Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; Matt 16:21-28
To call Jesus the Son of God means to trust that he is the one who reveals God’s will to us. Regardless of Peter’s intentions or motivations for saying what he said, the fact remains that when the Son of God revealed God’s will to him, he desired something else, and that makes him an adversary to God; in Hebrew, the word for an “adversary” is a “satan.”
And yet, how often do we think that we know better than God? How often do we supplant God’s will with our own and call it piety, or domesticate the good news that Jesus died to bring so that we can still call ourselves by the name of Christ without actually doing what Christ has called us to do? “If anyone desires to come behind me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” As he tells us this, we remember that the road on which he is leading us heads straight to Calvary.
Jesus says from the very beginning that his suffering and death must happen, that it is necessary. We might assume that it is necessary for God; we have been taught that God must punish us for our sins, but Jesus out of love bears that punishment for us. We ought to deny our sinful selves, then, because we deserve to be punished with Christ. Our suffering makes us holy like him, because his suffering is holy. That all seems to hang together pretty well except for one small problem: that’s not at all what Jesus means.
When Jesus says that it is necessary for him to suffer and die, he doesn’t mean that God considers it necessary, but rather that we do. The good news that Jesus brings is not good news at all unless it is also good news for the poor, the broken, and the oppressed. This good news demands something of us: if we are to take it seriously, it requires us to get up and participate in that good news for those who suffer, to enter into their suffering with them the way Jesus enters into ours. For those of us with privilege of wealth or class or race, this is not what we want to hear; and that is why the elders, the chief priests and the scribes must kill Jesus; they have no choice. It is necessary for him to die because otherwise the kingdom of heaven he proclaims and lives is a direct threat to their power, to their authority, to their privilege. It is necessary for Jesus to die, alright, but it isn’t God who needs him dead: it’s those of us who are afraid to lose what we have.
We are only doing what we must. The only way we know how to respond to something which threatens us is with violence, and so violence is what we show toward Jesus. That’s how this game is played, isn’t it? In order to come out ahead, one must always be better, stronger, tougher, harder. Nice guys finish last; there is no prize for second place. Of course, the trouble is that in this game, only the strong survive, and the weak are forgotten, despised, destroyed. What we cannot see in the midst of all our grasping and struggling is that really need is somebody to save us from this insanity that inevitably causes us to kill the Son of God in the name of God.
There is no escape from this cycle of violence and oppression from the outside; God cannot pull us out of this death spiral without taking away our free will; and so God sees that it is necessary for Jesus to come among us as one of us, to live as a human being so that he can show us another way, a better way: a way in which there are not winners and losers, not strong and weak, but one family of God working together for justice and peace for all creation. Jesus lives this way of nonviolence, of justice, of mercy, and he dies for it because his very life is a threat to everyone wishing to hold onto their own desires. The cross is the only way this story can end. And yet, because this is God’s story, it does not end there: even death cannot keep Jesus from freely offering us so much more that whatever it is we would kill to protect.
The truth of the gospel is that our desires are not too strong, it is rather that they are too weak. We worry ourselves to death over things like money and status and safety; we try to fill our lives with cheap entertainment or possessions, with ambition or sex or booze, when all the while Jesus is offering us infinite joy of denying these things and living the life our Creator intended for us, the existence for which we were made. We are like ignorant children who would rather go on making mud pies in a slum because we cannot comprehend what we are being offered in a vacation at the coast.
This is what I mean: we have taken the incredible promise of salvation that God offers and domesticated it and eviscerated it and reduced it to merely playing a harp on a cloud after we die because can cannot conceive of the idea that Jesus was actually sent to save us from the despair and the danger we face every day. We are far more ready to believe in a God who would offer us eternity in heaven as a consolation prize for suffering through life on earth than we are to believe in a God who would actually step into our flesh to redeem this life, to save us from neo-Nazis and climate change and the plague of crime and poverty.
Now this sounds all well and good for a Sunday morning sermon, but we all know that’s not how the real world works, right? If we try to do all the stuff Paul talks about, we’ll get eaten alive! That is exactly Jesus’ point. Those who try to save their lives will lose them; but if we devote our lives to God’s reign, we will lose our lives, but in doing so we will find more than we ever hoped or imagined.
Jesus didn’t come to give us an hour of comfort on Sunday morning, but a lifetime of hope—hope that the evil and devastation we see in our world is nothing but the bitter death-knell of all the powers opposed to God’s reign before they slink away in defeat. Yes, it sounds crazy; yes, it’s naive, but who are you going to believe: the voices of the powers that be telling us to play a game we know is rigged and leads only to death? Or the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the one who has been to hell and back to show us once and for all what really leads to life and peace?
That is why Jesus tells Peter—tells all of us—to get behind him, to deny ourselves and all the meager desires that would keep us from taking up our cross and following him; because as long as people are oppressed, as long as people go hungry, as long as racism and sexism and homophobia tear us apart, there is no paycheck, no fabulous toy, no cozy house that will ever give us the sense of comfort and wholeness that the reign of heaven promises us.
It is hard work, following Jesus. It will inevitably lead to suffering and sorrow, to anger and outrage, maybe even to death. But this promise is absolutely true: when we give up our lives to serve Jesus, we will absolutely see the reign of heaven breaking through the mess of this world; not in some faraway hereafter, but in the here-and-now. It is already here, all around us for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. It is as real as the bread and wine on this table, and as alive as the Jesus who somehow meets us in them. It is not a fact we can prove, not something concrete to which we can point, not a myth we created to insulate ourselves from the pain of the world: it is the truth of God revealed to us by God’s own Son. He is not commanding us to blind obedience, but rather inviting us to open our eyes and see for ourselves that the reign of heaven has come near, and that there is a place in it for us.