Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
Strong words in today’s reading; most of the time elders and ministers resist the temptation, no matter how fleeting, to address each other as “Satan”! To understand what is going on we have to move beyond our cosy understandings of the Cross. We see the Cross as part of the story, the means of our salvation, a heroic example of sacrifice (delete according to theological taste) and yet there is a more basic, and dangerous, understanding on which our various theologies rest.
A Jew in first Century Palestine would only have understood the Cross as Roman oppression. Those who were crucified were rebels who resisted the Empire. They wanted to overthrow Roman occupiers and return to being an independent country. They remembered the Maccabees who had driven the Greeks out and longed to do the same with the Romans.
Jesus’ call to take up one’s cross would have been heard as a call to resist the might of Rome – and to be ready to bear the consequences. No wonder Peter told Jesus off – this was dangerous talk and they’d all end up on crosses if that continued.
Nowadays most of us tend not to see the cost of discipleship to be about resistance to empire (after all many have a sneaking regard for the British empire) or about standing up to oppression (we’re not oppressed in Britain are we?) Yet I wonder what taking Jesus’ words at face value might do for our understanding of discipleship. Resisting the empire now might mean asserting that Black lives do, indeed, matter as they are endangered by racist people, systems and policies. It might mean looking at the hidden-in-plain-sight imperial systems all around us – from imperial loot in our museums to unjust immigration controls; from unimaginable wealth of our cities and institutions generated by slavery to the debates around Brexit.
Like Satan, the temptation to gloss over imperial evil must be put behind us.
O God, before you all empires must fall, all tyranny be overthrown, all injustice put right; open our eyes to the true cost of following you, open our minds to the imperial legacy of our lands, our institutions, our church, hidden in plain sight around us, that we may truly take up our cross, and resist the might of emperor and usurper, so that your people might be free. Amen
The Rev’d Andy Braunston works with four congregations in and around Glasgow.