The Second Sunday of Lent
Mark 8 : 31-38
When I sit down to write , I usually go through a sort of routine. I read the lectionary readings for the day – or at least the New Testament readings to start with, and then I look at one or two commentaries or lectionary-related notes to try to find a way in to the readings. Most of the commentaries I have are fairly mainstream from a theological point of view, but there is one that I always look at that has a really radical edge and sometimes, for a moment, it takes my breath away, as the message of the Gospel finds its mark and hits home afresh. That’s what happened when I looked at what that commentary had to say about today’s Gospel reading.
Let’s just try to put ourselves in Peter’s shoes. He’s followed this amazing charismatic leader, and although he’s had to leave his home and his work, he’s had a wonderful time of miracles and crowds and celebrity status. Yes, there’s been the spice of danger, but for the young man that Peter was, life with Jesus has been a great adventure. What we sometimes fail to realise about the incarnate Jesus is that, for the disciples, the terrible tragedy of His betrayal and death, was not that a pious, sober, religious and rule-abiding man, old before His years, was taken from them, but a young man who was the life and soul of the party, wise beyond His years, but embracing life in all its fullness, a man who was the very centre of life itself.
So, as the disciples sit around the fire one evening enjoying the company of Jesus, He asks them if they know who He really is, and Peter is quick off the mark, ‘You’re the Messiah’, he cries. He’s very excited about this because he thinks Jesus is very popular and powerful, perhaps powerful enough to lead opposition to the Roman oppression and restore the Kingdom of Israel. But it turns out that Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ Messiahship is way off the mark. Jesus accepts the title but reinterprets the role. His mission as Messiah is not to restore the Davidic monarchy but to suffer, die and rise again. The sharp intake of breath on Peter’s part is almost palpable. He cannot believe it – his dream of a righteous Kingdom, a Jewish Utopia, with him, Peter, as part of the senior management team, is shattered. Peter rejects Jesus’ interpretation of the role of the Messiah and meets a stinging rebuke, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’
There is a paradox at the heart of the Christian Gospel, and we ignore it at our peril. God does not ask us to live a sort of half-measure life, where we are constantly denying the joy of living and giving things up just for the sake of being miserable, then criticising other people for enjoying themselves. Jesus never did that. We are supposed to live life to the full, to fulfil every iota of our human potential and to find joy in it, because we find God in it. But we are also called to take up our cross. Jesus used this phrase absolutely literally. It wasn’t a metaphor for a more general self-denial. The criminal condemned to crucifixion must carry the beam of wood to which he will be nailed, to the place where he will hang. This may well have been a fate that Peter ultimately shared with Jesus.
I’ll tell you a story. When St. Columbanus wanted to go and serve God as a monk, his mother was not pleased. She loved him dearly and was afraid that he would be wasting his life. He had lots of talent and ability. He could be someone really important in Ireland. She talked to him and tried to dissuade him, but he knew God was calling him to leave home and serve Him in a monastery. His mother tried all sorts of ways to stop him. Though she loved him dearly, she was acting for Satan. Columbanus got ready to go. His mother went to the door of the house and lay down in the doorway to stop him. Columbanus was very sorry to see his mother do this, but he carefully stepped over her and went to serve God wherever God called him. In time, Columbanus did wonderful work for God in France and Italy. For a moment it would have been easy to give in and stay at home.
Jesus must ‘take up his cross’, as too, when his hour comes, must Peter. The text is not about giving up ‘After Eights’ for Lent. The context is soon to be a Christian community where martyrdom is no metaphor but a reality. The paradox of faith is played out in the life of St. Paul. ‘For while we live,’ St. Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians , ‘we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life [is at work] in you.’ Paul is ‘crucified with Christ’. When he writes to the Romans, he has already been beaten and imprisoned – his body quite literally bears the scars of his Christian witness and through them the freedom and life that faith in Christ brings, is made known to others.
To deny oneself, to take up our own personal and individual cross, is to lose our life for the sake of the Gospel, and so paradoxically to save it. Dying to live. It will mean something different to each one of us because we are called to do different things and follow different paths. But although we may well be spared a martyr’s death, we still have to make our peace with that Christian paradox that we must die to live.
So when we are called by God to take up that cross, whenever and whatever it may be, we must follow that call, do what God asks of us, live the Christ-life, die to self-will, and inherit the crown of eternal life.