Summary: Jesus’ command that we pick up our cross and follow him is a choice, and a choice that doesn’t come without sacrifice, but also bring sjoy and fulfillment
There’s the story of a soldier frantically digging in during battle as shells fall all around him. Suddenly his hand feels something metal and he grabs it. It’s a silver cross. Another shell explodes and he buries his head in his arms. He feels someone jump in the foxhole with him and he looks over and sees an army chaplain. The soldier thrusts the cross in the chaplain’s face and says, “I sure am glad to see you. How do you work this thing?”
In this morning’s scripture when Jesus talks about bearing our cross, we could ask the same question: “How do you work this thing?” Peter, and God love him, didn’t know how to work or deal with the cross either. It has been said that the only reason Peter ever took his foot out of his mouth was to switch feet; but it is here, at Caesarea Philippi, outside of Galilee in the shadow of Ancient Palestine, where Caesar was a God, that Peter discovered that a wandering teacher from Nazareth, who was heading for a cross, was the Son of God.
There is hardly anything in the entire gospel story, which shows the sheer force of the personality of Jesus, as does this incident. It comes in the very middle of Mark’s Gospel and that’s intentional, because this is the peak moment for Mark. The cross is the very heart of the gospel.
In one way, this moment was a crisis for Jesus. Whatever the disciples might be thinking, he knew for certain that an inescapable cross lay ahead. The problem confronting Jesus was this: With the cross looming, had he had any effect at all? Had he achieved anything? Had anyone discovered who he really was? If he had lived and taught and moved amongst these men for three years and no one had glimpsed the spirit of God upon him, then all his work had gone for nothing. There was only one way he could leave a message with people and that was to write it on someone’s heart.
In this moment, Jesus put all things to the test. He asked his disciples what people were saying about him, and they shared with him the popular rumors and reports. Then came a breathless silence and he put forth the question that meant so much: “Who do you say that I am?”
Suddenly, Peter realized what he had always known deep down in his heart. This was the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Son of God. And with that answer Jesus knew that he had affected people and made clear who he was.
But there is another question we must answer, for no sooner had Peter made this incredible proclamation than Jesus told him he must tell no one. Why? Why could they tell no one who Jesus was? First and foremost, Jesus had to teach Peter and the others what Messiahship really meant, because Jesus’ role as Messiah stood in stark contrast to the first century Jewish ideas of Messiah.
Throughout their existence the Jews never lost sight of the fact that they were God’s chosen people. They always regarded the greatest days in their history as the days of King David, and they dreamed of a day when there would arise another king of David’s line, a king who would once again make them great in righteousness and in power.
As time went on, it became clear that this dreamed-of greatness would never come about naturally through the passage of time, for they came under Assyrian rule and Babylonian rule and Persian rule and Greek rule and Roman rule. They began to believe that it wasn’t likely that someone would simply emerge politically. More and more they began to dream of a day when God would intervene in history and unveil the Messiah. They had dreams of a Messiah being ushered in by God in a nationalistic, conquering style, in which the perfect reign of God would come about through a great military struggle.
This was the Jewish belief. This was the disciples’ belief, so the idea that Jesus would be a suffering Messiah was the complete opposite of what they expected. It would be like my announcing on a Sunday morning that we’re no longer a Baptist church, but will now be a Jewish synagogue. Jesus as a suffering Messiah was that foreign of an idea to them.
With this as our backdrop, Peter starts with the right idea: “You are the Messiah,” but when Jesus explains how that translates into everyday life, how that translates into a suffering Messiah and not a military ruler, Peter takes Jesus aside and scolds him. “No way will our great Messiah die.” This is why Jesus looks at his good friend, his star pupil who has just announced Jesus’ Messiahship and says sharply, “Get behind me, Satan.”