After the grand promises given to Peter in Mt. 16:16-20, Jesus points his disciples to Jerusalem, where he will suffer greatly and ultimately be crucified. Peter, to whom God revealed that Jesus was Messiah, “rebukes” Jesus (a strong word, often, when Jesus “rebukes” a demon), saying: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” In language used against no other disciple, Jesus calls Peter Satan (in the original sense of “adversary” rather than “demon”) and says that he is an “obstacle.” This is a weak translation of the Greek skandalon (lit. “snare,” often used with the word “stone”), which trips persons or causes them to fall (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pt. 2:8). What a transformation from the rock on which Jesus will build his church!
The next section captures the theme of the liturgy: the cost of hearing and following God’s word. Jeremiah, who was hated and persecuted by the king and other prophets, laments his very call. God has “duped” him (a word often used of sexual seduction), and he muses that he will no more mention God or speak in God’s name. Yet he cannot abandon his prophetic mission, which is a fire burning in his heart, imprisoned in his bones. This burning fire will only fuel more hatred and suffering.
All Jesus’ followers are summoned to deny themselves and to be ready to follow Jesus by taking up their cross, “for whoever wishes to save his [or her] life, will lose it, but whoever loses his [or her] life for my sake will find it.” Taking the cross and denying one’s self captures the paradoxical ethics of Matthew’s Gospel. The “life” promised to disciples is the true life embodied and taught by Jesus: rejection of power when offered all the kingdoms of the world; a paradoxical identification with the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers and those who seek justice; forgiveness of enemies, quiet and constant prayer to a loving Father, inner peace amid threats and suffering—all these are thinking as God thinks.
“Denying one’s self” is more profound than daily acts of “mortification.” It means displacing one’s self from the center of our consciousness while looking to the true self embodied by Jesus’ teaching. The self that is lost is the autonomous individual so dear to American consciousness. The self found is true life in a community of brothers and sisters who take up the challenge of discipleship by speaking and living from that fire that burns within their hearts. Such discipleship embodies a life of “costly grace,” as described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who carried his cross to death in opposing Nazism. He describes costly grace as “the Gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for...such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs him his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” Peter, firm rock and stumbling stone, learned this only after he failed and even denied Jesus.