Monday, November 28, 2011

The Third Day

Right after Matthew's description of Jesus' famous exchange with Peter on the subject of his divine identity (Peter: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God"!), Matthew states that Jesus

From that time forth began... to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. (Matt. 16: 21)

Now it's unclear to me whether this teaching of Christ about his impending torture, death and resurrection came right after Peter's testimony or not. The phrase "from that time forth began" suggests continuing activity over a period of time, and also signals a semantic break with what came just before this statement in the text. But it's still significant that this is placed in the narrative right after the description of Jesus' open discussion with the disciples about his calling as the Christ, the Anointed.

When Peter said "Thou art the Christ," he was bearing a witness that had been impressed upon him by the Father through the Holy Spirit. As Jesus put it, "flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven" (vs. 17). After Peter bears witness of what the Spirit has taught him, then Christ discusses it openly. It is almost as if Christ waited to discuss it until this sacred secret of Jesus' divinity and calling could no longer be withheld from the disciples, until their eyes and hearts were sufficiently open for them to be taught it directly from heaven.

And still... Human fear, human doubt intervenes. We are so fragile!

Jesus told them what would happen to him, and in the telling there was both good news and bad news. The bad news first. I'm going to Jerusalem, and there, things won't go so well for me. And I'm going to be killed. But now, the good news. The third day after I am killed, I will be raised from death. Death cannot conquer me! (Matt. 16: 21)

Peter didn't even hear the good news part. He went straight for the bad. And that despite what he knew in his heart, despite what the Spirit had just impressed upon him in terms he could not deny, that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God! What greater knowledge did Peter need in order to trust in Jesus, in order to lay all his fears to rest? But this is the Peter who walked a few steps on the water, and then sank as soon as he saw the waves...

Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. (vs. 22)

I'd always wondered about the vehemence of Christ's response until I read it today.

Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. (vs. 23)

If you deny my crucifixion, my death, then there's no resurrection to follow. No redemption. No life everlasting for anyone. And, focusing on the bad news, it would have been tempting to turn away from Jerusalem, to avoid all that pain and sorrow. That had to be tempting to Jesus; every bit as tempting as those moments when he was starving in the desert, and Satan offered him a little bit of bread, a little bit of unearned fame, a little bit of power... Maybe Jesus was flashing back to that trauma in the wilderness when he remonstrated, "Get thee behind me, Satan...!"

Peter succumbed to the temptation to doubt, to recoil, to be fearful. And that in spite of the marvelous testimony he had just born. The contrast is striking here between Jesus' praise ("Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in Heaven") and Jesus' condemnation ("thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men"). Ouch! It just goes to show, that to have a testimony does not make us perfect. We can know things, we can have seen things and we can have received remarkable witnesses of the Spirit. And we can still falter, we can still waver in our faith.

Jesus' response (in verses 24-26) is to encourage his disciples to move into and through their fear. You're afraid of the cross? I'm not going to deny there is a cross ahead of us. So deny yourselves, and take up your cross and follow me. Let's go through this together. For in losing your life, you will find it.

To take up one's cross is to renounce fear of the consequences. To deny oneself is to deny the ego, to deny that part of us that wants to control. Jesus says, in essence, let go of your need to control. Let go of your fear. Come on, follow me into the darkness, into your fear, and through it, over to the other side.

Where, he reminds his disciples again, there is glory and life everlasting.

For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall he reward every man according to his works. (vs. 27)

Bad news? Good news!

I can relate to Peter here. I've had that experience of receiving a revelation of bad news and good news, and getting so wrapped up in the former I forgot the latter, and stumbled a bit. But life is full of these kinds of opportunities to grow! Faith is that journey that teaches us to receive the message in its fullness, and to find hope in the good news of it at the end, and to not be afraid of the bad in between. It takes patience to walk in faith. It takes patience and trust to get up when we stumble. And in the patience and the trust, we learn the pure love of Christ.

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