Jesus now began to teach them something new. ‘There’s big trouble in store for the son of man,’ he said. ‘The elders, the chief priests and the scribes are going to reject him. He will be killed – and after three days he’ll be raised.’ He said all this quite explicitly. At this, Peter took him aside and started to scold him. But he turned round, saw the disciples, and scolded Peter. ‘Get behind me, Accuser!’ he said. ‘You’re thinking human thoughts, not God’s thoughts.’ He called the crowd to him, with his disciples. ‘If any of you want to come the way I’m going,’ he said, ‘you must say “no” to your own selves, pick up your cross, and follow me. Yes: if you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you lose your life because of me and the Message you’ll save it. After all, what use is it to win the world and lose your life? What can you give in exchange for your life? If you’re ashamed of me and my words in this cheating and sinning generation, the son of man will be ashamed of you when he “comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels”.’
Fans of detective stories will know the drill. The main lines of the plot are reasonably clear, or so it appears. But somewhere on the way there will be a clue, a hint, a nudge, which the alert reader will pick up. The culprit will have left a trace; some-thing said that doesn’t quite ring true, something done which seems a little out of character. The story may well be so grip-ping that the moment passes and the reader doesn’t notice, or quickly forgets. But when the end comes, and all is revealed, that little incident, that small hint, will come into its own. ‘Yes,’ you will say, ‘I should have known all along. That was the clue.’
At one level, this story in Mark is quite plain. Jesus is telling his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and be killed – and that anyone who wants to follow him must be prepared for the same fate. We might well suppose, granted the violent history of Jewish uprisings in the folk memory of his hearers, that this sort of thing would hardly come as a surprise. But there is something more going on here than a clear-eyed recognition of the likely results of being involved in a ‘kingdom-of-God’ movement. Where is the hint?
The hint comes, I suggest, in Jesus’ rebuke to Peter. Peter has started to scold Jesus: he would, perhaps, have been quite prepared (in theory at least) to risk his life to support Jesus, but it surely can’t be right for Jesus himself to die! Jesus is the one they need to be king, not to throw his life away. Without Jesus, the whole movement is nothing.
Jesus could have said, by way of response, something like he says to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). He could have launched into a lengthy Bible study, as he did then, to show that the whole theme and pattern of the scriptures was for God’s people to be plunged into terrible trouble and misery and for God to do his new, rescuing work through that means. That’s how it had always been, and if he was introducing the last in the line of God’s great actions you might expect that it would have the same shape and pattern.
He could have done that; but he doesn’t. Instead, he uses the sharpest possible language to scold Peter. ‘Get behind me, Accuser!’ he said. In other words, Peter has put into words not only the counsel of prudence, of common sense. Peter has blurted out what the Accuser, the satan, has been whispering to Jesus all along. ‘You can’t go and die; that will ruin it all! You’re doing fine; some more healings, some more parables, people will get the message. Don’t be silly; don’t be rash; don’t be melodramatic; slow and steady and it’ll work out.’ Sounds good, doesn’t it? Almost a sigh of relief.
And Jesus recognizes the voice for what it is, even though it’s coming through the lips of his own closest associate. It is the voice of the Accuser, the one who is always on the attack, always eager to undermine the work of God, always ready to lead people into more sin and more guilt so there will be more for him to accuse them of. And Jesus is going to his death to take the weight of that accusation on to himself, so that his people need bear it no longer.
At one level, of course, the Accuser is right. If Jesus goes and dies, that will ruin it all – it will ruin the enemy’s plan to destroy God’s people, God’s plan, God’s whole wonderful creation. Steer Jesus gently away from the cross, and he will die in his bed, of old age, leaving behind lots of good memories, lots of fine sayings, lots of healed cripples. And a world unredeemed. The cross is the means by which Jesus will rescue, not merely reform. It is the weapon with which he will not simply threaten the forces of evil, but overcome them. Peter’s common-sense reaction (whoever heard of a crucified Messiah?) coincides exactly with the satanic opposition to God’s saving plan. He is thinking human thoughts, not God’s thoughts. By the time we get to Mark 15, we will understand why this hint is what it is and where it is. The little exchange between Peter and Jesus tells us, if we are alert, not just what will happen at the end of the story but what it all means.
Then comes the challenge from which most of us, given half a chance, still shrink. There is a sense in the gospel in which, because Jesus dies, we do not. His unique death saves us from what would otherwise be ours. But there is another sense, repeated again and again in the rest of the New Testament, that because Jesus dies, we must die too. We must pick up our cross – bearing public shame, as Jesus indicates in verse 38, as well as the prospect of pain and suffering – and follow him. That is not only the route by which we must travel for our own sakes. It is the path we tread through which Jesus’ victory is made real, again and again, in the world. Common sense shrieks that this is crazy. Why not settle for a quiet life? But Jesus is quite clear. There are times when common sense means sliding along the smooth downward path with ‘this cheating and sinning generation’. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t be an ‘extremist’. Don’t do anything rash. And behind this obvious, worldly advice there is the hidden message: don’t talk about the cross. Don’t mention Jesus. You don’t want people to think you’re a fanatic . . .
Well, there is of course always the danger of fanaticism, of a self-induced and self-promoting ‘zeal’. But there is also the danger, and much modern Western Christianity runs this risk all the time, of being ashamed of the sharp-edged and scandalous message of the kingdom and the cross. I suspect many of us today need to be warned against the second more than the first.
Forgive us, gracious Lord, when we have preferred human com-mon sense to the strange wisdom and power of your cross. Give us strength and clarity of understanding to hear your call afresh and to follow wherever you lead.