Whether one lives in remote villages in Africa or urban centers of America, few have been untouched in some way by the reality of war, disease, racism, suicide, violence, hate, fear.
We all have been touched. In the days of Jesus, the specter of violence, fear and death was a daily part of their lives too.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciples of the suffering and death that will happen to him; in some ways, with the experience of death so near, Jesus words should not be so surprising but the disciples are shocked that the messiah would suffer. Peter does not want to hear it…
Peter pulls Jesus aside and said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Peter who was praised last week for his declaration of faith, to which Jesus called him the rock upon which the Church will be built becomes the stumbling rock this week…Satan and stumbling block – Jesus could not have been more forceful with his words for his disciples to understand what they are doing. Satan – the adversary – still tempts his disciples to find the easy way out. And yet, what Satan offers is a stumbling block for their discipleship. Peter’s response is often are own response, we want to act in ways we would act, often the easy way out. For obviously we know best; but Jesus has something else in mind…
Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
For when Jesus seemed to be talking about death, he was talking about life. What Satan often seems to offer is life, but is ultimately connected to death.
The adversary who tempted Jesus at the beginning still exists, this time it’s in Peter’s rebuke of Jesus. Jesus commands Peter to get behind him and follow him, not the other way around. Suffering and death are part and parcel of what is to come and they cannot take the easy way out of it. Our faith hopes and lives in the midst of suffering and does not run away from it.
Canon Andrew White, who is nicknamed the Vicar of Baghdad, is the vicar of St George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad. He estimates that his flock used to number around 6,000 people, but in the last decade over 1,200 people have been killed, and many have fled to safer places. He refuses to leave Baghdad, despite the danger, as St. George's is Iraq's last Anglican church. He continues his ministry to his beleaguered community and to all the displaced in Iraq.
When asked about prayer, Canon White said, “I have three ‘P’s that I always mention which is for Protection, Provision and Perseverance. We need protection, we need to provide for those people [who are being persecuted] and we need to keep going.”Canon White has understood that our following Jesus calls us into the places of great suffering and despair, to bring hope, life and love, just as Jesus did. That is part of our call as disciples of Jesus.
For Jesus told his disciples, "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 will find it. “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”To follow Jesus means the cross will be smack dab in the middle of our journey. But it doesn’t mean we need to be fatalistic about our lives or understand the cross as “this is my cross in life to bear," for such understanding focuses on death, “it is the cross without the resurrection,” as one author put it.
The cross Jesus calls us to bear, is the cross we each carry as his disciples. A cross that at times puts us out of step with society; a cross that will make us the object of ridicule; a cross that will make us do things we would rather not, but we know in the end, will lead us to a greater life than we could have imagined.
In the words of Stanley Hauerwas: “To learn to follow Jesus is the training necessary to become a human being. To be a human being is not a natural condition, but requires training. The kind of training required, moreover, has everything to do with death. To follow Jesus is to go with him to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. To follow Jesus, therefore, is to undergo a training that refuses to let death, even death at the hands of enemies, determine the shape of our living.”This is not what our world sees as life, for life in our world is connected with power, prestige, status and wealth. It is the logic of this fallen world where we must fight to win our side, to possess, to secure our lives. But our faith calls us to follow Christ, to be transformed, not to let ourselves go down the easy path that Satan has before us.
There is a film called Of Gods and Men. It is a movie about nine Trappist monks from the monastery of Tibhirine where they ministered and lived among the Muslims of Algeria. As the Algerian Civil War escalated, with Muslim extremists killing Christians and foreigners, the monks faced a choice about whether to stay or go. In one scene, Luc, the monastery doctor is talking with Christian, the leader of the monastery. Luc has been treating some of the rebels, the extremists. Christian warns Luc to be careful. And Luc responds
“Throughout my career I've met all sorts of different people. Including Nazis. And even the devil. (pause) I'm not scared of terrorists, even less of the army. And I'm not scared of death. I'm a free man.”Brothers and sisters, we are free in Christ. As the first letter of John reminds us, “We know that we have left death and come over into life; we know it because we love others… In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love.”
Let us continue to follow Jesus, to fully live even with the specter of violence, fear and death all around us. Let us be the hope, the love, the light that helps others see life in the midst of darkness. Let us carry our cross and be transformed by Jesus. We are free. Amen.