome death on a cross is because thousands of criminals, dissidents, slaves and other undesirables had suffered such a death at the hands of the Romans. They must have been terrified and confused at this idea that Jesus is telling the disciples in this frightening language that they must undergo their own crucifixion in order to get their life? How can this be? We may read this as being a spiritual death, but as we know, some of these disciples were indeed killed for being faithful followers of Christ.
We only have to look at the epistle today from Paul’s letter to the Romans to get just a glimpse of what this cross-shaped life following Jesus looks like…. Be patient in suffering, contribute to the needs of strangers, bless those who persecute you, associate with the lowly, do not pay evil for evil, give food and drink to your enemies, do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good…. I’m sure these platitudes are the farthest thing from the minds of the disciples as they’re still gripped by the idea of their bloody death on a cross. What they cannot even grasp, because they have yet to fully witness it, is the next and glorious step in this process – resurrection… that part that Peter hardly lets Jesus say about being raised…. Resurrection. What Jesus is telling his disciples is that they must give up the only life they have known in order to gain their life in Christ. Only when they follow Jesus’ example can they ever experience the resurrection to become the very persons God created them to be, the best version of themselves in the likeness of God.
As Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, he is addressing the cross-shaped church, the faith community that lives in a world that persecutes them because of their faith. In order to live in this tension between God’s kingdom and the rest of the world, followers of Jesus need such a faith community: a place where fellow companions on this journey following Jesus come together to nurture each other, to strengthen one another, to unite together to face world that doesn’t know, much less accept, the good news of Jesus Christ. Honestly, there’s very little here that sounds like good news to me.
I am comforted by the words from the prophet Jeremiah in today’s reading from the Old Testament. Jeremiah pretty bluntly expresses his frustration with God as he tells God all the things he is doing to follow God’s will: suffering insult and persecution, feeding on the word of God, isolating himself from those who don’t want to hear about God and asking God why is his pain unceasing, his wound incurable? Jeremiah actually goes so far as to call God deceitful! God responds to him with such a loving response, “every time you turn to me, I will take you back; those people will turn to you as long as you don’t turn to them; I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze so that they shall never prevail over you….. for I am with you, to save you and deliver you, says the Lord.” In spite of having such a fully human response to the difficulties of following God, Jeremiah is heralded as one of the greatest prophets. If he can talk to God that way and God still love him and protect him, God will surely do the same for me when I call out to him in my not-so-nice way.
Our world today is not so different from the world of Jesus’ disciples, the church in Rome, or even the world of Jeremiah. Our world that is facing upheaval on so many fronts – a global pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters, a catastrophic economic crisis leaving many without jobs and even the basic necessities of food and shelter, civil unrest in response to systemic racial injustice, and now a deadly hurricane season most likely made more so because of how we’ve treated our planet bringing more death and destruction to our shores. For many of us, much of the life we have known has already experienced a sort of death and involuntarily we have had to let go. But what Jeremiah has shown us, what Paul has exhorted us, and what Jesus has taught us, is that God is faithful in always pursuing us for relationship regardless of how bluntly or crudely we cry out to him, we are not alone in our journey as followers of Christ in this chaotic time because we share in a community of faith, and with every death in the kingdom of God, there is hope in resurrection. I often wonder what life will be like in a year from now, but our belief in the resurrection gives us a holy confidence that the many deaths caused by these crises will be resurrected in new ways of caring for our creation, loving our neighbor, and taking up our cross to follow Jesus.