We human beings love our rules. The security that comes from knowing how things should be done comforts us in our chaotic world. God understands this about us, and so God comes to us in terms of covenant. In our lesson from Genesis, God provides a clear agreement that Abraham can refer to and rely on to know that God will come through on God’s promises. God willingly limits Godself out of love, knowing that making this clear and concrete covenant, promising to be our God forever and make our descendants fruitful, will bring us comfort and security.
Where we get into trouble is in thinking that our ideas about rules and regulations should govern God. Once we understand that God will always be faithful to us and care for us, we start to think we know better than God who God should be and how God should act. Consider Peter’s action in our gospel story today. At first, his boldness is shocking – how did he have the audacity to take Jesus aside and rebuke him? But when we examine our hearts, we might realize that we, too, have sometimes wanted to take Jesus aside and rebuke him.
Peter acts this way because he doesn’t like what Jesus is saying. How often have we felt that way ourselves? How often have we wanted to explain the realities of a harsh world to a Jesus who seems naïve and unrealistic in his expectations of us? What do you mean, sell everything we have and give it to the poor to follow you, Jesus? How can you expect us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”? It’s simply not realistic to “give to everyone who asks of you.”
The truth is that our human instinct is to remake Christ in our own image, rather than letting ourselves be transformed into Christ’s image. We want to dictate the terms of the covenant, but Jesus makes it clear that that impulse is from the darkness within us, and he will name it and call us out on it. Just a few short verses ago, Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah. Peter got it right! He knew the truth about Jesus and was not afraid to proclaim it. And yet barely a moment later, he has made such a mistake that Jesus is saying that Satan is acting through him.
What we can learn from this is the truth that even after – perhaps especially after – our mountaintop experiences of revelation, we still have so very much to learn. Even as we gain more and more knowledge of Jesus and enter deeper and deeper into relationship with him, the mystery of his full nature grows at the same pace. Just because we know him doesn’t mean we get to tell him what to do, a lesson that Peter learned in this moment and that we will learn over and over again.
This gospel lesson is full of truths that are hard to hear. Peter’s expectations are dashed by what Jesus says. He and the other disciples have witnessed Jesus’ power – it was very natural for them to assume that Jesus would bring about the fullness of God’s covenant promises by overthrowing Rome and restoring the throne of Israel. Now Jesus tells them that he knows he will be defeated, arrested and killed – and he fully intends to let it happen.
This is a bitter, painful discovery for Peter and the others. It feels like a betrayal. “Jesus, you have the power of almighty God at your disposal. Rather than rescuing us from oppression, you’re going to give in and give up and let the Romans win again?”
This “gospel” Good News is the worst news imaginable.
What Peter doesn’t understand in this moment is that rather than betraying God’s covenant with Israel, Jesus is simultaneously fulfilling it and rewriting it. The original covenant promise to Abraham in our lesson from Genesis was for many fruitful descendants, all of whom would be loved and protected by God. It was a covenant promising a future of life. Jesus is inviting us to a covenant of life also – but it is by following a very different path than we would expect. Jesus promises life to us if we have the courage to face death. Jesus promises that if we give our lives wholeheartedly to him and thereby to serving our neighbors, we will have rich and abundant life flowing through us, welling up to eternal life.
It is an enticing invitation – but a scary one. To know that Jesus is entering death willingly and expects us to do the same would give anyone pause. And while we know that one day we will all confront literal, physical death, there are many other deaths awaiting us. We will face the death of our pride, the death of our comfortable ideas about what God is calling us to do and be, perhaps the death of our financial security and the death of our ambition and slavery to success. The covenant to which we are invited has very high stakes, and the urge to take Jesus aside and rebuke him as Peter did starts to make more and more sense.
It seems impossible, doesn’t it? It seems as farfetched to imagine ourselves brave enough to follow Jesus into death, to lose our lives to save them, as he says, as it did for Abraham and Sarah to have children in their old age. This covenant to which we are invited, this covenant that takes this strange and frightening path of cross-carrying and death, is only possible under one condition. We cannot make it on hard work or determination or power or strength.
Our lesson from Romans tells us what we need to enter into this covenant:
“It depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed. … Hoping against hope, [Abraham] believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations.’ … He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead. … No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
Faith is the only bridge through death on the cross to the new life of resurrection with Jesus. But it is not a fairytale faith that closes its eyes and hopes for the best, blindly wishing for a happy ending. It is a faith that takes stock of the very real cost of discipleship to which Jesus calls us, the price up to and including our very lives, and deems it a worthy gift to the Christ who withheld nothing from us.
Some of us, including many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, may pay that cost of discipleship with their literal, physical lives. But most of us will not go out in a blaze of martyred glory. Most of us will carry the cross one small step at a time, one spiritual discipline at a time, one act of generosity or sacrifice or love at a time.
However we carry the cross, the giving of our lives willingly to follow Jesus will manifest in one perhaps unexpected cost: the risk of being changed. When Abram and Sarai committed to God’s covenant with them, they were changed at such a fundamental level that they could no longer be known by their former names. The man and woman who were God’s covenant partners had to be known as Abraham and Sarah, names that echoed their former selves but were profoundly transformed, just like their lives and their souls.
This is the risk we take when we sign on to Jesus’ covenant of life, the journey with and through the cross and its transforming power, the road through death to resurrection. We will emerge on the other side with the building blocks of our souls familiar to us, but the temple of grace into which they have been built strange and new and glorious. We can finally let go of our urge to rebuke Jesus, to remake him to be like we think he should be, like ourselves, because we know through faith that he will remake us to be like him.
That’s a covenant promise worth our very lives.