"The Politics of the Cross"
17th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 19B) - September 16, 2018
Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
This Gospel story is about a political disagreement. Does that sound at all familiar? If you pay attention to national and local politics, you'll see lots of disagreements, arguments, and fights between political opponents, often playing out (somewhat embarrassingly) in public.
Well, in this case, Jesus and Simon Peter agree broadly about how they want to see society re-ordered: Jesus should be King. He is the Messiah; to him every knee should bend and every tongue should confess that he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But Peter and Jesus disagree about how to accomplish that goal.
That’s really at the core of most political disagreements in our own day. In broad strokes, and assuming the best of intentions, both Republicans and Democrats want to see the people of USA be healthy, prosperous, and free. Their imagination of what that looks like and how to get there, though, is where all the fighting starts. How do we ensure equal protection under the law? How do we boost the economy? How to we defend ourselves in times of war and peace? How do we care for the sick, elderly, and impoverished? On their best days, both parties care about the answer to those questions, but they have substantially different visions for what the solutions are and how to get there.
The first few verses establish that the Twelve now understand Jesus’ identity. He is the Messiah, promised by the prophets. He will be the truest, most righteous King of Israel and he will establish justice and peace among all nations.
Unfortunately, when Jesus starts talking about his methods, the disciples balk. “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Instead, Peter wants to reject this political imagination for another one. He sees Israel’s Messiah in a similar mold to the “messiahs” of old: the kings of Israel and Judah. Remember that "messiah" means "anointed one." It's an inherently political term because in ancient times, anointing with oil was part of the coronation ceremony for a new king.
So Peter imagines that Jesus will be a better King David, who united the tribes of Israel through his military prowess, by being the greatest warrior (and ultimately outlasting and outsmarting his predecessor King Saul). Or Jesus will be a better King Solomon, who ruled in times of peace by levying burdensome taxes, drafting a standing army, and amassing untold wealth for himself in his palace (and also building a Temple in Jerusalem). Or he’ll be a better King Josiah, who re-discovered the Scriptures and re-established the regular celebration of Israel’s major feasts, like Passover, but also persecuted those who disagreed with his interpretation of the Law. Or Jesus will be a better Caesar, who ruled over the largest empire anyone had ever seen and established Roman Peace (Pax Romana) by suppressing all dissension with his overwhelming military police force.*
These are all different political visions for the common good. These are different ways for human leaders to establish their leadership and authority. Peter wants to see Jesus follow one of those paths, overthrowing Herod and Pilate and eventually Caesar himself. But Jesus will not.
Jesus knows that the path to his Kingship will be both peaceful and painful. He knows that the way people usually do it isn’t actually a win-win for all. Kings, conquerors, and presidents alike often give lip service to serving and uplifting everyone in their population, but we know that human politics always plays to winners and losers. This will be a fair and just political system for you if you agree with or look like or are rich like the King. But if you dissent or you’re a racial, ethnic, or religious minority, or if you’re poor and need help to survive, in all these kingdoms, you’re out of luck.
Jesus wants to establish the Reign of God, not the reign of another human king or president. Jesus actually wants to unite everyone. And everyone means everyone. No one gets left behind in the Kingdom and Reign of God. Jesus is the only truly good and peaceful ruler.
So, contrary to popular belief, Jesus doesn’t reject Peter when he disagrees. “Get behind me, Satan,” isn’t his way of dismissing Peter and sending him away. Remember that Peter continues to be a disciple, even though he continues to mess up, and eventually he becomes a leader of the early Church. Instead, “Get behind me” is a call to discipleship. It’s the same turn of phrase he uses in the next verse when he says, “If anyone wants to follow behind me” (8:34, my translation; see Davis).
You might totally misunderstand Jesus’ intentions. Your political imagination might be leading you to a completely different outcome, but if you want to stay, you can stay. Just follow him. Keep listening and learning, and by grace you might come to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. You might come to see that if you want to follow behind Jesus, you need to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him (8:34 paraphrased).
Because the Cross is the key to everything. The Cross is the linchpin for all of God’s saving work in the world.
The Cross reveals the violence at the core of human sin, the corruption of our good nature that destroys anyone or anything that challenges it. It shows us the depths of our failure to be good apart from God. It shows us the problem that Jesus came to solve: we can’t stop killing each other, especially the good ones. The Cross is our ultimate sin.
And the Cross reveals God’s willingness to love us when we don’t deserve it, to be selfless in the face of selfishness, and to create beauty out of our ugliest sin. On the Cross, Jesus becomes both our Great High Priest and the Saving Victim. He offers himself so that nothing can interfere with God’s love for us; there is no room for human error because God alone has done this for us. It is God’s ultimate act of mercy.
The Roman Cross was an instrument of suffering, torture, and death. But Jesus transformed it into a sign of our healing and redemption. In our foolishness, God sends wisdom. In our violence, God sends peace. In our brokenness, God sends wholeness. In our pain, God sends healing. In our death, God sends life. The Cross is faith for the faithless, hope for the hopeless, and love for the loveless.
At the Cross, Jesus shows us who he truly is. Like Peter, we often want to skip over the pain and suffering of Good Friday and jump right to Easter morning. But we cannot experience God’s radical goodness without letting our sins and selfishness die. If we aren’t willing to lose our lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel, then we can’t receive the New Life that God offers us. Every seed must die before it can grow. The Cross is Jesus’ political stake in the ground. The Cross is Jesus’ path to the salvation of the universe -- a path that is both peaceful and painful -- and he calls us to join him. Amen.
Bibliography & Notes
* This is just a figure of speech. The Roman Empire was at no point the largest political body in recorded history. For the exceptionally curious, you can find a list of historic empires ranked by land area here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_empires.