There are few things more frustrating than watching someone else do something incorrectly, and not being able to do anything about it. We have all yelled at a television screen when the receiver completely fumbled what should have been an easy catch. We’ve all rolled our eyes at the reality show contestant who has completely the wrong idea of how to accomplish that day’s challenge. We’ve all had to bite our tongue when the colleague, the student, or our own child was clearly messing up the project but they have to learn so we don’t interfere. Growing up the phrase, “if everyone would just do what I say, we wouldn’t have these problems” got thrown around a lot. We tend to believe our way is the best way.
So it should come as no surprise how this conversation went down between Jesus and Peter. Right on the heels of Peter proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus was explaining just what that was going to look like. The Messiah would be rejected by all the leaders of the community, rejected by the people, and put to death. This mission that his disciples had been with him on for three years—announcing the kingdom of God, casting out demons, healing the sick, preaching the good news of liberation—Jesus was saying all this was going to result in him, the Messiah, being killed.
Well that wasn’t going to work for Peter. Like so many other Judeans of the time, Peter had an idea of what the Messiah was supposed to be and how he was supposed to act. The Messiah was going to be a conquering hero, a military man who would inspire the people to rise up and throw out the hated Roman occupiers, restore the righteousness of the kingdom of David, punish evildoers, and reign with justice forever. And Peter was lucky enough to be alive when the Messiah came! Whatever was going on in Jesus’ head, he needed to get it out right now because this martyr complex was not going to mess things up for him—er, for the Judeans!
But what follows is this veritable Gibbs Slap of a rebuke that’s become a cultural phrase—“get behind me, Satan!” And because we know it’s coming, we know Jesus’ reasoning for it, we might tend to look at this from the outside looking in--we know Peter was wrong to think the Messiah was going to be the military-style conquering hero. We know better than to think Jesus was going to establish some kind of earthly kingdom. We know the lesson—don’t we?
When we look at Peter in this interaction, whether we do it with pity (if only he knew better!) or with smugness (silly Peter should know better!), do we understand what he got wrong? I think there might be a part of us that understands Jesus’ rebuke as Jesus reminding Peter that this kingdom of God business has nothing to do with this world, that the mission isn’t to change this world but to prepare for the next. Or we might see it as Jesus pointing out that the cross is his mission, that the whole point is that he was coming to die.
But that’s not quite it.
See, Jesus knew the ways that we do things. He knew the world existed by a horrific cycle of violence met with violence returned with violence. Rome kept the “peace” by horrifyingly mutilating criminals and making sure everyone saw it. Nations settled disputes by sending thousands of young men to die in war. Fathers kept their families in line with beatings for the disobedient. But it wasn’t just that violence was this awful reality that everyone lived with. Violence was seen as a way to make things right. And that, if we’re honest, hasn’t changed.
We still believe that enough violence, correctly applied, can solve the problems of the world. Protestors demonstrating the wrong thing or in the wrong way can be dealt with through tear gas and rubber bullets. Wayward children can be corrected with proper spanking. Crime can be eliminated with the right kinds of psychological or physical torture. Evil in society can be dealt with by applying the right level of correcting abuse. Evil abroad can be solved with enough bombs and bullets. And the thing is, it seems to work. In the short term, enough violence can solve any problem you have. Punch the bully in the face. Execute the murderer. Shoot at the trespasser. Go to war. If Peter wanted the kingdom of God now, then violence was certainly the answer.
But Jesus wants the kingdom of God forever. And violence can never establish anything forever.
So when Jesus rebuked Peter for trying to turn him from the cross, he wasn’t insisting that Peter should have no concern for the world, or that the kingdom of God had nothing to do with this world. And he wasn’t insisting that the cross was the whole point of his mission on earth. Instead, Jesus was reminding Peter, and us, that violence is the way this world works. This world, which believes wholeheartedly in the problem-solving power of violence, would meet Jesus’ world-changing message of freedom, hope, and justice with the same crude tool it used for everything it dislikes: death. The cross wasn’t the whole object of Jesus’ mission, it was simply the shape this violent world would give it.
And that’s the other part of what Jesus said here that should shake this world to its foundations. Rather than take up arms, trusting in the problem-solving power of sufficient violence, Jesus commands his followers to willingly pick up their cross and follow. Embrace the instrument of death that the world is going to give you for preaching justice, hope, and love. Do not respond to the murderous violence of this world with your own murderous violence. Because violence is a cycle, and no one wins the game of getting even. So, Jesus went to the cross instead. And he calls on us to be willing to do the same.
This is not an easy faith. It’s a grace filled one, but that grace leads us to places we’d just as well not go. It calls on us to lose our lives to find them, metaphorically most of the time, but literally if it comes to it. It calls us to the risky work of making peace in a world consumed by violence, of being unarmed in a world armed to the teeth, of being generous in a world built on greed. Jesus calls us to break the cycle.
And that is scary. It’s so scary that I don’t blame anyone here for not jumping in headfirst. But when Jesus commands us to take up our cross, to deny ourselves, he’s calling on us to be vulnerable. He’s calling on us to be unarmed, exposed to the world, but trusting in God. Abraham didn’t know where God was leading him or if God would keep the promise when he left his homeland for Canaan. In fact, Abraham didn’t live to see what God promised—a land and descendants. We’re called to that kind of faith.
And the reason that we can is because of the last piece of Jesus’ passion prediction. He predicts he’ll be betrayed, yes, handed over, yes, and executed, of course. But, he also says, on the third day he’ll be raised. In the midst of the defiant vulnerability of refusing to trust in the problem-solving power of violence, Jesus reminds us of what we have to hope for, and what hope lets us “come and die.”
The cross is this world’s answer to Jesus’ call to vulnerable love, unwavering justice, and wholeness-making peace. But the resurrection is God’s final answer to our faith in violence. Death will not stop the resurrection that waits for us by the grace of God. It shines like a beacon to remind us why we can have the gall to return hatred with love and curses with blessings. It lifts us up from the terror of giving up what is closest to us for the sake of the kingdom, because eternal life waits for us at the end. We can be bold because we have nothing to lose but our brokenness. Because, in the end, “those who lose their life for [Jesus’] sake and for the sake of the gospel will find it.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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