Exodus 3:1-10 | Matthew 16:21-26
Last week we talked about the way that Jesus seemed to hold back from using, or even allowing to be used, the title Messiah until a very late point in his ministry; it’s certainly a striking feature of the gospels, that Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone who he is.
And I suggested that the reason for this was that Jesus knew that the cultural expectations of the Messiah were very different from the reality; that if people heard he was the Messiah before meeting him, they would view him through the lens of messianic expectations. But if instead they came to know Jesus as he was, and only then realised that he was the one they were waiting for, they would instead be able to view the idea of Messiah in the light of what they knew of Jesus.
And this sense that Jesus is working to redefine expectations – and the difficulty of doing so – comes out strongly in this week’s reading. “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed”
And the sense of just how much work Jesus has to do to change the way people think about being Messiah is evident in Peter’s response: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”.
Jesus needed his friends, his disciples, to accept a fundamental truth about God – and about God’s way of working in the world – which went completely against everything they thought they knew.
For they had been raised on the Hebrew Bible reading of history, a reading in which faithfulness to God, obedience to the law, could be mapped unfailingly onto blessings for the family and the nation; but compromise with other religions, neglect of the law, inevitably led to disaster. And while we on the subject, it’s worth noticing that in this respect the Hebrew telling of history breaks the most basic rule – that history is written by the winners, and therefore always paints the authors well. Hebrew history, written (or at least compiled) in exile, was written by the losers. And so it tells a story in which every success, every glory for the nation is attributed to God, and every disaster is blamed upon the people.
The occupation of the land by Rome, therefore, represented the consequence of a moral failure by the people. And each of the four main parties within Judaism had their own explanation of just what that failing was: to the Pharisees, the failing of the people was their falling away from the letter of the law; to the Sadducees it was the neglect of the Temple and the sacrificial system; to the Essene it was simple worldliness; to the Zealots it was cowardice, the refusal to take up arms and do the work of God by force.
Each group had their own explanation of why the people of God were still under the thumb of Rome, and what they needed to do, how they needed to change, in order that God would save them.
For they all agreed that when the people repented, God would send a saviour, a messiah, to free them from their suffering, their hardship, their slavery. As Moses had been sent, so long before, in the foundational story of the people.
And I don’t think that there is any doubt that, as Jesus gained a following and increased in popularity, the different parties were testing him to see where he fitted, working out, no doubt, whether they could use this new “Jesus movement to their advantage” – for let’s face it, human nature really hasn’t changed. We see evidence of this manoeuvring in the questions he is asked and the criticisms he receives. But as Jesus moves into the final phase of his ministry, his teaching takes a turn which doesn’t just place him outside of any of the power groups that existed, but that fundamentally and radically rejects the whole premise of their disagreement.
The people of Israel are arguing about what they must do for God to send the Messiah to bring them victory and freedom from Rome, and Jesus says “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. While the people argue about how to win God’s blessing, Jesus asks “will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life”.
As if to say “you keep on using that phrased ‘blessed by God’. I do not think it means what you think it means”.
You want to follow me? You want to live like God created you to live? You want to make a difference? You want to be part of the movement that will bring God’s kingdom to reality? Stop worrying about what will make your nation, your people, your tribe, great. Stop worrying about what will make you great.
You can work to save your life – to enhance your reputation, to protect your legacy, build your monument. But you will lose your life, your heart, your meaning, doing so.
Or you can give that away, for the sake of being one of my people, and find out what it really means to be alive.
Human nature hasn’t changed. We face the same questions, the same challenges as Simon Peter and the crew. We bring a different set of assumptions and cultural presuppositions, but not as different as we might think: we still want to believe that the path of the righteous is smooth, that God will open doors for us when we are going the right way, that in, after all, the words of the Bible, God will prosper our paths when we walk in his way.
And you could fairly say, weight for weight, page count for page count, that that is the message of the Bible: live right before God and God will make your paths straight.
But we aren’t followers of the Bible. We are the followers, the people of Jesus. We strive to read the scriptures through the lens of the life of Jesus, and not the other way around.
And the life of Jesus – and here, in this passage, the teaching of Jesus – and ultimately, of course, the death of Jesus – tells a different story. A story in which doing the right thing, standing for truth, for justice, for inclusion, for love, does not see you praised and rewarded; it sees you crucified.
No wonder the disciples didn’t want to hear it: for these are the hardest words Jesus would speak to them – to follow him may be to walk the way of opposition, criticism, persecution. And you can choose not to. You can save you life, and lost your meaning. Or you can take up your cross – whatever that is for you – and live the life God calls you to.
What you can’t do is say that you want to follow him, and expect it to be easy.