written by Guy Hewitt
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me
Approximately 2000 years after the fact, many people don’t comprehend what the cross signified. Today, we wear crosses to recall Jesus’s sacrifice but in the time of Christ, no Jew, Roman or anyone would seek the cross as it was – as told in the hymn Old Rugged Cross – the emblem of suffering and shame.
The cross was the ultimate form of public violence – a painful, shameful, traumatic death – similar in our lifetime to lynching, gang-rape/murder and the slaying of George Perry Floyd Jr and other innocents at the hand of those entrusted to protect and serve. The explosive outrage at the garage-pull noose rope in Bubba Wallace’s NASCAR was an instinctive reaction to the possibility that such race hatred continued.
Again sharp, swift and significant protests particularly by Black sportspersons erupted at the police shooting of Jacob Blake. LeBron James, NBA superstar said, “I know people get tired of hearing me say it but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified.” NBA coach Doc Rivers spoke about the daily fear that Black men, women and children, “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot…We keep loving this country and this country doesn’t love us back.”
In withdrawing from the Western & Southern Open to protest yet another killing, Naomi Osaka stated, “before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman. And as a Black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”
Emphasising black lives matter doesn’t insinuate that other lives don’t matter. Black Lives Matter is not the opposite of white lives matter but opposes black lives not mattering. Black Lives Matter is aspirational, the cry of Black people to white America across 401 years for themselves, Indigenous and People of Colour to end systemic racism and racial injustice towards a more perfect Union.
My mother oft repeated, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ Knowing is not enough, we are called to act. The greatest gap in life is the one between knowing and doing.
In the gospel appointed for today (Matthew 16:21-28) our Lord Jesus Christ foretells His death and resurrection, we see in St. Peter that disruption between knowing what to do, and doing what you know. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.”
Ironically, Peter is the only person Jesus calls ‘Satan.’ And it seems ill-timed coming right after Peter correctly answers the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In commending Peter, Jesus announces He shall build His church upon Peter and gives him the keys to the Kingdom. We can picture Peter, chest swelled with pride, believing he is heir to the good life. Leaving the comforts of home and work to take on this tough assignment has paid off. The sprouts of the prosperity gospel attempt to take root here.
Then Jesus ruins the moment announcing His end will soon come. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him… We can imagine Peter manhandling Jesus, pulling him aside with words of consternation. Suggesting an understanding of God’s plan, Peter asserts that heaven won’t allow Jesus to die. Why does Peter do it? What was Peter thinking when he rebukes Jesus? There are a number of possibilities.
We know Peter loved Jesus. The thought that his Master, Teacher and friend would be killed hit the disciples like a ton of bricks. While we know the story of the crucifixion and resurrection intimately, commemorating it in the Lord’s Supper, we must appreciate the disciples were hearing it for the first time. Furthermore, Jesus seems resigned to His fate. From losing a loved one, whether by demise or misfortune, we can appreciate the despair that Peter and the others felt.
We know that Peter’s well-sounding words carry a double meaning; it is also, what’s not said that’s important. We could imagine Peter thinking, ‘if this could happen to you, it would happen to those who follow you, like me.’ You almost hear the formulation of the Passion denials.
We know that at that time Peter, the disciples and the entire Jewish community were looking for an earthly Messiah. When Peter refers to Jesus as “the Messiah”, he was referring to the Deliverer, a great ruler like David that all Israel was looking for to vanquish the Romans and make Israel a free nation under God, to which Peter would be heir.
“…you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Ultimately, Jesus calls Peter ‘Satan’ because he was speaking with a forked-tongue. Jesus knows that evil lurked in Peter’s rebuke as he attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, his desire for the kingdom without the cross.
We can pass judgment on Peter too quickly for we are guilty of the same things. We often live our lives according to our wants and desires not God’s plan. The major preoccupation of our world and pop psychology is on self – to focus on number one – while Jesus calls us to tear down our altar to self and selfishness and embrace His cross and radical call to selflessness. He calls us to surrender our life of material bondage in exchange for heavenly riches. He calls us surrender to dying an earthly life in exchange for an eternal one.
People often resist change because they focus on what they have to give up, what they may lose, instead of what they can gain. Like Peter, there are those who for selfish reasons resist the fulfilment of the American narrative as told in the now famous lines from the Statue of Liberty poem, New Colossus, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In 1845, when Texas joined the Union, the idea that the United States must expand westward emerged and the ‘Manifest Destiny’ was born. This doctrine held that God ordained the US to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. The rapid expansion to the Pacific resulted in not only war with Mexico, but ultimately the decimation of Native Americans. It is a small but significant gesture that the Washington NFL team is changing their franchise’s name from the Redskins.
This is not the first time God was leveraged for material and self-gain. The transatlantic trade in Africans was founded on a perversion of Christian teachings. Notwithstanding the fact that Christian communities in North Africa were among the first in the world and in spite of Africa having civilisations equal to those in Europe, Europeans and their early North American cousins concocted a vile and iniquitous notion that bonded skin colour, sin and slavery, condemning an entire continent.
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 if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
In failing to fully embrace the spirit of E pluribus unum – “Out of many, one” parts of America resist the making of a more perfect Union; they seek the kingdom without the cross. “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” The late John Lewis noted, “We have come a long way in America but we still have a distance to go before all of our citizens embrace the idea of a truly interracial democracy, what I like to call the Beloved Community, a nation at peace with itself.” In honour of John Lewis’ legacy and the virtual March on Washington towards the Beloved Community, let us take up our cross and follow.
The Reverend Ambassador Guy Hewitt is a priest in the Diocese of Southeast Florida and a strong proponent of the social Gospel and doctrine of inclusion.