Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Why does Jesus react so fiercely to Peter in today’s gospel? It’s hard not to feel sorry for Peter. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him privately for suggesting that He will have to suffer and die; Jesus subjects Peter to a stinging public rebuke, which must have been painful and humiliating for him, and He uses this rebuke as a teaching opportunity, addressing both His disciples and the crowd: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”.
Why does Jesus react so fiercely? This is one of those passages in which Jesus strikingly fails to conform to our expectations of good manners and reasonable behaviour. Jesus was good, but He was not always what we would call “nice”. He would certainly fall foul of the Church of England’s social media policy. And I think this failure of Jesus to conform to our expectations points us to the reason for Jesus’ anger.
In the most general terms, a very large part of all religion consists in the making of gods in our own image, of creating gods who are either like us or who are as we would like them to be. It consists of imagining a god who is always on our side, a god onto whom we can project our dreams and fantasies and our resentments and our preconceived ideas.
And in more specific terms, it seems clear that one of the great obstacles that faced Jesus, perhaps even the biggest obstacle that He faced in his earthly ministry, was the tendency of His followers to project their own hopes and dreams onto Him. They misunderstand his teaching because they are not so much following Jesus as following their idea of what Jesus ought to be. Jesus found Himself the focus of messianic expectation which grew both out of a particular understanding of the prophecy of the Hebrew scriptures, and also out of resentment of the Roman rule over Israel. And he found it extremely difficult, almost impossible, to break through the preconceived ideas even of those who were closest to him.
This is a problem that hasn’t gone away.
I once stumbled upon something called the Conservative Bible Project. This is an attempt by a group of American conservatives, actually I think mainly one American conservative, to make adjustments to the Bible to bring it into line with a particularly extreme form of 21st century American conservatism. The programme includes “Accepting the logic of hell”, “Expressing free-market parables”, and “Excluding later-inserted inauthentic passages”.
The problems with this approach are obvious: it is a deeply anachronistic attempt to recast an ancient religious text to make it acceptable to contemporary political ideology. Doctrines such as hell are not to be read back into the bible, but derived from the bible; reading an approach to economics that is little more than two hundred years old back into a nineteen hundred-year old text is obviously silly; “excluding later-inserted inauthentic passages” is simply code for finding pretexts for removing ideologically-inconvenient passages, such as the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.
But perhaps it’s too easy to ridicule the fringes of American politics; the Conservative Bible Project is surely an example of what all of us do in mostly more subtle ways. For just as there is a conservative Jesus, there is also a liberal Jesus, a revolutionary Jesus, a hipster Jesus. We try to bring the Jesus in the gospels into line with the biases of our culture.
We might imagine a Jesus who offers forgiveness without us having to acknowledge our sin; we might imagine a Jesus who condemns social and institutional injustice but not personal wrongdoing; we might for that matter imagine a Jesus who condemns personal wrongdoing but not social and institutional injustice. In short, we make Him in our image, according to our own preferences and preconceived ideas.
Jesus’ fierce and public rebuke to Peter surely stems from His distress at Peter’s focus on the human project of political power rather than the divine project of the restoration of the whole creation. Jesus’ anger surely stems from His distress that the forgiveness and healing and salvation and renewal which He longs to bring to the world will be constantly hampered by the tendency of His followers to try to form Jesus in the image of their own hopes and dreams and fantasies and prejudices.
Rather than trying to form Jesus into an image of ourselves, the point of the Christian faith is that we open ourselves more and more to being formed into the image of Jesus.
Turning to our Old Testament reading, we find God’s promise to Abraham. This is not the first time God has made promises to Abraham. In Genesis twelve, Abraham, or Abram as he is then known, is called by God to leave his kindred and his father’s house, and journey to the land God has given him. The promise is unconditional, and is not a reward for anything Abram has done, nor is there any threat of its withdrawal should Abram not behave as God wishes. Nevertheless, in accepting the promise, Abram must open himself to change. Abram leaves his kindred and his father’s house. He trusts in God and leaves behind all that is familiar. And in today’s reading God goes so far as to change his name, which suggests a profound change in Abraham’s very identity as a result of the promises of God.
Jesus’ teaching in response to Peter’s rebuke is uncompromising in its demand that following Him means openness to change, openness to profound change that penetrates one’s very identity. Take up your cross, deny yourself. Following Jesus means change, and it means change that will be painful. It means dethroning ourselves from the centre of our personal universes, and accepting the pain that goes with that process. It means a life lived not for ourselves, but for God and for one another, and accepting the consequent sacrifices. In our life as individual Christians, and in our shared life as the church, we are to be transformed and conformed to the image of Christ crucified.
Peter wants to reshape Jesus in his own image, he wants to steer Jesus into performing the role Peter has assigned Him. But Jesus will have none of it. And he will have none of our attempts to reshape Him in our own image, whatever ideological or theological or psychological perspective we are coming from.
In our prayer and our reading of scripture, in our life together, in our fasting and self-discipline, we open ourselves up to the transforming power of Jesus. And supremely in the Eucharist, as we follow His example and obey His command, we remember Jesus’ offering of Himself for our sake, we are fed by His presence in the Holy Sacrament, and we are united with His self-offering, that we may be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice to the Father.
Let’s not try to reshape Jesus in our image; instead we must allow ourselves to be shaped in His image. Let’s not pretend that we can accept the promise without being open to profound change. But let’s also be sure not to lose sight of the promise. The call to journey in faith into the unknown, the call to deny ourselves and follow, the call to take up the cross, the call to be ready even to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, this is a call to enter into the love and the delight and the beauty and the fullness of life itself, that life which Jesus lives with the +Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever.