Simon – leading disciple – declares that Jesus is the Son of God; and then Jesus calls him Peter – Rocky! – ‘on this rock I shall build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it’.
Peter, duly renamed, feels great.
Yet within moments, when Jesus starts to explain what it meant to be the Son of God – that there was suffering involved – Peter tries to talk him out of it.
“Get thee behind me Satan!”
Any chance of Peter’s ego being too large vanishes.
What did he get wrong? The problem is that Peter was using the Son of God language in the way that parts of the Old Testament sees the Messiah – a Son of David, who would restore Israel, fulfilling all the promises made by God. This was the secularisation of God’s intentions. God called Israel to be the holy people, the ones who would demonstrate justice and God’s own nature to the wider world. Not to be another country, squabbling and warring over who shall be in control. And Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s plans for Israel because in him God’s call is answered. Christ, perfectly obedient, displays to the world what God is calling humanity to be.
And it doesn’t involve him sitting on a throne in Jerusalem.
So does this mean that Jesus wasn’t political? And that – as Christians – we shouldn’t pay too much attention to the political process? Not at all. Jesus’ ministry could not have been more political.
Consider how it begins: after being baptised, and tempted by Satan, Jesus goes back to his hometown, goes into the synagogue, reads from Isaiah and declares the Jubilee! So: all those who had become rich, who had accumulated land – sorry guys, time to give it all up. Whereas all those who had lost their land, who had got into debt – Hallelujah! Redemption Song!
It’s difficult to imagine anything more directly political than taking wealth away from rich people and giving it to poor people; yet that was the heart and soul of Jesus’ ministry – as it is of the Bible as a whole. “I am the God who called you out of Egypt” – out of slavery. That is still the promise which God makes.
This is not because wealth is itself sinful. It’s that the concentration of wealth in few hands causes, inevitably, other people to fall by the wayside. It’s the story of Lazarus at the gate, which should surely cause us all to tremble.
So why isn’t Jesus wanting to take that throne in Jerusalem? For the simple reason that Christ knows it isn’t force which is required. It isn’t a change of political system that is required. It is the change in people’s hearts. Think of the language of the leaven in the bread; or the salt that has lost its savour. It is, for Christians, never a question of changing the system, so much as of changing the people within the system. First we learn what it means to love one another, then we can seek to express that love through a political arrangement. The Christian calling is to live out a different life, one structured by the values of the Kingdom of God.
And that has profound political implications.
Those implications need not be headline grabbing. They need not, for example, be consumed with the exact whys and wherefores, the rights and wrongs, of what is going on in Iraq. They are, instead, very concrete, down to earth and specific. How will you relate to your neighbour? That may easily have political implications, but the roots of the behaviour lie not in a concern with power, but in a concern with love. We are called to follow the way of love, to love one another as He loved us; and this will have consequences.
Consider the story of André Trocmé. Trocmé was a pastor in central France in the middle of the twentieth century, at a place called Le Chambon. When France was conquered by the Nazis, and the Vichy regime started to implement the anti-semitic legislation required, Trocmé stood up in front of his congregation and told them that he was not going to co-operate with the state. He was not going to violently resist, but nor could he simply stand by and watch violence be done to his neighbour. And so – with the full and active support of his congregations, Trocmé established a system which enabled the hiding of hundreds of Jewish people, especially children, until the darkness could pass, and that system was destroyed. Trocmé risked his life for his neighbour, and it was a matter of sheer luck that he wasn’t executed. We are not in that situation; not yet – although if the anti-Islamic tendencies strengthen in the coming years then we must be clear about what the Christian faith calls us to do – to defend all those made in the image of God from actions which would blaspheme that image, and oppress or persecute our brothers and sisters.
This is the nature of the life to which we are called. And this is what Peter couldn’t quite understand. Peter sought the implementation by force of the right answers. And certainly, the forcible implementation of a Jubilee would have represented the establishment of justice – for a time. For the truth is that the use of force perpetuates and legitimates the use of force. Jesus’ way is a different path. It is a path which leads through death.
Peter cannot cope with the idea that Jesus might die. And it is precisely this fear of death which provides the authorities with their power. They trust that, because they have the ultimate power of killing those who oppose them, that they will be able to get their way. That might will make right. Yet what does it profiteth a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul? It is this fear of death that Jesus overcomes in the resurrection. The resurrection is the single most powerful political statement ever made – it dethrones all the powers that be, and exposes their nature.
Recently I came across a wonderful summary of the New Testament. It reduced it all to two short and succinct phrases. The first was: If you don’t love, you die. In other words, we are made in the image of God, and that means that we are made to love one another. If we don’t love each other, our soul begins to shrivel and wither, and we make ourselves less than human, we deface the image of Christ within. If we do not love, we die.
The second phrase was: if you love, they’ll kill you. In other words, acting according to our true nature and loving our neighbour will lead to opposition and conflict with the powers of the world. If we love, then we shall be persecuted. This is the way of the cross. This is the path which Jesus trod, and it is what we are called to follow. There is a glorious liberty about this path – it is the way of life, life in all its fullness, and everything else is stale and shallow by comparison. But it will lead to conflict with the values of the world.
Peter himself came to understand this, and at the end of his life, after a long and fruitful ministry, he too was crucified. Not many of us will be called to witness to the truths of our faith to that extent. But it remains the calling that every Christian must be prepared for. For we are not children of this world, we have a different Lord. May his grace surround us as we walk in the path, and give us the strength to take up our cross, and follow Him.