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Have you ever thought about the cross? I mean ever really thought about it?
Quite glibly we decorate our churches with it. We hang it around our necks as a kind of lucky charm. We trace it on ourselves during the liturgy.
Yet in itself it isn't a very pleasant thing at all. It's an instrument of torture and death.A gibbet.
What would people think if we had a model of a gallows set up in church? An instrument of capital punishment.
You can understand why Peter, who had just made a great confession of faith, wanted to put a stop to it.For Jesus to announce that he was to be killed meant that he would be hung on a cross to bleed and suffocate to death.Don't do it!
For Peter there had been the glow of the response of Jesus to his confession:Simon, bar Jonah, you are a happy man.
Jesus would build his Church on the rock of Peter, and the gates of the underworld would never prevail against it.And now, no! This mustn't happen to you, Lord.The cost was too much for Peter.
Even when he'd left his secure fishing job, sacrificing all that for the pull of this strange exotic man, it had never gone through his mind that there might be bloodshed, death even.
Even when he confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, it was in the hope that there would be kudos, glamour, triumph.
But here is this man saying that he will suffer and die.
Don't do it!
Jesus immediately rebukes him.
Get behind me Satan! Don't tempt me away from my chosen path.
I must do this; it is the will of my Father.
But also he is saying get behind me: fall back into line as a disciple.Follow me.
Witnessing to the truth, allowing God's purposes to be achieved transcends the suffering, makes the death worth it, for I shall rise again.
Peter clearly did fall back into line.But not for long.After protesting that he would stay with Jesus whatever happened, he was the first to deny that he knew him. Yet he was one of the first to run to the empty tomb three days after the death of Jesus to find the body gone and grave clothes left behind.
His growing confidence in the victorious death of Christ, coupled with his conviction that this was indeed the promised messiah, led him to announce to the crowds in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost:
God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.
Later, in Rome, he met his own end, following even to death the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Here is the description of his death from Butler's Lives of the Saints:
St Peter when he was come to the place of execution, requested the officers that he might be crucified with his head downwards, alleging that he was not worthy to suffer in the same manner as his divine Master had died before him. He had preached the cross of Christ, had borne it in his heart, had its marks in his body, by sufferings and mortification, and he had the happiness to end his life on the cross. His Lord was pleased not only that he should die for his love, but in the same manner he himself had died for us, by expiring on the cross, which was the throne of his love.
And so in the end Peter did take up his cross and follow Christ to the end.
He lost his life and by losing it found it.But not, as we have seen, without a good deal of trouble.
This, of course, has a lot to say to us.
For the cross is a scandal to us, literally, something to trip over. That's not how proper stories go.
It stands as a dreadful warning to those who would embrace this faith, practise this religion.That's probably why people want to sentimentalise it.And that's why people are quite keen on empty crosses, or at least ones where the Saviour hangs with a peaceful expression, as if he's just cat-napping in a peculiar position.
And the whole episode brings us up against the cost of discipleship.The cost of following Christ.
It wouldn't be so bad if the whole thing were about assent to a few abstract principles.Or if the Church had something to do with heritage or a fondness for the past.But clearly this faith is challenging, life-changing, costly.And it involves changing our whole outlook on life.
What we think about God and what we do about the call of Jesus has to come first in our lives.First before anything else.That doesn't mean that there's no time for anything else.But it does mean a change in our scale of priorities, how we organise our time and our money.
To be a follower of Christ means denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Christ.The demands are total.Both life-threatening and life-enhancing.Scary, isn't it?
If only Christianity really was as bland as we've tried to make it! If only we could stick to the legalistic certainties of the Old Testament or the hard-headed advice of Paul to the infant churches, and didn't have to deal with these enigmatic memoirs in the Gospels.
So, first, we are called to return to the seriousness of the call to follow Christ, to put him first and to journey with him, yes, even to the carrying of the cross. That is the only thing in the end that will revitalise the Church.
But second, I believe that we shouldn't be discouraged by our own and others' constant backsliding, fear and uncertainty.Peter's progress towards losing possession of himself was fraught.Constantly crumpling under the doubts that assailed him, he only finally moved with full confidence when he insisted on his means of crucifixion.
He lived and taught the faith, but he was a frail human being like us.
Yet deep down he remained convinced of the tenderness of God, God's pure unbounded love. A love revealed uniquely and poured out for us in Jesus of Nazareth.
Few if any of us will be called upon to die for our faith.But all of us will have problems professing and practising it.To see it as a journey, this enterprise, will enable us to take heart from Peter.
As we move forward, sustained by the sacraments and supported by our brothers and sisters, the full import and implications of this profession will become clear.
To expect to live on the crest of a wave in our discipleship is unreasonable.To recognise our frailty, juxtaposed to the majesty and love of God is truly to follow St Peter. For this community is built on his faith. The same Lord calls us.And the same grace of God, mediated through bread and wine, takes us forward in our journey.