This week’s gospel reading from Matthew comes immediately after last week’s reading where Peter makes a bold statement of faith, commitment and risk. Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter has come to believe that Jesus is the one sent from God to save Israel and usher in a reign of justice and peace. This is not just a powerful statement about Jesus. It is also a risky statement – Messiah is a king, and not the one the Romans support. It is not safe to question Rome’s power or suggest someone else is the rightful king. Jesus’ responds by then tells them that they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow.
The reading picks up here, moments after Peter has spoken. Jesus begins to explain that he must go to Jerusalem (the center of the Jewish world). There he will come into even more conflict with the religious authorities, face suffering and death, then be raised from the dead.
No one who is familiar with Peter will be surprised that he doesn’t take this well. I suspect Peter didn’t even hear the “be raised” part. He was probably too distressed by what Jesus was saying about suffering and death. It is likely that, when Jesus started to talk about going to Jerusalem, Peter and the others were expecting Jesus to tell them he would confront the religious authorities and expel the current group in power. Perhaps they were expecting Jesus to begin a confrontation of the Roman occupation that would result in freedom for the people of Israel, and a new reign of God. They were not expecting suffering and death.
Peter is impulsive and brash, yet he is also deeply connected to Jesus and his ministry. Peter’s choices are sometimes faithful and helpful and sometimes questionable. Here, he shows some restraint. We hear that Peter took Jesus aside and began to say, “This must never happen to you.” Words of support. Words of redirection. Maybe even words of protection.
But Jesus is not having it. Calling him a stumbling block, something in the way, Jesus rebukes right back telling Peter the hard truth that his mind is not on divine things, but on human things. Peter has heard Jesus’ explanation of what lies ahead from his own perspective and not from God’s perspective.
Jesus’ next statement is shocking for Peter and the others to hear. Deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me. Take up your cross and follow: to Jerusalem, to conflict and suffering, to death, but also to new life.
In last week’s part of this passage, Peter says he believes Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God – the rightful king of their people. The one who is expected to come and fix what’s wrong in the religious and spiritual context and the political context, too. They expect the messiah to come and release them from Roman oppression and begin a new and just reign of his own. As Jesus’ followers, perhaps Peter and the others expect they will also have influence, power and position in the new regime.
Nope. Jesus does not invite them to take leadership roles in his power structure. Instead, Jesus tells them they must deny themselves (set aside power and influence) and take up self-sacrifice and follow.
At that time, the cross had a very different meaning than it does today. The cross was simply an instrument of torture and death. The cross was a horrible and humiliating way to die. It was reserved for insurrectionists and others the Romans wanted to make an example of. Roman citizens could not be crucified. Take up your cross would have been a shocking and difficult notion for the followers.
Jesus invites Peter and the disciples and us to take on struggles and burdens in order to follow. In the second reading assigned for this week, Paul writes to the community of Christians at Rome, laying out what it means to follow Jesus. He describes love with authenticity and self-giving. Of course, this is not suffering for its own sake. Not simply tolerating abuse or being put down. We have agency. It is claiming your own power and acting lovingly and generously with intent. There is power that comes from the kind of love we hear about in Romans. This is the kind of love comes from and leads to seeing ourselves and each other as beloved children of God (as hard as that is to do sometimes).
On our best days, we may think of taking up our cross as an invitation and challenge we are equipped to meet. We are called by God to make decisions that reflect our Christian commitment to love our neighbor as ourselves, work for justice, forgive readily, and welcome all. Even to the point of sacrifice.
On less ideal days, we may find the idea of taking up our cross incredibly hard: Maybe in that moment or that situation it seems impossible to love or forgive or work for justice or welcome. Yet, whether we feel up to the task or not, we know that God is there with us. We don’t face life’s challenges alone. God is present; holding us, lamenting with us, encouraging us, promising us the strength to endure. So as best we can, on our best days and our rotten days, we make decisions and act in ways that reflect God’s love for us and all people, God’s acceptance of us and all people.