Mark, in his hurry-along Gospel, does not spell out the temptations that Christ overcame in the wilderness, after his baptism. But today, we read of a very specific temptation, that makes Jesus turn on a praised disciple and suddenly identify him as a source of base human thinking rather than a fully worked through divine course of action. What is the problem?
The problem is, if we read the text of Mark exactly as the lays the story out, this morning’s passage comes immediately after Peter has publicly acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. All this is going on in Caeserea Philipi, a long way from Jerusalem, safe from Pharisees and Sadducees, Herod’s spies and Roman troops. Jesus can speak freely with his friends, and they can speak freely with him. In this place of security and openness, Jesus extracts from his disciples just what conclusions they have come to about him, hence Peter’s declaration, and then proceeds to enlighten them on the consequences of that knowledge.
With information comes responsibility, with freedom comes responsibility. The disciples now know for certain that they are living in the presence of God’s Messiah, which explains everything that has happened up to this point, and they do not want to loose any of it. Life with the Messiah is amazing – healings, confounding the Pharisees, great stories, mystical encounters on mountains and lakes – and nothing is going to take that away from them. Suffering and death do not feature on their agenda, and Peter tells Jesus that in no uncertain terms.
That is where Jesus cracks. That is what makes Jesus turn to this fine friend, this man who has publicly acknowledged Christ’s Messiahship, and address him as Satan, the great deceiver, the Father of Lies, he who would have taken the throne of heaven for himself. Peter has not yet had his mind transformed, he is still thinking in human terms, and has not yet grasped the full extent of the divine plan. And what is that divine plan? To suffer, to die and to rise again. To take divine love to the very edge of human understanding, and transform it into redeeming love. To take creative love into new spheres of joining the eternal and the finite, the uncreated and the created, so that death has no power, and only unconditional divine love is revealed and known.
Now I can quite see that Peter hadn’t got his mind round that, but did Jesus really have to be that brutal? Could he not have let him down gently? Would that not have been the path of love?
What we see in that moment when Jesus turns to Peter and calls him Satan is a revelation of the divine and the human operating hand in hand. The human reacts sharply and aggressively, the divine counteracts the temptation with power and insight. Self-centred human patterns of thought have to be replaced with divine, outward-facing love, and that is a hard lesson for Peter and all the disciples to learn.
It is worth wondering how much of the following discourse the crowd understands, let alone the disciples. They know what Jesus means by “take up your cross”, as they had no doubt seen the condemned being lead out to a place of crucifixion, bearing the cross piece on their shoulders. That would be sufficient to make them shudder, but for that to be their daily reality, while following this Messiah – that is even harder.
“Take up your cross” remains one of the hardest sayings of Jesus. Down through the centuries, people have struggled with it, tried to make sense of it, even taking it literally for one bearded American in the 70’s, who walked around with a cross on his back for several years to try to get to the heart of what Jesus was saying. I’m not sure how far he got, though, because the cross he was carrying was never going to be the cause of his death, in the way that it would be for Jesus on that first Good Friday.
We can spiritualise it – “it’s all about spiritual life and death, not an actual cross” – we can rule it out as irrelevant after 20 centuries – “no one is crucified any more, and most countries have outlawed the death penalty” – we can take a psychological approach – “ the death-inducing weight of guilt and shame” – we could even go with Albert Camus, from his Mythe de Sisyphe, and claim that there is joy in carrying the means of our death, as it affirms that we are currently alive and free. (Sisyphus, founder of Corinth and one of the most scandalous rogues of Ancient Greece, was condemned by the Gods to push a heavy stone up a hill, only for that stone to hurtle back down to the bottom as soon as Sisyphus got it to the summit. Camus argues that Sisyphus was happy in the moment that he reached the top of the hill with his boulder, before it cascaded down again.)
But this is Lent, and we should not be playing around with “human things” but diving deeply into the divine. As he speaks these words, Jesus has already taken up his cross. For him, it may be several years before he physically does that, but in his mind, in his attitudes, in his knowledge of God’s love, he is already carrying the means of his death, so that the whole created order may have new life in him. During his life, during his ministry, he carries his cross. When he feeds the multitudes, he carries his cross. When he heals the sick, he carries his cross. When he challenges the Pharisees, he carries his cross, and no one, especially not Peter, is going to tell him to put it down.
That is where we are today – seeing the cross for the first time in Jesus’s ministry – and understandably the immediate human reaction is to say “no, never!” But the divine reaction is “yes, always” and for that we bow at Jesus’s feet and worship.
Having done that, we are called to look at ourselves and admit to all the things that we know we ought to do, but our humanity backs away from. We may not be as defiant as Peter, we may simply tuck things away at the bottom of the “to do” list, but do them we must, or talk to that person we must, or share that burden we must, or take on that responsibility we must. Christ was able to carry his cross because he was confident in his Father’s love and in the good purpose of his Father’s plan. Christ also shared his cross with his Father, praying ceaselessly to align himself completely with the will of his Father. Our prayer needs to be as fervent as Christ’s, our watching needs to be as intense as Christ’s, so that we are fully aligned with our heavenly Father’s intentions for us and for his creation.
Our Lent Appeal for the work of Glass Door with rough sleepers is still open – donate, knit, make a difference.
Our Lent groups are challenging our basic Christian assumptions – get involved.
Our Holy Week journey is planned – get on board, with your cross on your back and your sights set on Jerusalem where we will find the joy, the acclamation, the betrayal, the denial, the suffering, the death and ultimately the joy of resurrection, once again.