Isaiah 50: 4-9a
Psalm 116: 1-8
James 3: 1-12
Mark 8: 27-end
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.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I had the good fortune of spending this past week in Rome and the Vatican. It is—being the See of Peter, and therefore arguably the centre of the Western Church—as good a place as any to consider the text before us today. And so, for this past week, I have found myself sitting or kneeling in chapel roafter chapel, before relic after relic, in church after church, considering the words of Peter and Jesus both, as they are found in Mark’s gospel.
I must confess, it is all a bit much for my tastes, the high baroque exuberance and excess with which Rome is more than adequately endowed. And although I take the point—that it is all to reflect the glory and generosity of God, et cetera—I cannot help but think that the Protestant Reformers had a point, though it clearly landed on deaf ears at the time. It is not iconoclasm that I am entertaining—no Anglican Catholic would endorse that—but I do think that this over-the-top-ness obscures something important. The glare from the gold and jewels stops us from seeing something crucial about the saints trapped underneath the delicate reliquaries that house them: that they gave up so much for Christ. Certainly, many gave up riches and power and social status; and too many to count—St Peter himself among their number—gave up their very lives.
This might be understating things, but there are two important Petrine sites in Rome. The first is the obvious one: St Peter’s Basilica, and the piazza at the end of which it is located. It is a gobsmacking sight; of this, there can be no doubt. The basilica itself contains countless impressive works of art and precious relics, including those associated with Peter himself. Indeed, he is said—improbably, in my opinion—to be buried underneath the high altar, over which Bernini’s bronze and gilded baldachin is placed. Even more improbably, his episcopal throne—allegedly, a wooden chair—is said to be in the apse, just in front of the baldachin, encased in another Bernini sculpture of gilt bronze, this time a reliquary in the shape of a gigantic throne. It is, as I said, all a bit much, particularly because the relics themselves are hidden from sight by these impressive structures.
The second important Petrine site is, I would argue, the church of Santa Maria del Poppolo. In one of the side chapels are two paintings by Caravaggio, one of which is the Crucifixion of St Peter. Now, it would be egregious of me to say that this is the more important of the two Petrine objects, but I am nevertheless tempted to express so outrageous an opinion. I am thus tempted because there is nothing particularly Petrine about the famous piazza, basilica, baldachin, and throne. They tell us more about the genius of Bernini and the wealth of the Vatican than they do about the life of St Peter. Caravaggio’s painting, on the other hand, is tucked away in a church that was mostly empty when I was there, and is a crystal clear window—an icon, if you like—of what Peter, and today’s gospel text, is about. An aged Peter, complete with white beard, though clearly still an imposing physical specimen, is seen being strapped to a cross. It takes three men, obviously struggling (perhaps more than just physically), to hold him down and hoist him up. St Peter himself is gazing out of the picture, but not at the viewer. Rather, if one traces his line of sight, it becomes clear that he is looking directly at the altar, probably at an altar crucifix [like this one here]. He is, of course, as tradition holds it, being crucified upside down, having insisted that he is unworthy to die as his Lord did.
“You are the Messiah”, Peter says, and for all his (perhaps accidental) theological accuracy, he is rebuked and silenced.
“Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to the same Peter, who was, after all, as baffled as we would have been about Jesus’s macabre fatalism.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”, Jesus utters these least comfortable of words.
The evangelist’s intention seems clear, given the location and arrangement of these brief exchanges. Peter recognises that Jesus is the Messiah, but—as the second section demonstrates—fails to understand that this messiahship necessarily involves self-sacrifice for the sake of others. So far, we are nodding along dutifully. Yes, of course Peter is right; Jesus is the Messiah. Yes, of course Peter is wrong; Jesus has to die. And that’s when Mark turns on us in our complacency by having Jesus turn toward us. Peter may have been wrong about what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, but what have we been assuming about what it means for us to confess him as such? It means, whether we like it or not, denying our selves, taking up our crosses, and more starkly still, losing our lives. Anything less, and we are to be counted among those ashamed of Christ and his gospel.
It is odd to think that Jesus is accusing Peter of being ashamed of him; after all, he was, in the first of the three short narratives, an over-exuberant proclaimer of Jesus’s messiahship. But this is precisely the point: talk is cheap, not least from the lips of one who would end up denying him when the going got tough. But, as Caravaggio shows, the old boy did good in the end. It is for this reason that we celebrate him as we do; it is for this reason that we build monuments to him, so as never to forget the example he provides. And yet, if the glistening gold of our monuments distracts us from the real treasure—the self-sacrificial lives of the saints who have come before us—then they are so much dust and refuse.
Make no mistake, these are difficult words. The polarity is stark. If we want to follow Jesus, then we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. To do otherwise is at least to misunderstand the claim that Jesus is the Messiah, and is at worst to be ashamed of him and to deny him.
I cannot speak for the rest of you, but I cannot bring to mind any occasion in which I can reasonably be said to have “taken up a cross” in any real sense that does not bring insult to Christ’s own sacrifice, and Peter’s, and those of the countless other saints whose relics I visited and venerated this past week. This is, in part, because we no longer live in a world where we get crucified or otherwise murdered for our religious conviction. But this is not to say that we no longer live in a world in which self-sacrificial acts of conviction and generosity are somehow no longer necessary. We do not have to interpret Jesus’s words literally, to mean that we have to subject ourselves to physical torture; but we do have to resist the temptation to interpret the moral seriousness of the New Testament away, to contort Jesus’s words to fit within our own middle class comforts.
The Christian faith is not meant to be easy, and if we have covered it in so many shiny things—so many pretty externals, whether they be gilt bronze, or elegant liturgical choreography, or eloquent Cranmerian prose—that the moral force of our theological convictions are lost, then, well, perhaps we need the same kind of telling off that Peter received from Jesus.
The Eucharist is meant to be the high point of our Sunday celebrations, and so it is. In the Eucharist, we receive Christ’s body and blood into our own, and in our consuming, we are ourselves consumed, given up to God through Christ, for God’s purposes in the world. In the Eucharist, our sacrifice—not just of “thanks and praise” but also of our “souls and bodies”—is made possible by and joined up with Christ’s. In other words, the Eucharist too carries moral force, or it should do, no less rigorous than the difficult words of the New Testament. Among our prayers then, is that it is effective in transforming us into the kinds of people who can and will take up our crosses to follow Jesus, the kinds of people who can and will take seriously the command at the end of Mass, to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. I must confess, at least for myself, I am not always confident that it is efficacious, but I do know that it is my only hope.