Today's Gospel reading contains both the glory and the shame of being a follower of Christ. Glory in that, like Peter, we recognise and confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; shame in that we often fail to fully live up to this confession, and betray our lack of understanding.
This is true on an individual level, a community level, and true also of the Church as a whole. Like Peter, we often think in selfish and secularised ways, we have the mind of the world, rather than the mind of Christ. Like Peter, we often have the temerity to upbraid Christ and cavil at his teachings, and flatter ourselves about our wisdom.
That said, Peter is also a great encouragement for all of us. Personally, we can take heart that he could be be impetuous, prone to exaggeration (like all fishermen), and even betray Christ, but still be chosen to be the leader of the Apostles and the first post-Resurrection vicar of Christ. Peter also has flashes of self-knowledge, as when he says to Jesus, 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.'
Peter is also a microcosm of the Church. He can both have a true faith in Christ, but fail to always live up to it. In the same way, the Church, guided by the Spirit of Christ, has always maintained the fullness of the faith, despite the individual and communal sinfulness of her members. As the bride of Christ, who gave himself up for her to sanctify her, she is holy and the source of grace and salvation.
As Pope Paul VI put it, 'The Church therefore is holy, though having sinners in her midst, because she has no other life than the life of grace.' The Church is in fact specifically designed for sinners, but sinners who know their need of forgiveness and grace. Perhaps St Ambrose put it more pithily when he remarked that the Church was a 'casta meretrix'! So Peter stands for himself, the Petrine office, and for the whole Church.
The second part of today's Gospel teaches us what being followers of Christ means, and how Jesus is to sanctify his people and redeem them. It is though his sacred passion and death, the way of the cross, the way of abandonment to the will of the Father. Throughout Mark's Gospel the disciples either don't understand, or refuse to face, the fact that the Christ had to suffer.
As faithful Jews they had access to the stories and prophecies in the scriptures which all pointed to this terrible truth. As the ultimate and unique beloved Son, Jesus was the culmination and fulfillment of the biblical beloved or first-born sons who were either killed or went through some ritual involving an icon of death. Figures like Abel, Isaac and Joseph are all types of Christ. As one Jewish scholar, Jon D. Levenson, puts it, ' The beloved son is marked for both exaltation and for humiliation. In his life the two are seldom apart...chosenness means having the status of the one upon whose very life God has acquired an absolute claim.'
But we risk misunderstanding the nature of Christ's sacrifice if we leave out the motive. It is in loving obedience to the Father's will, and out of love for fallen humanity, that Christ wills to suffer. Death and evil are the great enemies of humanity, so Christ had to undergo death and face evil to beat them, as it were, from within. But this love is not the sentimental, romantic or mawkish sort with which the word is most associated. It is the infinite love of the Creator, and a love which leads Christ to say; 'So, too, I set me face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.' Jesus knows he will not be abandoned by the Father, but this does not lessen the intensity or integrity of his suffering.
As followers of Christ, we are called to share in the suffering of Christ. This is a terrible but ultimately liberating truth. We might have a romantic view of how we want to suffer with Christ, but we can be sure that God will present us with a cross that will require real courage, and deep faith, hope and charity to undergo. May God who gives us the desire to suffer with Christ and be sanctified by him, give us also the grace to take up our cross and follow him.