‘Get behind me, Satan! Get thee behind me, Satan!’
What a shock it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus address him in these cutting words, recorded by Mark (-38).
Peter had been the first to say, ‘You are the Messiah’, when Jesus had asked, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But Jesus then ‘began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and be killed’. Peter knew Jesus was referring to himself, and he was shocked. Like most Jews of his day, he expected the promised Messiah to come as a great conqueror to destroy the gentiles – including the hated Romans - and to rule over a revived Kingdom of Israel. The Messiah would vanquish his foes, not be killed by them! So Peter remonstrates with Jesus: ‘Look here, Jesus, that can’t be right!’ he says - or words to that effect. It is then that Jesus turns on him and likens him to Satan – and he does so in front of all the others!
Why was Jesus so hard on Peter, his friend and disciple? Jesus knew that God’s way was not the way of violent earthly conquest, but the way of self-sacrificing love. I’m sure he didn’t want to die a painful death, but Jesus must have realised this was the inevitable outcome of what God called him to do. He was determined to face it bravely. But Peter tries to argue him out of it, in an echo of Satan’s tempting in the wilderness.
Isn’t this often the way it is? When we’ve made up our minds what the right thing is to do even at a personal cost, our friends and loved ones try to talk us out of it. The tempter can be the very person dearest to us! Yet we must not allow even the pleading voice of love to stop us from doing God’s will.
So Jesus seizes the moment to teach Peter and the disciples his way, the way of the cross, how to find life by losing it.
As usual, Mark compresses Jesus’s teaching to a very few words, but it goes to the very heart of our Christian faith. It is worth reflecting on it sentence by sentence.
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
Jesus’s honesty is startling isn’t it? No one can ever say Jesus lured them to follow him on false pretences! He does not offer his disciples an easy life or a comfortable way to God. Like other great leaders, he calls us as Churchill did to ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. But he does not call us to do anything more than he is prepared to do himself.
First Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’, to say no to our own selfish instincts. But more than simply practicing self-denial, Jesus tells us we must be prepared to take real risks – even to risk our very lives – if that is what God, through our conscience, tells us is right. We who follow Jesus must do God’s will in all things to the best of our ability.
‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’
Jesus grabs our attention with this great paradox: to save life is to lose it, and vice-versa.
The very essence of life is to risk it and spend it, not to save it and hoard it. If we live selfishly, always thinking first of our own profit, comfort and security, we lose life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we follow Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice, we win life all the time.
The truth is that the only way we can find a life that matters is by losing it in the love of God and the love of our neighbours. That is the way of Jesus, that is the way of God, and that is the way of happiness too.
‘For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?’
I’m sure you, like me, can think of people who are outwardly hugely successful, but who in another sense are living a life that is not worth living. In business, they may have sacrificed honour for profit. In politics, they may have sacrificed principle for popularity. In their personal lives, they may have sacrificed their deepest relationships for their own ambitions or desires. Such people are seldom comfortable in their own skin and often live to regret their bad choices.
It is a matter of values really - Jesus asks us where our values lie. As he says elsewhere, we are to store up our treasures in heaven, not on earth, ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. Our values must be God’s values, not the false values of worldly success.
‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
Many people did not like what Jesus said and did. He stood up for the poor, the despised, the rejected, and he was a friend of sinners. Scribes and Pharisees – the pious and respectable of his time – saw his behaviour as shameful. Knowing this, Jesus warns his disciples not to be ashamed to follow him publicly - for if they are, how can they expect to share in the glory of God’s kingdom?
These same words should be a warning for us. In Ireland - and in Europe generally - it has become deeply unfashionable for many people to own up to a Christian faith. Even if we believe in our heart of hearts, many of us find it easier not to speak openly about our faith for fear of being mocked or thought less of. In fact, we behave as if we are ashamed of our faith.
It is a simple truth: we cannot expect to share with Jesus the joy of shaping the world into the place God means it to be, if we do not stand up to be counted for Jesus and for his message of loving self-sacrifice.
So to sum up, when I reflect on these words recorded by Mark, I hear Jesus’s voice calling me, down through the ages:
1st, Jesus calls me to be ready to risk everything to do God’s will, rather than my own;
2nd, Jesus calls me to find true life and happiness by losing my life in the service of God and others;
3rd, Jesus calls me to live my life by God’s values, not the false values of worldly success.
4th, Jesus calls me to follow his path of loving self-sacrifice, joyfully, fearlessly and without shame.
Let us pray for the grace to respond to Jesus’s voice, in the words of St Ignatius of Loyola:
Teach us, Good Lord, to serve you as you deserve:
To give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen