A young girl was playing her first netball match on the school team. After a quiet first half they went out onto the pitch again and very soon she got the ball. Pivoting on her feet, she turned to the hoop and threw a long, curving shot. It was spot on, barely touching the board the ball slipped through the hoop. But what was wrong? The other side were celebrating, her own team furious. It was an outstanding display of skill, but she’d forgotten that at half time you change ends.
In our gospel reading, St Peter is so right and yet so wrong. He correctly identifies Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah, but he has not begun to understand what that title really means. Today, the Bible reading asks us the same questions: who do you think Jesus is? And how does the answer we give affect the way we live our lives?
It’s midway through Jesus’ ministry. His disciples have heard his teaching, witnessed some amazing miracles and begun to ask themselves ‘Who is this doing these wonderful things?’ Jesus knows what they’re thinking. He knows what the crowd are saying about him too. So when he asks, in v.27, ‘who do people say that I am’, it’s not for his own information but as a chance to teach his disciples.
They reply ‘John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.’ All examples of religious leaders, prophets calling people back to God, men of power leading a renewal movement. Pretty much how many people nowadays would describe Jesus: there are plenty who say Jesus was a religious teacher, a revolutionary or a prophet.
Yet Jesus himself doesn’t seem satisfied with this answer. ‘What about you, who do you say that I am?’ Peter replies ‘You are the Messiah – or Christ’. In other words You are The One – the one we have been waiting for. All others prepared the way, like heralds before the king, but you are the King. John the Baptist, Elijah and prophets told us God’s plan. But you Jesus are the Messiah, you are God’s plan. You are the one in whom God’s plan is fulfilled.
And Jesus does three things with this:
Firstly, he accepts it. If Peter was wrong there was plenty of opportunity to put him right but Jesus didn’t. This shows us that Jesus believed he was the Christ, God’s special one, chosen to bring God’s people back to God. I mentioned earlier those people who say ‘Ah, Jesus was a great teacher. I respect him as one of the religious prophets’ – I don’t think people who say that can have really understood Jesus’ own teaching.
For his actions and what he said show us that Jesus did not see himself merely as a teacher or a prophet. He believed he was the Messiah. And if you or I say ‘I respect Jesus as one of the prophets’, it’s at best a misunderstanding, at worst it’s actually not respect at all for it’s making him out to be liar.
Either he is the Christ, as he taught, or he isn’t. Jesus taught that if we want to come to God, we come through him. Jesus said he is the fulfilment of God’s plan to reconcile all people to himself. God does this through the unique events of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.
If we want to know what God is like, then we look at Jesus. We see God in his compassion for the outcast, his anger at injustice, his generous self-giving. As John’s gospel puts it: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except through me.’ I am convinced that Jesus is who he claimed to be, and until we’ve made up our own minds about that question, I don’t think we’ve really done him justice.
The second thing Jesus does is tell his disciples to keep it quiet. It was not yet the right time for the truth to be made public.
However, Jesus is completely open about what lies in wait for him at Jerusalem. Being the Messiah will not be an easy march to a glorious victory, but involve great suffering. Christ will not be universally acclaimed, but instead rejected by his nation’s leaders. Jesus will not do as everyone hoped: kick out the Romans and settle down into a long peaceful rule. He will be killed, yet after three days rise again.
This third response by Jesus was so shocking, so inconceivable, that Peter couldn’t accept it. In v. 32 he clearly decides it’s his job to bring Jesus back to his senses and rebukes him privately. Jesus is publicly uncompromising with him: look at v. 33: ‘Get behind me Satan’.
Why so harsh? Well Jesus doesn’t want to die, if there was any way to avoid the cross he would have taken it. And Peter is unwittingly tempting him to run away from his fate. He’s saying, do it the world’s way. Be the ruler. Don’t do it God’s way, through the cross.
Yet the cross was the only way, because only the cross addresses our deepest need. Humanity tends to look to the surface needs like economics, cost of living, war and peace. Of course these are very important, but if we look at them closely we find they have deeper roots. So many of our problems actually have their origin within the human heart: greed, envy, what we call sin, insecurity, and the longing to be loved.
We need hearts which are changed, and this can only be done by knowing that we are loved and that we are accepted. When we know that God loves us that gives us a security which means we don’t need to find our security in possessions or by striving to be better than others. When we know that God forgives us, it sets us free from guilt and means we can be much more compassionate and loving to others.
The cross is the ultimate proof of God’s love because even in his agony Jesus prayed that those crucifying him would be forgiven. In his own body Jesus bore the cost of forgiveness, giving himself as a sacrifice for sin, experiencing the separation from God that should have been ours. Jesus gave himself to death that we might live forever, and he invites us – even now – to follow him and experience that new life today.
Yet you can only really experience a new life by setting aside the old. Trying to follow Jesus and also live in your old ways is worse than trying to live in two houses at once, or be married to two different people. The new life that has shared in the cross and resurrection of Jesus must be able to take over from the old if we are to experience all of Christ’s blessings.
Appreciating this will help us understand those difficult words of Jesus in verses 34-35 ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ In other words, be ready to give up everything, even life itself, if you want to be a follower of Jesus.
Some Christians end up doing this to the ultimate extent. In Sudan two pastors are under the threat of execution because of their loyalty to Christ. Others are fleeing similar persecution in Iraq and Syria. We are not in that kind of environment, but surely their example can at least fortify us not to be cowed by the mild opposition and disparagement we encounter.
Jesus’ words put a challenge: ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the gospel will save it.’ Of course, losing your life does not have to mean dying as a martyr. We speak of people sacrificing their lives to a cause – they have not literally died but they are giving everything because they have found that one thing which makes it worthwhile. Giving up your life is as much about an attitude, a readiness, a priority.
Maybe some will feel they are not ready for that commitment – they are just looking, have many questions. In which case I would say keep on looking, find out more, come to our Light Bites Lunch Club.
But bear in mind also that there is a wonderful mystery here. The paradox is that giving up yourself, you are able to become more truly yourself in Christ. Like being in love: you are much more centred on that other person yet feel much more alive. I find that if I live for myself, put myself and my needs first, then I become defensive, isolated, narrow and grumpy. If I try to die to self, try and serve others as Christ would have me do, it certainly a real effort but I end up feeling much more fulfilled.
If it sounds hard, it is, it’s an ongoing work which we sometimes get right and sometimes not. We will need the Holy Spirit’s help. It is worth it as Jesus points out in v.36, ‘what will it profit someone to gain the whole world and forfeit their very life’ Or, in the words of Jim Eliot, a missionary in the 1950s who was killed by the Ecuadorian Indians he was trying to reach for Christ: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.’