There’ll have been times I think when Jesus was a rather difficult person to be with. He had his natural opponents of course among the priests and the Pharisees, and for them Jesus got to be so difficult he simply had to go. But reading the Gospel stories, you get the distinct impression that the friends and disciples of Jesus found things a bit tough too; they’re sort of scrambling along after him, trying to make sense of it all, but often they must have wondered just what on earth was really happening.
This morning’s Gospel reading must surely have been one of those times. It follows immediately on from last Sunday’s Gospel, in which, if you recall, Jesus asked the question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter (who else) replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and was warmly commended by Jesus. “You are Peter, the Rock - and on this rock I will build my church.”
The Messiah. People all over Israel were waiting for the Messiah. God’s holy one would come and free his people from servitude - which roughly translated, meant kick out the Romans and put a king of the line of David onto the throne of Jerusalem. There’d been a number of Messianic claimants, all of whom had attracted their share of disciples and followers. Peter and his fellows were clear in their own minds that Jesus was the real deal; clear too, I should think, about what ought to happen next - and their thoughts would have been of military victory and high office in the new kingdom.
But if that’s what they thought then Jesus must have greatly confused them when he spoke to them about what he believed would happen. Jerusalem, yes, but suffering and death, not victory: how could that happen to the Messiah?
The disciples are mystified by this, appalled at the things Jesus has told them. And once again it’s impetuous Peter who speaks out. “No, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” he cries. And Jesus, who just three or four verses ago has been commending Peter, now dismisses him with these words: “Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. You think as men think, and not as God thinks!”
“Out of my sight, Satan!” Tough words, indeed. But think: where did we last find Jesus conversing with Satan? When in Lent we called to mind his testing in the wilderness. There Jesus was tempted of the Devil; in other words, he wrestled with the many temptations that would come his way as he ministered, temptations to turn aside and take the plausible but worldly alternative. A few verses before today’s Gospel reading Jesus had told Peter that his words “You are the Messiah” were not his own, but given him by God; now he tells Peter he’s speaking words put into his mouth by Satan.
Throughout his ministry Jesus must have needed to face down those same all-too-plausible temptations: to make choices that would have seemed sensible and even good - but they were the wrong way to go, they ran counter to his Father’s will. Such as going for worldly power, taking the throne of David that people expected the Messiah to seize: surely a lot of good could come of doing that: people set free, a new peace for Israel under the Law. How could that be bad?
The answer can be found in a phrase we use in the Communion prayer: “once and for all”. God’s love has no boundaries, and God’s salvation has no boundaries. It’s not for one people but for all people. It’s not about becoming King of Israel, the Messiah must be King of the world - and not for the duration of an earthly reign, but for ever. Anything less plays into Satan’s hands, and the long reign of sin remains unchallenged.
But I don’t suppose that at that time the disciples were able to make much sense of what Jesus was saying. It was so far from how they must have imagined things would be. This Messiah will win the greatest of victories, but to the world it will look like defeat. His crown is claimed from the wood of the cross, not on any battlefield. And Jesus goes on to talk to his disciples about what is expected of them. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
So Jesus told his disciples that even as he sets his face to Jerusalem, he knows that he’s going there to die. And I’m sure that realisation of what was being asked of him would have been as terrifying for Jesus the man as for any other of us; but this man will do everything the Father asks of him. So it isn’t that Jesus enters Jerusalem full of Messianic hope, and then it all goes wrong for him; not at all - he knows from the start what he’s going there to do. He will enter the city to do his Father’s will, and already his life has been surrendered; this man holds nothing back, he gives it all.
Only in retrospect, only after they’ve seen him die, and known him risen and alive, only then will the disciples get their heads round what Jesus had been saying to them all along. But all through their time with him they’ve seen the example he has set, of humility and service, and his word to them has been: “Let the greatest among you be as one who serves.”
Let the greatest among you be as one who serves. Everything we do as Church needs again and again to face the test of those words. Our great and holy task is to present Christ to a world that so desperately needs to know him as he really is, and to know the love which is his way and his being and his gift. Be sure that the Devil still finds plausible ways to tempt and persuade us away from that task.
These plausible temptations so often begin with worry. We worry about our status and position in the world, we worry about how many attend our church on Sunday, we worry about making ends meet and looking after our buildings, and we worry about why the church up the road is doing well while we’re struggling. There’s always something to worry about. And as we deal with our worldly worries, we may choose to model the way we do things on the way we see other successful organisations operate. There’s nothing wrong in borrowing good ideas, just so long as we remember our priorities are different. Sometimes the way Churches and individual Christians behave will look foolish according to the way the world measures things.
That’s because we follow a man who died on a cross, and he told us we can’t follow him without taking up crosses of our own. If my life isn’t cross-shaped and cross-centred, then however successful and plausible I may seem to be, there’s something vital missing, I’m losing touch with my Lord. For Jesus went to Jerusalem, to the place where Messiahs should go to get themselves made king, knowing that the true Christ must go there in order to die.
I want to close with some confessional words from G.A. Studdert Kennedy, better known in the First World War as ‘Woodbine Willie’ and from his heroic chaplaincy of our soldiers in the trenches. He wrote :-
“On June 7th 1917 I was running to our lines half made with fright, though running in the right direction, thank God, through what had been once a wooded copse. It was being heavily shelled. As I ran I stumbled and fell over something. I stopped to see what it was. It was an undersized, underfed German boy, with a wound in his stomach and a hole in his head. I remember muttering, ‘You poor little devil, what had you got to do with it? Not much great blond Prussian about you.’
“Then there came light. It may have been pure imagination, but that does not mean that it was not also reality, for what is called imagination is often the road to reality. It seemed to me that the boy disappeared and in his place lay the Christ upon his cross, and cried, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my little ones ye have done it unto me.” From that moment on I never saw a battlefield as anything but a crucifix. From that moment on I have never seen the world as anything but a crucifix.”