I don’t know why I do it, it only makes me cross. I was reading the letters column the other day in one of our local papers. I won’t say which one, though it doesn’t really matter; they all have the same effect on me. And don’t get me started on the letters page of Church Times. It's not that I necessarily disagree with the things people write. I'm often just as angry as they are about being messed about by petty officialdom, or by the government, the European Union, or whomever - including, I have to say, the Church, from time to time. Yeah, I can see where they might be getting it wrong; but what does annoy me are some of the facile comments and simplistic solutions that so many of the writers of letters then produce.
Because I think - if it was really as simple as all that, don't you think someone would have sorted everything out by now? And anyway, I think, being naturally bad tempered and cynical, if people who write letters to papers really are as good as they think they are at knowing what should be done and how things should be run, how come they’re not up there doing it, instead of the present bunch of no-hopers who are supposedly running the show? Or the no-hopers on the other side who hope to be doing it after the election in May?
I suppose most people who write letters to the press really just want a bit of a rant, and to get stuff out of their system. Even if they end up transferring some of their crossness to me. And of course, it’s true that a bit of a rant can do you the world of good. I was rung up a couple of weeks back by someone who just ranted on for about three minutes, then said sorry and hung up. Since I wasn't in, they’d spoken to my answer phone - but I can’t think it would have been much different if I’d been in. I don’t think they wanted anything back from me, just for me to be a sort of sponge, soaking up some of the frustration and annoyance that the person who rang was obviously feeling.
It was someone I know, by the way. Not well, but a bit. They haven't yet got call centres that call you up and rant at you. Though that could be an interesting next step. So the letters page and my answer phone were perhaps meeting a very similar need - and while they may not solve all our problems, just letting off steam probably does do some good.
Anyway, Peter has a bit of a rant at Jesus in today’s reading from St Mark’s Gospel. "No, Lord,” he says to him (in the version of this story in Matthew and Luke), “this shall never happen to you!" Jesus has told the disciples that he's going to Jerusalem, and that he’s going to suffer and to die there. Peter was dead angry: angry at what sounded to him like a prediction of failure. In effect Jesus had said: "I'm going to Jerusalem, and when we get there, it'll all go wrong." So Peter has a rant at Jesus.
And Jesus then rants back. "Get behind me, Satan!" he says to Peter. "You think as men think, not as God thinks!" But the answer, to Peter, is simple. If heading for Jerusalem is only going to lead to suffering and certain death, then don't go there. Change your plans, if you know they’re bound to fail. Well, that may be the way of the world, Jesus tells him (and us) - but it's not the way of God.
And Jesus then goes on to say something that really is quite powerful, and rigorous, and shocking, even, and he says it to all of us: those who come with him must deny themselves, and take up their cross. You can’t accuse Jesus of conning his followers by offering them an easy life - or of asking his followers to face anything he’d not faced himself. Following Jesus means imitating Jesus, being as like him as we can be, and taking his example to heart. It’s like Paul wrote in one of his letters, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." We call Jesus the King of love, and to love is to give of yourself, to surrender yourself for the sake of the other.
Another title the Church gives to Jesus is “the Man for Others”. All that he does, he does in service to his Father and in love for those who need his care. That even included those who would hammer nails into his hands and feet and play dice for his possessions. Tough words - those who want to save their life will lose it. But Jesus is himself the message he preaches; and here he says to Peter and to us: "What you see in me, try your best to be yourselves. Love one another, as I have loved you."
To deny ourselves means to say no to our own interests, our own ease and comfort, and our own natural desire for a world that will serve our own needs, so that we can say a full and whole-hearted yes to the call of God. Jesus says: whatever you try to hang on to you’ll lose. If you try and save stuff and hoard it up it just turns into dust and gets thrown away. Life and love are gifts from God to be spent, not kept, to be used and not just used up. To take up the cross means to risk our life, to spend our life, not to choose the safe option but to use our life to explore and pioneer, and, more than that, to care.