We often come back to this moment in the course of the liturgical year: 'who do you say that I am?', 'you are the Christ', 'he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly', 'get behind me Satan', 'whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me'. It is right that we should re-visit this moment regularly. It is a crucial moment in the public ministry of Jesus, a turning point between two great acts of the drama. It is literally 'crucial' for this is where he speaks about the cross for the first time. But it is crucial in every other sense of the term: a crossroads, a critical moment of decision and commitment, a defining moment in which things move radically on to a different level, essential for understanding Jesus and His work.
Up to now he has been the popular preacher, healer and exorcist, much in demand, teaching nice things, telling very good stories, and working pleasing miracles. Who would not be in favour of someone who provides what he does, freely, generously, and with no strings attached?
But now things become more complicated and he struggles to convince even his closest followers. It is not that his mission has changed. He continues to be a teacher, healer and exorcist. But the healing of the world's wound, the casting out of its demons, convincing the world of its predicament and its solution: all of this is much harder than the first act of the drama seems to imply.
He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things. That teaching will be not be complete until we see his good work and its meaning, his death and resurrection. It is a teaching that requires not just instruction but also initiation. Jesus now moves between the disciples and the crowd and those disciples closest to him and Peter whose paradoxical understanding of Jesus is the paradigm of all our misunderstandings of Jesus. We want him, of course, he is the Christ, and we want his work of loving and healing the world. But the problems which require that this work of loving and healing takes the way of the cross are the same problems which prevent us from understanding why that must be so. It seems unfortunate and unnecessary, this death for our salvation. It seems, perhaps, exaggerated and fanatical, to allow oneself to be cornered in the way he did. How can a loving God require such a thing, what sort of strange divinity demands this kind of sacrifice and suffering?
In asking such questions we are merely filling out Peter's question to which Jesus reacts so strongly: 'you are thinking not as God but as human beings do'. We must seek, then, to have the mind of Christ if we are to have any hope of understanding love's necessities. The loving servant of the Lord, who does not rebel or turn back, who gives his back to those who beat him, is not cowardly or weak in doing this. The face that is buffeted and spat upon is also set like flint. He knows he will not be put to shame but will be upheld by God who is his help. By his works he shows us his fidelity. By his works he shows us that he is serious about what he teaches. We ought, yes, to trust God completely, even into death, and so into any dark and bitter experience that is less than death.
Inevitably we fall back into thinking as human beings do: it is very difficult for us to do otherwise. We continue to translate Christ and his teaching and his work back into terms that seem reasonable in our way of thinking. But we are called beyond that, to think as God thinks, to know as God knows, to allow ourselves be initiated into the mysteries of divine love. Then the principle that 'whoever loses his life for Christ saves it' is simply common sense, as clear as day in the kingdom Love rules. We will never get our heads around this by logical thinking alone. It is only by following Christ on the way of the cross, allowing his Spirit to illuminate our suffering and our prayer, that we begin to learn his wisdom (which is folly to any merely human way of thinking) and to live by his strength (which is weakness to any merely human way of thinking).