One of the first courses I took in graduate school was about the Christian literature of the first and second centuries. The professor was brilliant and engaging. When she assigned the first essay of the semester I put all my effort into producing a good quality paper. To that end, I spent many hours doing research in the University Library.
I was very surprised and disappointed when I received the grade for the paper; it was much lower than I expected. When I asked the professor about the poor grade, her answer was simple. She said that I hadn’t followed her directions. She reminded me of the directions for the essay, and I agreed that I had not done what I had been asked to do. The poor grade was a stinging rebuke, but it helped me to be more attentive to the professor’s instructions in the future.
Peter received a stinging rebuke in today’s Gospel reading, and we might well ask why that happened. Jesus had asked the Twelve what they thought of him. Peter responded immediately with the kind of answer that sounds like a good one. He said, “The Messiah of God.” (Luke 9:20) None of us here this morning would disagree with that answer. Why would Jesus disapprove of it?
Not all hard work is good work. Great effort expended in the wrong way is a guarantee only of poor performance. Peter made a real effort to give a correct answer to Jesus’ question, but his effort was directed toward the wrong goal. Based on Jesus’ rebuke, we can surmise that Peter probably embraced one of the common messianic images of the time. He probably expected Jesus to become a renowned political leader or a victorious military leader or, at the very least, a successful reformer of Temple worship.
Jesus was none of these above, as evidenced by his response to Peter, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:22) This was a forceful rebuke of the messianic expectations that were popular at the time. Jesus unequivocally denied the possibility of being a political, military or liturgical messiah. Surprisingly, he understood himself to be a Savior who would exercise power in weakness, gain victory through defeat and overcome evil through humility.
Jesus’ teachings about religion and salvation are no less challenging today. Today, religion is often used to justify violence – as in the tragic terrorist attack in Orlando last weekend. Religion is also used to condemn others for being different – as in the recent murder of a Hindu religious leader in Bangladesh. Religion can be misused, to effective results, as a means to control people – as seen in the various cults that pop up from time to time.
These versions of religion were as common in Jesus’ time as they are today. Sadly, religion is too often used to control people, condemn others or to justify violence. In contrast to many of the usual versions of religion, Jesus practiced a religion that inspires self-sacrifice for the sake of others rather than sacrificing others for the sake of one’s personal issues. He said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
It’s very easy to take up a cause, but Jesus invites us to take up a cross. It can be very satisfying to take the moral high ground, but Jesus commands us to lay down our lives. It can feel very empowering to place ourselves above those whom we dislike or disregard, but Jesus tells us to lose our lives for his sake. The unpopularity of carrying one’s cross willingly was a source of scandal to many of those who heard Jesus preach. It is no less a scandal today, but it remains the only path to salvation.
Jesus’ description of himself (Luke 9:22) is, by necessity therefore, also a description of his faithful disciples. To be a follower of Jesus is to be an imitator of Jesus. His rebuke of Peter in today’s Gospel reading was the consequence of Peter’s willingness to follow a popular leader, but his unwillingness to follow where Jesus was going. We ought to pay attention.
The cross you have to carry might be your own shortcomings; it might be the difficult people around you; it might be the struggle to remain faithful in a faithless environment; it might be learning to be less selfish or more responsible; it might be the burden of tragic events. Whatever your cross is, Jesus isn’t asking you to fix it or overcome it or cure it or improve it or remove it; Jesus is asking you to carry it in his footsteps.
Jesus’ identity as the Savior who would suffer is a direct challenge to the human tendency to exercise power over the world and over other people. His identity is also a question about our identity. Jesus’ identity was to do all that God commanded. To be a disciple of Jesus means to walk with him, and to give of one’s self for the benefit of others.
After spending time in prayer Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20) Jesus rejected Peter’s answer because it was an expression of Peter’s self-interests. The Gospels pose the same question to us. Just as it was in Peter’s case, our response to this question will be as much about our personal identity as it is about Jesus’ identity. Who, then, are we really? Jesus would have us be his image for the world.