By Sara Knutson
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” says Jesus in today’s gospel. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously put it another way: “When Christ calls a man, he bid him come and die.”
It’s a sobering thought: our Gospel calls us to death in order to live, and our greatest temptation is to deny it.
Poor Peter, whose characteristic impulsiveness again gets him in hot water. But before judging him harshly, consider this: Peter by this point had done an enormous amount for Jesus. He had left his livelihood for the Gospel, been absent from his family, preached from town to town without so much as a walking stick.
He didn’t do it all for nothing; Peter saw something compelling in Jesus. As we heard last week, he knew Jesus was someone truly special, the Christ. And like a good Jew he envisioned this Christ as a liberator, a king, someone who would command the respect of Jews and Romans alike and triumphantly bring about a new era of freedom for his people.
Peter couldn’t even comprehend a Christ who would suffer enormously and then die, who would fail spectacularly by the world’s standards. God forbid, indeed.
In voicing those thoughts, Peter stumbled into Jesus’ own greatest temptation. Jesus, who warded off Satan’s temptations in the desert with apparent ease, would soon agonize over Peter’s exact objection in Gethsemane, begging his Father to let the cup of death pass him by.
Jesus too feared the cost of total love for his Father. He feared the death he predicted and was tempted to turn away from it. It was only his prayer and the renewed trust and acceptance that followed which enabled him to go to Calvary.
And so I suspect Jesus was not calling Peter names in his pointed rebuke, but rather directly acknowledging the very real temptation to forsake love in order to avoid death, more powerful now as Jesus drew nearer to his own likely death.
“You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do,” Jesus insists in his outburst to Satan. And it’s true. As human beings, like Peter, like Jesus, we fear death.
That’s unsurprising. As Catholics, part of a tradition that regularly defends the lives of the poor, the unborn, the vulnerable, we know well that, as Jesus said, our lives are our most precious possession. And yet we are called to turn them over, to die to ourselves and maybe die outright, with no guarantees of worldly blessing. That’s a hard truth.
It was hard for Jesus too, and I’ve begun to regard his outburst as comforting, an acknowledgement that the temptation to avoid the call to death is the greatest temptation of all.
Fortunately, though it calls us to die, the Gospel is not one of death. It is a Gospel of life. Jesus suffered and died—but then he rose, a living embodiment of God’s victory over sin and death. We too will suffer and die—but we too will rise.
Jesus’ resurrection has revealed that death is not final, but only the necessary precursor to eternal communion with God and God’s creation. We die in order to live. We lose our lives in order to find them. That is the Christian way.
This week may we die to ourselves, die to sin and pride and the need for worldly success, in order to take up our cross, follow the way of Christ, and live.