“Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
“Do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
According to Cardinal Newman, Incarnation (God in human flesh) is the most unique of all Christian teachings, and today we see why: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands off the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Incarnation (and for that matter resurrection!) inescapably involves suffering and death.
Matthew introduces the prediction of Jesus’ death with these word: “From that time on….” But, from what time? In the previous verse, Jesus sternly commands his disciples to keep his identity secret. He didn’t want his identity as “the Christ” known.
We know from what Matthew says that the disclosure of Jesus’ impending death was unwelcomed. In fact Peter publically rebuked (dishonored?) Jesus for saying such things. In words rich with ironic tension, Peter admonishes Jesus and says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But, of course, in speaking this way, Peter is addressing both God and Lord, demanding (in a sense) that God forbid God from doing what God must do.
As such, Peter speaks for us when we command God to damn this or that, as though the Lord of the universe were at our beck and call. Peter speaks for us when we swear an oath, use the Lord’s Name in careless fashion, and thereby imply that God serves us, and not the other way round.
Peter rebukes Jesus, and an argument ensues in which Jesus famously utters his ad hominem attack: “Get behind me Satan! You are not on the side of God, but of men.” Here more gently translated, “You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
But who wouldn’t? I mean, what human being wouldn’t set their mind on things human? How could they do otherwise? Who wouldn’t try to prevent their friend from suffering and death? And especially if that friend had just been revealed as “the Messiah,” the Christ? It seems reasonable to assume that “Messiah” means privilege and protection from the kind of atrocity Jesus foretells. Why wouldn’t Peter and God protect the Messiah? Wouldn’t it be a “divine thing” to preserve the life of Christ? Why does Jesus attack Peter as “Satan” when Peter simply warns Jesus against suffering and death?
Satan, of course, is another name for “the Devil,” the Tempter, the fallen angel who at least biblically works to thwart the will of God. When Jesus says he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be put to death, and be raised, it’s the must that troubles; it indicates divine volition—the will of God. In other words, Jesus foretells God’s intention and, from what little we know of God, at least we know that what God intends comes to pass. The creation is, therefore, no accident—but the direct consequence and manifestation of God’s will. So also, our own presence: we, too, may be viewed as direct manifestations of God’s mind, God’s will, God’s intention worked out in created stuff. The same may be said of the whole creation: the earth, seas, sky, planets, sun, moon, and stars in their orbits. This is all well and good.
And yet….Something’s not right. In fact, a lot seems wrong. And I don’t refer merely to public wrongs like Assad’s Syria and ISSIS, and murder by drone, and murder by beheading, and murder by inaction, and murder by starvation, and murder in Fitchburg. Why is it generally so much easier to see public wrongs than private ones? Why is it so much easier for me to see your wrongs than it is for me to see my own?
The problem seems more subtle than the obvious wrongs of murder, and rape, and violence in every shade of gray. Why, after all, did Jesus prohibit his friends from telling people he was the Christ? Then, too, why did there even need to be a Christ? And why must there be secrets? Never mind a messianic secret. More to the point, why do I have secrets? And, here things may begin to get a bit uncomfortable, why do you have secrets? And why do we feel the need to keep secret things about ourselves—certain uncomfortable things—things that are only too human and probably not divine? Or are they? Incarnation muddies the waters. Now that God has become human flesh, exactly what things are human and what things divine?
But, of course, at least in part Incarnation means God knows our secrets—all of them, and not only the things we do, but the things we don’t do; and the things we imagine and the things we refuse to imagine. Hence, Jeremiah’s laments—complaints to God. This is the surest sign of Jeremiah’s fidelity as a prophet: he complains to God, tells God off, accuses God of being fickle, and false, and untrue. When, all along, God is true, but hidden as false; revealed, but under opposites; merciful, but just; loving, but hard—the Rock, the Mighty Fortress, the Powerful weakness. The God who forbids murder yet saves the world by the murder of his Son. The God who rules the world in timeless order, yet enters the world in disorder. The God who is good, yet suffers our evil. The God who is powerful, but comes to us in the weakness of a child, a rejected and crucified Jew; comes to us not in condemnation only, but as the Condemned, as the Damned, and the Dead in order to deliver us from the very condemnation, damnation, and death we inflict upon him.
After all, the story does not end with “Get behind me Satan,” but with the crucified Christ raised on the third day; not with the resurrection of the condemned Christ only, but with the promise of our resurrection as well. Sermons end. Our sin ends. Our lives end. But resurrection is the end-beginning that has no end. Resurrection is where the story both ends and begins. Therefore, in light of Christ’s risen flesh, we are free to deny our flesh, take up the cross, and follow him. All that we might both die and live in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.