Then Jesus began to teach them that 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
Poor Peter! He gave up everything to follow Jesus, but his warmly human response to Jesus’ anticipation of his own death is rebuked with the command: “to save your life, you must lose it.”
There’s a sense in which the life and actions of Jesus himself are too difficult an example for the rest of us who follow him. He could see into other people’s motivations with a clarity unattainable for us, and knew with certainty how to respond to human imperfections. But the rest of us struggling from within those imperfections can’t see so clearly: however much I aim to “lose my life”, I’m still unsure about how to react to the normal conflicts of my work and personal life because I don’t have Jesus’ perfect insight. Does being a Christian mean being trodden on, or does it mean standing up to challenge what we see as bad actions? If I do stand up, I never know if my choices are right, because I’m at least as imperfect as those I criticise. So whether or how I should “lose my life or save it” requires daily choices in the normal business of being a human among humans.
Peter’s response in this reading is therefore much more familiar to me than Jesus’ certain and perfect reactions to all the diverse people he encounters in Mark’s gospel, and that made me curious. So, here’s a summary of Peter’s story from Mark:
Jesus called to Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter). Later, on the way to the house of Jairus, he did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” When Jesus began to teach them that he must be killed and after three days rise again, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But Jesus rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” For the transfiguration, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Having met the rich young man, Peter said to Jesus, “we have left everything to follow you!” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no-one who has left home for me and the gospel, will fail to receive a hundred times as much.” After Jesus cleared the Temple, Peter said, “Rabbi, look! The fig-tree you cursed has withered!” “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours. And if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Jesus said to Peter, James and John “when you are brought to trial, just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking but the Holy Spirit.”
Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not; even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” In Gethsemane, Jesus said to Peter, James and John, “Stay here and keep watch,” but he returned and found them sleeping. “Simon” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” When they took Jesus, Peter followed at a distance, and one of the servant girls said “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it – three times. When the cock crowed the second time, Peter remembered, and he broke down and wept.
After Jesus died, Mary, Mary Magdalene and Salome went to the tomb and saw a young man dressed in a white robe. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter.’”
Poor Peter – but thank goodness for him: an utterly fallible normal human, to whom Jesus gave a new name as they first met. He had moments of insight, but mainly got things wrong, was frightened, fell asleep when he’d been asked to keep watch, and eventually betrayed Jesus three times. But, despite this, Jesus treats him consistently as an intimate friend, chosen and wanted right to the end. In his ignorance, he asked questions we might well have posed ourselves – and the answers add up to at least a partial guide about how to respond to the inevitable conflicts of being human.