Matthew 16:21-23: From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “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 will find it. For what will it profit them in they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
Immediately after Peter gets renamed as Jesus’ main support system, right after Peter steps up and allows Jesus to figure out who he is we have this interaction. Peter goes from being “the rock” to being “Satan and a stumbling block”. What’s the reason for the quick turnaround? What happened here?
Jesus starts to talk about what is to come. He starts to tell his disciples about this road that they are on, heading toward Jerusalem. He tells them what will happen to him once he arrives in Jerusalem. Hearing that Jesus is going to be tortured and killed is alarming for Peter and he protests. “God forbid it Lord!” It’s a strong statement but one that we can understand. If someone that we loved told us that they were going to undergo painful treatment and death we would protest as well. God forbid this happen to you! So Peter responds in a way that makes sense, but Jesus’ reaction is quite vicious. He calls Peter “Satan”. What’s the deal? Why would he use such harsh language toward a friend who is just trying to be helpful?
I think Jesus knew that in order to become who he needed to be, he had to face the pain of Jerusalem and death. There was no escaping it. But that didn’t mean that he was excited about it. Who wants to endure pain and death, even if it means resurrection? It would certainly be easier to avoid all of the pain. For Jesus to hear a friend trying to talk him out of what was to come was too hard. Jesus knew that this was going to be a hard path. He needed people to support him on it, not try to talk him out of it. So in that moment he yells at Peter, calls him a stumbling block. He was trying to get Peter to understand that his words weren’t helpful, in fact, even though he was trying to be supportive in reality this kind of support was more discouraging than helpful. Jesus was telling him that he was missing the point and that his mind was on human things instead of divine. Jesus knew that the pain, while horrific, was going to bring about a better future. It was something he needed to do.
Then Jesus goes into some of the most oft quoted verses in the Bible, the ones about taking up your cross and denying yourself. I think these verses are incredibly misused. And I need to spend a bit of time here answering a question that I’m sure to get by doing this theology series: Why the emphasis on crucifixion? Isn’t this glorification of suffering? I think these are important questions. Any time you start to talk about the crucifixion you step into dangerous territory; you can glorify the use of horrific things by saying that they brought about good things; you can say to someone who is suffering, well this is just your cross to bear and one day you’ll be resurrected. This is an unacceptable use of the cross. Let me say in no uncertain terms; suffering is not to be glorified, especially when someone is being made to suffer at the hands of someone else. That isn’t cause for celebration, that is cause for outrage. It is oppression and abuse, plain and simple. To tell someone that they must endure their situation as “bearing a cross” is bad theology. That is not at all what I am trying to do with this series and I need to be very clear about that.
When we tell someone to deny themselves, what are we saying? What is Jesus trying to say here? I think he was saying that sometimes in order to change our lives we need to be willing to give things up; we cannot stay where we are. And that can be really scary even if we are leaving a bad situation. Even if the things we will gain because of this life change will be so much better it can still be scary to embark on a new journey. There may be uncertainty and fear. And this, I think is the power of the cross and resurrection; we can’t stay on the cross. We can’t stay with the pain and suffering (and I’ll talk about this more in depth later but I think it’s important to say it briefly now). This isn’t about glorifying the cross, but about realizing that we often do experience pain on the way to resurrection. We don’t glorify the pain, but we don’t ignore its presence either. This is a point we will revisit later.
In my transition my partner and friends wanted to protect me from pain. It’s a natural response. They wanted me to be safe and whole and healthy. While none of them tried to prevent my transition, I’m sure that they wondered why I had to do this. They didn’t want to see me in pain. They wanted to make things as easy for me as possible. I didn’t want to suffer either. I worried about what would happen to me if I transitioned. I was petrified I wouldn’t be able to find a job. I worried that I would never be able to be in ministry. I worried that I wouldn’t pass as male. I worried that I would be assaulted. All very real fears. But to hear someone tell me, “God forbid these things happen” wasn’t helpful. To hear someone say, “No, it won’t be like that. You’ll be fine” was harder than to have someone say, “You know what, it might be like that, but I’ll be here for you no matter what.”
I knew that there would be pain ahead and to be honest there was a part of me that wished I could just skip the path to Jerusalem, go right to the resurrection. I wished that I could skip the pain of the cross, but I knew that I couldn’t. That in order to be resurrected I needed to face whatever was next.
I needed to be willing to give some things up in my life in order to move. That was the hardest part of my decision to transition; wondering what I would have to give up. I wondered if my mother would be able to accept me or if she would forbid me from seeing my younger siblings. I very much feared losing my family. I wondered if my partner would be able to accept my transition. I wondered if I would be able to fulfill my call to ministry. These were questions that only I could answer. Eventually I got to the point where I knew that in order for me to live I had to be willing to lose all of those things. I knew that if I didn’t transition that my life would be hollow and unhappy. I knew that I would be stuck on the cross. In order to move toward resurrection I had to be willing to deny myself. I had to be willing to move from a place of “safety” (even though, honestly, that safety wasn’t really safe for my soul). If I had tried to “save” the life I was living, I would have lost my soul. It was only by being willing to face the cross that I could save my soul, and in turn my body as well.
*Have there been people in your life who, in the process of trying to be helpful, said things that were hurtful?
*Have there been times when you knew that in order to be fully whole you would have to give up something? What did you have to give up?
*Have there been moments where, in order to save your soul, you had to do something that felt risky or unsafe?