Called to Carry the Cross

God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.
—Matthew 16:22
Introduction: Fifteen, Going on Sixteen
Last week I preached what I think was an absolute homiletic masterpiece ;-) about the faith of the Canaanite woman infamously called a “dog” by Jesus. What I was trying to say was that the woman’s original request that Jesus heal her daughter was couched in the language of her neighbors, and not her own words. She wasn’t Jewish, but she cried out to Jesus using the titles a pious Jew would give him. And so Jesus’ response to her was a challenge, forcing her to speak not with the words she thought she should use, but to use her own words and to find her own voice. The point was that we might come to Jesus using somebody else’s words, but eventually, if our Christianity’s ever going to actually amount to anything, we’re going to pray from the heart.

All that was about a story in the fifteenth chapter of Matthew, and today we find ourselves in the following chapter (sixteen). My point today may seem like a contradiction of last Sunday’s sermon, but it’s really not. It’s just a bit of a correction—a correction that actually comes not from me, but from Jesus himself. Though it’s important to speak to and about Jesus from the depths of our own hearts and using our own words, it’s possible that we might still say the wrong thing. But even our mistakes can’t cancel out Jesus’ call and God’s promise.
I. A Chip off the Old Block
The story we heard this morning from Matthew is a pretty famous one, and is found in three of the four gospels [1]. It’s known as The Confession of Saint Peter. So important is this event, that in some traditions, it gets its own holiday—January 18 [2]. And it is made all the more important by Jesus’ affirmation of the faith of the nameless Canaan woman just a few verses earlier.

We should probably take note here of the fact that Jesus asks his first question about the Son of Man—the title that the historical Jesus most frequently used for himself. The term itself is really just a rather poetic phrase meaning human being [3]. But the way Jesus uses it, it probably harkens back to the prophet Daniel, whose Son of Man is a heavenly being in human form. And so Jesus asks his closest followers: “Who do the people say the Son of Man is?”

And they give the expected responses: He’s a prophet—perhaps the return of one of the most famous prophets such as Elijah, Jeremiah, or even John the Baptist.

But then Jesus asks them a much more pointed question: “But who do you say that I am?”

This question is a favorite of preachers, because it emphasizes that our faith in Christ must be our own, and not someone else’s. Each person must make their own confession of faith, and not parrot back words we’ve heard people around us use. Last week’s Canaanite woman tried to manipulate Jesus using words she’d heard others whisper, but Jesus forced from her her own confession of faith. And today, Jesus first asks the disciples about others’ faith, and then he finally asks them about their own beliefs. It’s a question I sort of believe they wanted Jesus to ask them. Just as in a loving relationship we often wait until the time is right before declaring our true feelings for someone, the disciples were awaiting the moment when they could declare their true feelings about who Jesus was.

And, as usual, it was Simon who took the lead: “You are Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

The importance of this declaration is underlined by what Jesus says next about the blessedness of Simon, Jonah’s son; that Simon didn’t come up with this on his own, but it was God who gave him the words, and that Simon was a rock, and it was on the bedrock of his faith that Jesus would build his church.

Notice here what I did not say. The actual words of Jesus don’t necessarily state that he changed Simon’s name to Peter. There was, in fact, no such name as Peter at that time [4]. The word he used simply was stone or rock. In English, we’d use an indefinite article here: You are a stone. But Greek would not normally use a or an when saying something like this. And when he follows it up by saying, “and upon this rock,” he doesn’t even use the same word. It’s a similar word, but it has a different meaning. Πέτρος is a specific masculine word meaning a stone, and πέτρα is a feminine word meaning rock in general, or foundational rock, or bedrock.

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about, and it uses the Latin American word for radio. When speaking about el radio (a masculine word) in Spanish, you’re talking about a specific thing, the actual physical object called a radio, or a radio receiver. When talking about la radio (a feminine word) in Spanish, you’re talking about radio in general—the waves that move through the air and end up as voices or music coming out of a machine, or a network of stations.

So Peter, as an individual stone, is part of the foundation of faith that is the bedrock of the church [5]. This is just a religious way of saying that Christ is our rock, and that Peter’s a chip off the old block. In my opinion, if we translated Simon’s nickname instead of transliterating it, he might be known as Rock, or even Chip.
II. A Scandal Exposed
What happens next is nearly as distressing as what we heard about last week when Jesus told the Canaanite woman that it’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. This time we have Jesus following Peter’s confession of faith with a declaration of his own. It wasn’t included in the reading, so let me share it with you now (verses 21-23):
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
So here we have Jesus, having just heard the most beautiful words he could expect to hear from his closest friends, sharing with them the burden on his heart: You acknowledge me as Messiah, but here’s what you don’t know; here’s what that actually means; it means suffering, it means the ultimate sacrifice, it means my death.

This was difficult for the disciples to comprehend. Naturally, they equated Messiah with anointed king—an earthly ruler who would be more powerful than kings like David and Solomon. If Jesus was Messiah, and if they had gotten in on the ground floor of a good thing, the sky was the limit for him and for them.

And so, just as it was Peter who first spoke out when Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, it’s also Peter who speaks out—once again on behalf of the others—to correct Jesus, who has so obviously misunderstood the meaning of the word Messiah. And who among us wouldn’t have done the same? “God forbid! This won’t happen to you!”—the Bible calls it a rebuke, but I think it’s more of a reassurance, letting Jesus know that it’s not necessary to look at the worst case scenario, that his friends were there to help ensure that something good was going to come out of all this.

Jesus’ reaction was visceral, and—as visceral reactions often are—quite over-the-top: “Get behind me, satan!” he says. And then he builds on the rock imagery by calling Simon Peter yet another kind of stone: “You’ve become a stumbling block to me!” The Greek word for stumbling bock is a word we all know and use in a very different way: σκάνδαλον, the term that gives us our word for scandal. It’s important that we understand both this word and the word satan here in the context that Jesus used them. First, Jesus was not accusing Simon Peter of being satanic in the sense that we might use the term. He was using it with its original intent. The satan in the Hebrew Bible was not our modern devil, but simply the adversary. If God was the sure defense of the chosen, then the satan was the prosecutor. Not a good guy, certainly, but not necessarily the devil of medieval and modern Christian teaching, either.

And here, Simon Peter was the adversary—the tempter who was trying to convince Jesus that he didn’t need to go down a road that he was by no means anxious to travel. The cross was a horrible thing to have in front of you, and when Simon Peter tried to get him to turn his back on it, Jesus told him he was God’s adversary, no different than the tempter who during his time in the wilderness tried to get him first to turn stones into food and finally to become the very kind of earthly monarch that his disciples had in mind when they confessed him as Messiah.
IIIa. The Origin of the Mullet
But we can’t be too hard on Simon Peter. He’s simply saying to Jesus what anyone would’ve said, because the reality Jesus had just put before him was not something he could possibly relate to. He understood Jesus’ words, and he’d seen these images of suffering and persecution, but he couldn’t make sense out of it in this context.

I need to make a confession here that I doubt will surprise anybody: I don’t bother paying anybody to cut my hair. I just use a clipper and give myself a buzz cut every month or two. It’s really quite easy, as I’m sure you can imagine. Except when I do the back. That gets a bit tricky. Because then I’m not just looking at a mirror image of myself, but I have to look at a mirror image of a mirror image and getting my hand to move to the right when it needs to move to the right, or to the left when it needs to move to the left is very difficult when you’re looking at something through two mirrors. It only works because I don’t really care all that much. I just want it the same length everywhere—that being extremely short.

But if I did have more hair and I didn’t want to go to the barber, I think I might cut the front and the sides and just let the back grow long. And this, I have to assume, is the origin of the mullet. It’s the hairstyle of people who cut their own hair, but simply can’t seem to work around things the way they have to look at them through the kind of mirror image that’s necessary under the circumstances… it’s best just to worry about the front and sides and leave the back alone [6].

And that’s how I can best relate to the disciples at this point. They’ve seen and heard Jesus. They’ve experienced his brilliance and his love and his power. They’ve confessed him as Messiah. But because they have a preconceived notion of what Messiah means, they can’t see what’s really behind that word; what God really intends to do to save the world. Their plans for the future include what would later be called a Positive Christianity—a way of life centered around the actions of a people who follow the example of a strong leader [7]. Jesus told them that it would be God’s actions on their behalf that would save them, but what they wanted was to do it on their own under Messiah’s direction. They could only see what stood before them, but Jesus was trying to teach them what really lay behind it all. They wanted to conquer the world, but God intended to conquer them.
IIIb. Default Setting
It’s been said that “a moralistic religion of self-salvation is our default setting as fallen creatures,” and that “if we are not explicitly and regularly taught out of it, we will always turn the message of God's rescue operation into a message of self-help.” [8] And that default setting is the setting in which Jesus’ ministry was done. But throughout his ministry, both his words and his actions helped lead people beyond respectability, political power, and self-help to an understanding of God’s grace. And with that in mind, let’s hear what Jesus says next (verses 24-26):
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
This is the call that Jesus issues to a group of people who had just proved themselves either unworthy of it, or incapable of understanding it.

And please remember that the image of the cross, which to us is a religious image, was to Jesus’ listeners strictly political. It was the ultimate image of torture, of humiliation, and of treason against the powers of the world. For Jesus to make a call to the disciples to “take up their cross” was to call them to something that no human being could respond to positively, unless by force or coërcion.

But despite Peter’s rebuke, Jesus decides that the time has come to issue the call: Turn your back on what used to seem important and follow me toward the cross. Though it appears that they still suspect that Jesus’ estimation of what’s going to happen is overly pessimistic, they follow him nonetheless. It’s their desire to go to Jerusalem to see him (and themselves!) vindicated and to take part in Messiah’s enthronement.
Conclusion: What If We’re Wrong?
Jesus, of course, was right. He did suffer, and he did die. Because his disciples couldn’t see that part of the truth, they were even less likely to understand what lay beyond it—that being his resurrection. Three times in Matthew, Jesus predicts, first, his death and, next, his resurrection, and at no time does anybody even seem to hear the second prediction. Like a person looking in a mirror, their view was limited; and the reverse reality Jesus tried to tell them about—that Messiah wasn’t the kind of conqueror they wanted him to be—simply made no sense to them. So how much less sense would the reality on the other side of that prediction make? Like a person trying to cut the hair on the back of their head using the mirror image of a mirror image, there was just no way they could work it out.

But despite their lack of understanding, and despite Peter’s rebuke, Jesus still called the disciples—imperfect though they were—to something beyond themselves. Though they weren’t able to understand the burden of the cross, the promise of the resurrection still held firm.

And so last week I said that to approach God, we would need at some point to use our own words. Today I guess I’m saying that sometimes our own words are wrong. The important thing is that the lines of communication remain open. We speak to God in prayer, and God speaks to us through the answers to prayer and, yes, even the feelings we get when we pray, but also through the Word as it’s been handed down to us, and through the community of the church.

Peter and the others were a nearly hopeless case, unable to see what's behind their own experience and expectations. But nearly is not completely: Through the transforming power of the Spirit, they were eventually able to see the promise behind the prediction that lay on the other side their of hopes and dreams. To get to the unheard-of, they had to face the impossible—but even then, it took the Holy Spirit to give them the strength to heed the call and follow the way of Messiah.

Of those first disciples who heard the call—the very ones who rebuked Jesus, denied him, and scattered when the going got bad: All but two died for their belief that the reality they could only then see indirectly was more real and less contorted than the reality they could see in front of them. And the one of the two who didn’t die a martyr died in exile. [9]

Still today, the call goes out. We may never have to literally carry our cross. But we are still called to follow until God’s reality—the one that we can now only see through the contorted values and expectations of the world—until God’s reality becomes our reality. Let’s not settle for avoiding what we can’t see clearly just because it’s hard to see it. It’s worth learning to invert out thinking, because life as we now love it isn’t necessarily life as it’s meant to be.
—©2014 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
  1. In addition to Matthew 16:13-20, it’s also found in Mark 8:27-30, and Luke 9:18-20. Though all three are followed by an immediate declaration about the cross and discipleship, Luke omits Peter’s rebuke and Jesus’ strong reaction.
  2. It’s often paired with another holiday which gets to the root of the early Christian church called The Conversion of Saint Paul, which falls on January 25, and the week from one day to the other is observed as The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
  3. This expression is found in 3 languages in the Bible—Hebrew, Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke, and the language used in the Book of Daniel), and Greek. Though the term “son of man” is so common as to be hard to avoid, the actual term (especially in Greek) is gender neutral, and simply means human child.
  4. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), p. 345.
  5. I find it unfortunate that Boring states that “both Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars generally agree that the original meaning of the text is that Jesus builds the church on Peter as the foundation (contrary to previous Protestant views) rather than on Peter’s confession or Peter’s faith…” (p. 347). I don’t believe this view is warranted linguistically or theologically, and there are still plenty of scholars who would disagree with Boring.
  6. The seed for this illustration was planted by Tom Wright in Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002) pp. 9-12.
  7. Adherents of Positive Christianity argued that traditional Christianity emphasized the passive rather than the active aspects of Christ's life, stressing his miraculous birth, his suffering, his sacrifice on the cross and other-worldly redemption. They wanted to replace this doctrine with a ‘positive’ emphasis on Christ as an active preacher, organizer and fighter who opposed the institutionalized Judaism of his day.” This quote lifted from Wikipedia’s entry on Positive Christianity sounds attractive on the surface, but the main thrust of the article is that it was a religious expression of Nazi Germany.
  8. Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), p. 42.
  9. This was John. The other one who didn’t die for his faith in Jesus was, or course, Judas, who betrayed him.