Whatever our background, it is very human for us to have expectations. We all have them, don’t we? Those expectations can be realistic, over-optimistic, or balanced – but whatever the case they tend to be based on a number of factors including our personal situation and context, our age and life experience, our faith, and the society and culture that we are part of. Not surprisingly the disciples had an expectation of Jesus that seems to have predominantly been shaped and influenced by the religious culture and society that they were part of. The fervent hope of many will have been for the Messiah promised in prophecy to come, a warlike figure who would free the people from the shackles of Roman rule.
But then Jesus came alongside them and began to teach “that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” Imagine that you were living in Jesus’ time and had similar expectations to the disciples. How would you have felt to hear these words from Jesus?
We are told that Jesus spoke plainly about this and specifically what they could expect, so that they would not be surprised when it happened. Jesus was, if you like, managing their expectations – but it was a hard lesson to learn. Contrary to what they thought, Jesus did not come to set up an earthly kingdom yet. He would not be the conquering Messiah because he first had to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again. But one day he would return in great glory to set up his eternal kingdom. A problem we all face is that all too often we try and define God in our terms, with our hearts’ desire that our will is done. Instead, we should allow ourselves to be defined in God’s terms with our hearts’ desire being that His will is done. I wonder how might this shape and influence the prayers that we pray, and our hopes and expectations?
It is into this situation that one of my favourite characters steps forward – the disciple Peter, who quite astonishingly takes Jesus to one side privately and rebukes him; after all, it is Peter who has had the revelation of who Jesus really is, so perhaps he feels he has superior insight, and this teaching about his suffering is a new direction from Jesus, so it is no wonder that Peter is alarmed by it!!! Peter isn’t my favourite character because he rebuked Jesus – it is because he is willing to voice the things we all too often think ourselves; he is brutally honest in his humanity.
But the exchange with Peter is stark, almost brutal, in its directness as Jesus reciprocates; where Peter has rebuked Jesus in private, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of the other disciples (though not in front of the crowd). This is such an important correction that it needs to be heard by the others just in case they are harbouring similar thoughts which they have not articulated. The labelling of Peter as ‘Satan’ (though not as ‘The Satan‘) is rather shocking—but it shows that our merely human understandings and misguided expectations can function as dangerous obstacles to the plans of God. Jesus knew full well the price he ultimately had to pay; it doesn’t mean it was easy. We only need to read the passion narratives in the Gospels to realise that.
We usually tend to misinterpret Jesus’ response of “Get behind me, Satan!” as meaning ‘Get out of my way!’ But if we look closer at the original text what Jesus actually seems to be saying is something like ‘fall in line’, or ‘follow after me’. It is a stark reminder how in times of adversity we too must fall in line and act in unity and with one accord.
What Jesus then goes on to do is bring together the disciples with the crowd begins to teach about the conditions and a nature of discipleship, what it means to follow him, plain for all to see. Jesus sets three conditions, the first two of which are easily misunderstood:
- The first is to ‘deny oneself’; the sense here is not about self-loathing, but of disregarding the kinds of claims that we normally make for ourselves. It is refusing to pay attention to our wants, recognising that there is a difference between want and need. It is not being selfish. This is precisely the attitude that we have seen in Jesus’ ministry, focussed on obedience to the Spirit and meeting the needs of the people, in the first half of the gospel.
- The second is to ‘take up one’s cross’. In the context of the first century, this could only have one meaning: someone who was carrying a cross was on his or her way to a shameful execution as a slave or a criminal. Let us be under no illusion – it costs us nothing to choose to follow Jesus, but to continue following him can be costly, at least in worldly terms. That’s because this taking up one’s cross is not a one off act – it is something we need to on a daily basis whenever we are confronted with our own selfish desires. At the end of the day “What good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?” Jesus goes on to expound the consequences when he talks about ‘saving’ and ‘losing’ one’s life. The implication is that following Jesus, denying one’s own desires and agenda, and being prepared to experience discomfort and shame as part of that journey, is the only way to true life and salvation. It is hard saying not my will be done, but yours, isn’t it? Or at least it is if we mean it!
- The third is to ‘follow Jesus’. Are we prepared to follow Jesus wherever he calls us, to do whatever he asks us to do? The reason why following this Son of Man will involve hardship, suffering and public shame is because Jesus is the one who inaugurates the age to come, the promised ‘kingdom of God’, and those who belong to this, passing, age oppose and reject him.
We can only do this “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6) We can only do this in the grace of God with patient endurance. We can only do this together. We can only do this in faith, like Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. We are told “In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. 22 And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. 23 And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded 24 for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.”