|Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16||Psalm 22:23-31||Romans 4:13-25||Mark 8:31-38|
We know Peter for his humanity and ability to get things wrong. If anyone could put their big feet in things, that would be Peter: he argues with Jesus about who is going to wash whose feet: falls asleep at Gethsemane when he supposed to be praying: denies knowing Jesus: tries to keep children away from Jesus when Jesus wants to bless them: nearly drowns when attempting to walk on water. He was an impetuous person – and Jesus never stopped loving him despite all the gaffes.
Today’s Gospel reading is hard to understand because Jesus ends up calling Peter ‘Satan’ – a cruel name for someone you love. But let’s imagine, for a moment, how the conversation might have gone if Peter had responded differently.
Jesus: The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Peter: I’m not sure what you mean by that, but it sounds terrible. Could you tell me what you mean?
Jesus: Peter, the odds are stacked against me’. The religious authorities are out to get me, and the Romans are worried that I’m trying to overthrow them, so I’m in danger. And besides this, I know that I must die – this is what God asks of me. You don’t understand at the moment, but you will in time. But if you can be with me Peter, it will make things easier to bear.
Peter: I feel very frightened about this, but I’m your friend and I want to help you. I’ll be with you whatever happens.
When we look at the conversation in this way, we can see that Peter’s rebuke of Jesus (Mark 8:32) wasn’t about listening and keeping a friend safe so much as Peter imposing his own fears onto Jesus. Perhaps Peter was frightened about what would happen to him if Jesus was killed. Maybe he was keen to keep in good favour with the religious authorities – a good way to stay safe. Or perhaps he was worried that Jesus was deluded when he talked about rising on the third day: it sounded a bit strange. This is a kind of denial and, in the Bible, denial is one of the Devil’s favourite tricks – think of Satan’s conversation with Eve in Genesis 1, and of the temptations endured by Jesus in the desert at the beginning of Mark’s gospel.
This is a trap easily fallen into, when we’re not aware of our own fears and dreads. I once heard such a response in a training session about safeguarding. The question asked was, ‘What would you say to someone who you are caring for pastorally, who tells about abuse they have suffered?’. One of the answers which came back was, ‘I’d tell them that God was with them while it was happening’. In one way this follows one of the promises of the Bible: God will always be with us. But in another way it deprives the speaker of expressing what happened – it imposes a theological view from the outside and it effectively silences the person who is in need of love and support. It is a form of denial. Questions and open support are always better as they keep the conversation open: they gives space for the person to reflect on their experience, but it enables the listener to grow and change too.
It’s easy to respond in similar ways with people in everyday life and its tragedies. If someone tells you they have cancer, it is easy to respond by saying that treatments are much better than they used to be, or simply that you’re sure they’ll be OK. It’s’ not uncommon for people suffering from depression to be told to perk up, or that’s it’s all in the mind. Shell shocked soldiers returning from WW1 were judged to have weak characters. In such instances, I think it is difficult and costly to sit and listen instead. These sort of answers close down the conversation and leave the person concerned unable to talk about how it is for them.
We might do this to Jesus, as well – it’s not just Peter. In response to Jesus’ cry of forsakenness on the cross, Christians over the centuries have said, because of theological concerns, that this was only how Jesus felt but that it wasn’t actually the case, or that it was only Jesus’ human nature that suffered, not his divine nature, or that he was merely reciting Psalm 22. We shut down the forsakenness because it frightens us both physically and theologically. Can you imagine how it would have been for Jesus if someone had come along to the crucifixion and responded in any of these ways? ‘Well, it’s only your human nature that hurts’. This is a way of avoiding the reality of the suffering, hurt, desolation. It’s a way of avoiding truly looking at our crucified Friend: a way of averting the eye.
Looking suffering in the face is always difficult. It challenges and changes us. It opens our eyes to the pain of the world. It makes us face our own mortality and frailty. It takes courage to see, to be alongside, to listen, to be a faithful friend. Whenever we are open to the suffering of another we are being faithful to Jesus himself. We step into a hallowed place in the shadow of the cross, where the love of God meets the pain of the world.
Rev’d Anne Morris
Vicar of St. Oswald’s Church