Jesus' foretelling of his death and resurrection follows on immediately from Peter's declaration of Jesus as 'the Christ, the Son of the living God', which was read last Sunday.
In this passage, Peter is once again the protagonist: in the previous passage he received Christ's affirmation, in this passage he receives Christ's rebuke. It is not enough to confess that Jesus is the Christ, we must also understand that his messiahship involves suffering and death.
So, if Jesus' mission involves the cross, then those that wish to follow him must also embrace such suffering. The message of the gospel is incomplete without the cross. The disciples recognised Jesus as the Messiah, but their concept of discipleship differed greatly from his own.
Yet, in the time of Jesus, the cross was the most scandalous form of execution. It is easy to understand, then, that the disciples hoped that Jesus was speaking metaphorically: what he was saying was truly horrific for their ears. Having been given such authority just shortly before, Peter must have felt obliged to challenge.
It is Peter's challenge to Jesus that provokes a clarification of Peter's authority: his authority works when he speaks from God and not from human wisdom. Peter's rebuke of the Lord entails his overstepping of the mark as a disciple. Disciples 'followed' their teachers, and literally walked behind them as a sign of respect when they walked. So, Jesus turns to confront Peter behind him, and then orders him to get behind, to return to a position of discipleship.
Stronger still is the Lord's rebuke. Peter was not merely a trifle rude; he was the agent of the devil. When Christ was being tempted in the wilderness, Satan offered him the kingdom without the cross. Peter offers the same temptation, and earns the same title. The devil espouses such worldly and human values, such things like seeking the glory of the kingdom with lack of suffering. In adopting such a position, Peter places himself in league with Satan. Thus, he who is called 'rock' is now called 'stumbling block,' setting himself in the path of the Saviour.
It is fair to say that the cross has become somewhat glamorous. Crosses are displayed in Churches, in homes, on jewellery and in other places. The cross has lost the original significance of its symbolism.
Yet this must not allow us to lessen the profundity of Jesus' call. There are often times when we would seek to escape suffering, to settle for being an 'armchair Christian', satisfied with watching from the wings. Many people today still die for their faith; many communities still go to great lengths to celebrate the mystery of faith together.
Many people who walk among us, who share our daily lives, remain steadfast in faith despite great suffering. Often this happens silently, but it always reflects a similar truth: that the Christian faith is more profoundly focussed when it is seen through the lens of this suffering.
Jesus leaves his followers in no doubt. There are three elements for the disciple: he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Christ.
For those that first heard these words, to be told to take up one's cross must have been horrifying. It certainly wouldn't have meant having to endure cold weather or catching one's fingers in a doorway. It would have meant carrying the heavy horizontal beam of this instrument of deathly torture in procession through a jeering mob, destined to be fixed to it and remain there for an agonising death. Jesus knew he would suffer this particular martyrdom, and chose it as an analogy for those who follow him.
Throughout our Christian lives, we continually fall short of our commitment to our faith. Yet we must never lose sight of the truth we ought to understand from the start: we are surrendering our lives to Christ.
We are only truly converted if we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, and that he demands everything from us, even our very lives. The only way for a person to save their life is if they surrender it in the faith that the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father, to judge each of us according to our works. Then we will be given a crown of true glory.