Two weeks ago, we learned some Greek words during the children’s sermon, including that Peter’s name in Greek, means Rock. Last week, in the Gospel, Jesus said that Peter was the rock upon which Jesus would build the church, and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it! This week, it appears that Peter has gone from being a noteworthy rock, to being a stumbling block! Something at best that causes annoyances, and at worst can lead to people falling and get hurt. What a transition. And this all happens in five verses! In verse seventeen Jesus called Peter blessed, and in verse twenty-three said, Get Behind Me Satan! What is that all about? And what does that mean for us followers of Christ who like Peter name Jesus as the Messiah?
“Take up your cross and follow me.” This short phrase had a powerful impact for those living 2,00 years ago, and it still has an impact today. Yet that impact has transformed through time as our understanding of the cross and what it symbolizes has changed.
For Peter and Jesus’ early followers, the cross was a scandal. You see, in the Greco-Roman world, the cross was an instrument of torture and execution for the lowest of criminals. Crucifixion was a method that those in power, the Romans in Jesus’ case, pacified their population It was one means to enforce their “Pax Romana”, their Roman Peace through conquest. It was a public display of power that the colonizing Romans used to keep the colonies in their place. This is why most crucifixions took place along major roadways, as in 71BCE 6,000 slaves were crucified along the Appian Way–something akin to an interstate of their time. Cicero even wrote that crucifixion was unworthy to mention for a Roman citizen and free man.
And so, the suffering and death of Jesus that he foretold and showed to his disciples would have been unimaginable to them. The cross was despicable to even think of. How could Jesus, the messiah, the son-of-God experience such a death? He couldn’t! It made no sense to Peter, and as the Rock upon which the church was to be built, he had to speak up and correct Jesus. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
But Jesus knew that his ways were not the ways of the powers and principalities of the world. Jesus did not demonstrate his power through domination and death, but through service and healing. Why would anything that Jesus engage with, including his death, fit Peter’s human expectations? It couldn’t.
Jesus’ life was lived in sharp contrast to the rulers, and the kings, and the elite around him. His death would similarly be in contrast, not only in that he was raised on the third day (which certainly is a contrast), but also in how he would die Nailed to a cross, dying alongside those who had been neglected and cast aside by those powers and principalities.
Yet Jesus did not stop by showing that this was the death that HE would experience, but said that any who wanted to become his followers, that they would have to take up their cross and follow him.
Through the cross, God in Jesus entered into humanity and suffered alongside all of creation. Through the cross, Jesus demonstrated God’s will to be found among those who are suffering and cast aside. Through Jesus’ death in the cross, we are witness to God’s love for the whole world. A love that overcomes evil with good.
For a while following after Jesus’ death, those who truly desired to take up their cross recognized the scandal of the cross. The paradox that God is found in those places and times when humanity is least able to imagine God’s presence. Jesus’ death on the cross subversively spoke to God’s action in the world through means that our human reason could ever imagine.
However, the cross was promptly sanitized. Jesus’ crucifixion went from being a scandal to being a sensation. In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine put the cross on his banner and won a battle. With that military victory, the cross became an icon for supremacy and might through force. As Gail Ramshaw writes, “Horror at the violence of the punishment [of crucifixion] turned into reverence for the instrument of redemption.” And so, people began wearing the cross around as a symbol of Christian faith. The cross we kept without remembering the crucifixion that took place upon it.
And this is how many of us recognize the cross today. Unlike for Peter and those 2,000 years ago it is not a scandal, but a symbol of identity. A symbol that can be worn or displayed in any number of ways with little thought for what it stood for. As followers of Christ, we must remember and keep the cross scandalous. It was on the cross that Jesus offered a new value system that was in stark contrast to the values of the world.
In our reading from Romans today, we learned about the radical difference between the economy of Jesus, and the economy and values of the world. Instead of being governed by our own interests–greed, pride, success–Jesus’ economy of love propels us toward all that is good and in the best interests of our neighbor and the stranger.
Jesus in his life constantly advocated for the interests of all those who surrounded him. He did this through healing, exorcisms, feeding the hungry, and even through driving the money changers from the temple and flipping their tables. In his life and ministry, not only did Jesus hold fast to what is good, but he hated what was evil.
In 1518, Martin Luther wrote that a theologian of the cross, one who seriously follows Jesus’ command to take up their cross and follow him “calls the thing what it actually is.” The cross was a scandal for Peter and the other disciples, and so it should be for us also! Yet, through that scandal we can recognize how God made Godself present among us through means we could never, or would never have expected. As we join together in sharing the Eucharist shortly, we will be participating in one of those holy mysteries.
So, dear people, I hope to admonish us all to keep the crucifixion and cross sacandalous. Let us remember that on the cross, Jesus was executed by the Roman government for living out and demonstrating a way of love and not of dominance. Let us honestly think of how as disciples we take up our cross and follow Christ day to day. And finally, let us work so that in a world of suffering, we can engender the truth that while death is before us, it is the spirit of life is that upholds us.
In the disciples, we are witness to the ways in which we so often put our own narratives before God’s narrative. We forget that we are simply to behold Jesus who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and to cast aside everything that tries to take his place. As the church–as the assembly of those who follow and name Jesus as the Christ–may we keep the scandal in the crucifixion and live lives overflowing with genuine love.