I don’t know about you, but I often have a crisis of character as I try to work out who I really am. I can blame this on the roles I am now in for some of it and those I have recently been in. In my current role as Priest-in-charge of this Cathedral I struggle to know whether I am a resident of Hawera or of New Plymouth. In my previous role I was equally recognised as an ordained minister in the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. That explained why I went off to a Lower North Island Methodist Ministers’ Training Day. However, I only got more confused as the presenter for the day was an Anglican priest! He was talking about Conducting Funerals, and much to my surprise I learnt some things from him. One particular point that is pertinent to today’s Gospel.
That point arising from his question of, “What do we most often do in talking about people at their funerals?” The answer is that we talk about their achievements. Then, he went on to ask “Is that really the most important thing in a person’s life?” His answer, “No.” The most pertinent question of anyone’s life is that from today’s Gospel, which Jesus addressed to his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”
Peter of course won the chocolate fish first prize with his answer of, “You are the Messiah.” In so using that term Peter meant that he saw Jesus as the anointed saviour of the Jewish people, who would reunite all the tribes into one kingdom centred on Jerusalem and its Temple. All of which was okay, but then Peter disagreed with Jesus when Jesus said how he would bring this about, because Peter saw Jesus as another King David delivering Israel by force of arms, specifically physically evicting the Romans who had conquered the land.
Jesus instead said that he “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
All of which means that when answering that most important question asked of all of us by Jesus, “Who do you say I am?” we need to not just answer correctly, “You are the Messiah,” but also we need to understand that our Messiah Jesus is the Suffering Servant.
The Suffering Servant who said to those called to follow him that, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
Jesus isn’t talking here about some imagined burden, but rather the burdensome reality put upon us as part of being faithful to Jesus. St. Paul speaks a couple of times of his “thorn in the flesh,” some sort of unspecified physical infirmity which bedevilled him. But that was not Paul’s cross. His cross was the humiliation and pain he suffered because of his faithfulness to Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one who as a disciple of Jesus denied himself and took up his cross. Bonhoeffer was born to an affluent north German family in 1906. He had always had everything given to him on a silver spoon – a loving, affluent family, superior educational advantages, good looks, good sense and intelligence. Yet Bonhoeffer, unlike most of his fellow German Christians, knew when it was time for him to lay aside all that and to take the narrow way of the cross in openly opposing the Nazi party and Hitler’s dictatorship. He was eventually hanged by the Nazis. Earlier he had written, “The cross is laid on every Christian …. When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship). Bonhoeffer’s life illustrates that Christians don’t go out looking for a cross to bear. If we’re faithful, the world will offer us one, sooner or later. As Christians are in the business of following Jesus; the world is in the business of crucifixion. Or, as the Jesuit activist Daniel Berrigan once said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.”
The crucifixion business was one which the Romans were very proficient at and had devised as the cruellest punishment imaginable, a form of horrible torture used for only the worst sort of criminals.
In saying that he is going forward to the cross, Jesus invites us to go with him, and promises us that, where the crucified are, there he will be also. We do not walk the path of the cross alone. He has walked down that road toward the cross and he walks down that road again and again, whenever the faithful bear their cross. Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of Christianity in the fact that the one who was not able to carry his own cross is the one who enables us to carry ours. Jesus had to be helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross; he now helps us to carry ours. The cross is not optional equipment for the journey of faith, but we do not have to bear it alone.
So is today’s text about the cross good news or bad? It sounds like bad news in a society in which pain and sacrifice are avoided and denied at all cost, in which any suffering is considered unfair and unnecessary, in which we are taught to “go with the flow,” and “to not rock the boat” and keep our heads down.
Yet perhaps today’s cross talk is potentially good news. In this way, this narrow, sometimes dark, threatening way is our true life. If we want to be with Jesus, we shall have to walk down this way for there is no other way he walks. The good news is, if we are near the cross, we are near Jesus and he is with us.
The Cross, in Latin Crux, meaning the point of decision. Also appearing in words like crucify, crucifer, crucible, excruciating. All appropriate to that crucial question, which Jesus asks “Who do you say I am?”