Jesus Predicts His Death
"21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”"
-- Matthew 16:21-28
Familiarity breeds contempt, the old saying goes, but to my mind the greater and more dangerous occasion of familiarity is indifference. We come to a text and we have read it so many times or heard so many sermons preached on it, that we lose not only the freshness of the text but its edge, it's a blessing, as well as its judgment. Part of the task of preaching or teaching is to shake the dust of familiarity of the text, to open a reader or listener’s ears, and let a text speak again.
A few years ago during Lent, I taught a Sunday school class of young adults. We did not use a quarterly or topical study; instead, the material for each week’s class was the gospel reading for the following Sunday. My intent was twofold: to let the class inform me of their curiosities regarding the Scriptures, thereby to assist my sermon preparation; and at the same time to help them engage the text a bit more deeply so that our reading one week would help their listening the next.
In our very first class, Mark’s account of this same episode was up for grabs. I made copies of the parallel versions and we read them aloud. Then, knowing no better way to begin, I asked the class to consider, simply, what they liked about Jesus’ predictions and pronouncements, and what they didn’t like.
There was a long pause. Someone said, a bit sheepishly, that there was not much to like, frankly—all that talk of Satan and suffering and crosses. “Not the aspects of discipleship we most often advertise,” I said, and the class seemed to agree that it was a bit unsettling. In another minute, however, a former Marine decided that he very much liked the clarity with which Jesus issued his summons to discipleship—“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“That is pretty clear,” I said.
“It kind of lets you know where you stand,” said he, and then, softly, after a deep pause, “and it lets me know that I am still pretty much sitting on the fence.”
Someone else, who really liked the passion prediction, thought that, sad and horrible as it was, it was comforting to know that Jesus was not clueless, not like the rest of the characters in the story, not like we are. Jesus knew what was happening to him.
“Why is that comfort?” I asked.
“If Jesus knows what is going on, he can give his disciples a way to endure and even interpret the days ahead. If Jesus knows where he is going, the rest of us, if we are listening, will know how to follow.”
Another liked the promise of glory, others the promise of repayment, the certainty of God’s justice being done. “Okay, so what don’t you like?” I asked, and someone said, “The very same things: I don’t really like the certainty of God’s justice, the promise of repayment according to what we have done.” And then someone said, “I don’t like the conflict, and I don’t mean between Jesus and the authorities, the rulers and such. I don’t like the conflict between Jesus and Peter, the argument between Jesus and the disciples.”
Indeed, it is most uncomfortable to read of Peter speaking harshly to Jesus, and of Jesus speaking harshly to Peter, to see them on different sides of an issue. Just moments before all their words were blessing words, each for the other: “Thou art the Christ,” Peter said to Jesus; “Thou art the Rock,” Jesus said in return. Now the blessing has become cursing, a mutual rebuke, Peter barking at Jesus, “You don’t know what you are saying!” and Jesus barking right back, “You don’t know how you are thinking!”
Jesus is often at odds with his followers, of course. That is another aspect of discipleship we don’t often advertise. Sometimes, because of overfamiliarity with our texts, our traditions, and practices, we don’t realize that we, too, have our minds set on earthly things. We don’t always see how we, who are called to help convert the culture, are instead converted by the culture and so much so that we do not talk about crosses or suffering or the evil powers of this world. In our churches, we can be so seduced by the theology of glory (which is a part of the gospel to be sure, but only a part, lest it becomes triumphalism) or, failing that, the theology of success (one writer notes that many churches study and master their ABC’s—attendance, buildings, cash—and nothing else) that we are as reluctant as Peter to embrace the cross. But when we empty the cross of its power we empty discipleship of the cross, thereby emptying our church programs of discipleship. Jesus speaks sharply to those of us who set our minds, not on heavenly things.
The class was almost over when I said, “Let me tell you what I most like about this passage.” I went on to say that I, too, found it very uncomfortable to see Jesus and Peter at odds, and to know that Peter represents me, all of us, in the church, but how wonderful that although Peter misunderstands, Jesus does not abandon him. Yes, they are at odds, but they are still friends. Jesus corrects Peter; he does not excommunicate him. Having loved him, having called him—having loved and called us—Jesus will keep us in the fold, keep correcting and teaching, keep showing us the way till our minds are finally, fully, always set on heavenly things.