Our gospel story for today illustrates that religion has never been free of political intrigue and violence. Even religious leaders have at times become so mesmerized by power and privilege that they will decide to eliminate people who threaten their position and advantage. Even though the chief priest, elders, and scribes of Israel were occupied subjects of the Roman Empire – they weren’t citizens – some of them had positioned themselves so they could share in some of the advantages and privileges of the empire. They were even able to convince enough of the masses of ordinary poor people to act against their own best interest and join in a cause that favored only the rich and powerful.
For a more contemporary example, during World War II, when almost all of Europe suffered under the devastating oppression of Nazi rule, in every country there were those who collaborated with the enemy. They would spy on and turn in their neighbors in order to gain favor with the German authorities. They were willing to betray their neighbors in order to have access to food and other necessities that were in such short supply for those who suffered under Nazi oppression. Sadly, just as in Jesus’ time, some of these were religious leaders. Although many stood up to the Nazis – there were about 2500 religious leaders in the concentration camp at Dachau – and some paid for it with their lives. Yet, there were those who turned a blind eye as innocent people were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, or executed for minor infractions. Some even cooperated with the enemy.
In our story, Jesus has become a threat to the status quo. His mere existence as an infant constituted a threat to the first King Herod, the client king of Rome at the time. Later, as his ministry drew massive crowds because his message of God’s love, compassion and justice was so attractive to the people, he became a threat to those in power as an adult. The new client king of Rome, another King Herod, could rely on the religious and community leaders to cooperate with his murderous agenda in order to keep their advantages and privileges. Jesus bluntly informs his disciples that some of the elders, chief priest and scribes were going to inflict great violence upon him and kill him. They will use Judas, a member of Jesus’ inner circle, to betray him and they will rouse up a mob to join the conspiracy.
Jesus envisioned a kingdom that was centered in love and trust in God and held as its priorities justice and righteousness, and a love of neighbor. That love is defined and motivated by God’s love of us, and is not tempted by wealth, position or authority. Members of God’s kingdom would never dream of becoming client kings of corrupt empires like Rome, or of using power and authority unjustly or to promote and enrich themselves. Because of his rather outrageous beliefs that challenged the status quo, Jesus was anticipating an imminent, cruel and disgraceful death. In effect, he was warning his followers that he was “a dead man.”
Peter, whom we know as loyal but also impetuous, could not handle that. He pulled Jesus aside and chastised him, almost as if Jesus had lost faith. That still happens today. Sometimes people can’t mourn an impending or actual loss without being accused of having lost their faith. Jesus demonstrated that grief and mourning are natural human reactions to loss. God created us to be human and declared that our humanness is good.
Jesus’ response to Peter may seem harsh, but Peter had assumed the role of adversary, or Satan, in his response to Jesus’ revelation of his impending fate. Peter doesn’t want it to be true, and he wants to use any means to avoid it. He doesn’t understand that by doing so, he is unwittingly replicating the work of the devil when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. Jesus died as a consequence of his life and ministry, therefore he cannot abandon his followers to save himself.
Then Jesus turns to address all of his disciples and admonishes them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If Jesus’ disciples choose to continue following him, we must be willing to deny ourselves and be able to envision the fate of the cross. It is believed that Judas had it backwards; he thought he could pursue money and power by betraying Jesus but then still follow in Jesus’ steps. Judas probably didn’t really believe that Jesus would lead them to the cross. He thought that somehow Jesus would save himself, and when that did not happen Judas took his own life out of shame and despair.
Sometimes we see Peter as weak, but he was only human. Jesus does not call us to deny our humanity but to commit to follow him while at the same time fully accepting how vulnerable we will be with that choice. Jesus was willing to be God’s Messiah even though he knew that violent death could be the consequence of pursuing justice, love and peace instead of the privileges of empire.
These are difficult words to hear when we are celebrating a baptism. We aren’t looking at little Makenzie thinking that she should be willing and able to stand up to the forces of evil and oppression. Yet that is the gift that God gives in baptism – the cleansing power of God’s forgiveness, the empowerment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the promise of eternal life, all of which give us the courage to stand up for our convictions and to promote God’s love, mercy, compassion and justice in the world. By bringing her to be baptized, Craig and Melissa are promising to teach Makenzie about God’s love and the implications that has for her life and for the world. They will nurture her in faith and we, as fellow members of the Christian community, will promise to support them and to help and encourage her as she grows in faith.
It is too difficult to stand on our own in this world, with all of its temptations and false promises. We need the power and support of authentic and faithful community to resist the temptations of wealth, power and authority and to stand up for compassion, justice and mercy for all. We welcome Makenzie as a member of our church today and pray for her and for her parents as she grows in faith. Amen.