Today’s Gospel is a hard one. It must have been very hard for Peter to hear the words: “Get behind me, Satan.” It’s hard for us to hear the words about renouncing ourselves, taking up the Cross and being ready to lose our lives. This is not an attractive prospect. Where’s the Good News in this? And yet, and yet, I have the sense that this hardshell hides something nourishing and sweet. Beauty and the beast. I’m not sure I can get to it, but let’s try.
Step 1, there’s this exchange – it’s a row really – between Simon Peter and Jesus. It follows on from last Sunday’s Gospel. There Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is: a prophet. Then he asked who they think he is. Peter stars: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus applauds him, “Blessed are you…” In Scottish terms, Peter’s made the dux in the school of the disciples. In political terms, he’s appointed prime minister. He’s not just Simon now, but Peter, the rock, the key-holder, the binder and looser, head of the house.
Perhaps a fall was inevitable.
Thanks to Peter, though, the disciples have taken a great step. Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of living God”. He’s the goal of history. He’s the human presence of God. He’s the answer. They’ve got it. They’ve made the leap of faith. But it was only lesson 1. Now Jesus begins to lead them further, he begins to show them that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer, be killed and be raised. He is moving them to a new level, into deeper waters, further into the divine purposes. And Peter doesn’t like the sound of it.
The geography is worth recalling here. They are still in the region of Caesarea Philippi, in the north, away from the passions and controversies of the Holy Land. They are in what’s now the Banias Nature Reserve, a beautiful area of cliff faces, springs and waterfalls. They are, to be precise, 241.1 kilometres north of Jerusalem. They are enjoying having Jesus to themselves. And then Jesus announces he is going back south, heading into trouble, confronting the dark. Peter loves him and the prospect appals him. “Taking him aside he begins to remonstrate with Jesus. ‘Heaven preserve you, Lord. This must not happen to you’.” Peter, the head boy, knows best. In fact, the Greek implies something more vigorous, even violent. He physically grabs Jesus. He is trying to get control of the situation, to take possession of his Lord. Imagine the internal combustion engine was around in those days. Imagine Jesus and his disciples went around in a clapped-out campervan. Jesus has just said, “Get on board, guys, we’re going back south”, asks Peter for the keys he has just given him and is climbing into the driving seat. Peter grasps him and starts to pull him out of the van. “Stop this nonsense.” This is us when the will of God comes our way freighted with something we don’t want. We squirm, we wrestle, we remonstrate. We don’t think in God’s way, we think in our own. Jesus has to get out of Peter’s grasp. He does so vigorously. “Get behind me, Satan.” Get out of my road. Get back into the passenger seat. Peter is trying to manage the will of God, to take the plan of redemption over, to re-write the script. No wonder, for all Peter’s good intentions, Jesus calls him Satan, obstacle, stumbling-block. And then addresses all the disciples about “coming after” and “following”. Jesus is putting everything back in order again. Let go of your human way of thinking, say no to your own take on things, take up the cross, let go of your life. Don’t let self-preservation decide everything you do. Lose your life to save your life. They must have been stunned.
Step 2. Let’s keep ourselves in the story. We’re great remonstrators. We’re not always keen in St Pauls words “to discover the will of God and know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do.” But here’s a remarkable thing. Peter was reacting to what he had heard Jesus say, about suffering and dying in Jerusalem. “This must never happen to you”. He seems to have been deaf to what came next: “and be raised on the third day.” “This must never happen to you”? Really? Perhaps the other disciples too missed that the reason for denying ourselves and losing our life is to save our life. Perhaps they didn’t really hear the other words too about the Son of man coming in glory with rewards in his hand – joy, in other words. When suffering comes our way, our own or that of those we love, it does fill the sky like a great black cloud. It obscures everything. It can blow out our flickering faith. “This must never happen to me, or us.” But saying that, aren’t we denying or at least forgetting that last phrase: “and be raised on the third day”? Aren’t we putting ourselves out of range of the Resurrection?
And here perhaps – step 3 – we’ve found the sweet kernel, the Good News in the bad. This Gospel is about going beyond self-preservation – which is, in the end, fighting a losing battle. There is Someone who rose above that. There is Someone who set his face to go to Jerusalem, who got into the van and drove south, and went into the dark, into the hands of his enemies, into suffering and death. Not because he revelled in it – no, in Gethsemane he sweated blood over it. But “to reveal the Resurrection” and be raised on the third day, to free humanity from fighting its losing battle, from running round and round like a poor animal trapped in a cage, to turn our suffering into a way to a new world and new life. Here’s the sweetness of this Gospel. Someone has done it. Someone has gone to Jerusalem and risen from the dead.
On Easter Sunday the disciples report, “The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon.” We’re not told anything more about that appearance. But I don’t think our friend Simon Peter said to the risen One, “This must never happen to you, Lord.” Probably he did grasp Jesus again or fell into his arms, with tears of gratitude pouring down his face. And so, at last, he became a disciple, ready now to follow to the end.
St Mary’s Cathedral, 30 August 2020