At least Jesus took poor Peter to one side! There are few things worse than being shamed in public. Yet the story of this stinging rebuke somehow leaked out. Indeed there is a school of thought that attributes much of Mark's gospel to the words and memories of St. Peter. Perhaps in this account we are hearing his confession.
One may have enormous sympathy with Simon nicknamed Peter. He was one of the first to join Jesus and obviously loved him dearly. Peter was a bit of a "muscular Christian" prone to blurting out his thoughts and feelings, for better and for worse. Yet there is no deceit in him. What you see is what you get.
In the gospel today we see Peter at his most inspired and in his most protective mood. He wants his Lord to be so much more than a mere prophet, even a famous prophet. "You are the Chosen One: the Son of the Living God." He wants the man he loves to be superhuman and to overcome everything easily.
The word Messiah meant much more than a religious leader. Devout Jews believed that their long suffering as an occupied nation would come to an end by God's direct intervention. The God of Israel would save his people by sending one specially chosen from birth. To a believing first-century Jew that meant the Romans would be thrown out and a religious and political Israel would emerge restored and renewed.
Just as there were many in the occupied nations of Europe during World War II who dreamed of the day when the Nazis would be expelled, so first-century Jews dreamed of the day when the tramp of the Roman legions with their idolatrous eagle banner would no longer be heard.
When Peter blurted out this statement, Jesus gave him high honor. "You are the Rock." Tradition suggests that Peter was a big strong man. "The Big Fisherman." A rock is strong and hard and immovable. Peter must have stood tall. His faith was the rock on which Jesus' gospel would be built.
But then Jesus begins to talk about what a Messiah-ministry would look like. Rather like Winston Churchill, who offered the British people nothing but "blood, sweat, toil, and tears" in the battle against Hitler's Germany, Jesus tells a story of redemption and renewal founded in his own personal suffering and death: suffering brought on by rejection, abuse, defection, and death. Little did Peter know that he would play the coward when those dark moments arrived.
Jesus offered no easy religion to his disciples and he offers no easy religion to us. We don't much like that. So often we think of faith as some sort of insurance policy against suffering, hurt, betrayal, sickness, and death itself. Like Peter, we don't want a faith that goes there. We want a return for our investment. We want our rights. We want our freedom. The list of our wants go on and on. Like Peter, we don't want Jesus to suffer, but is that in part because we don't want to be caught up in his suffering?
It is easy to deal with the sufferings of others at a distance. We may support causes, write checks, travel to meetings in our nice cars, and utter revolutionary thoughts. We may be attacked by those who oppose our views. What a comfortable martyrdom. Yet always there, behind the altar, on the wall, however tasteful or ornate, is the Cross. "If any would follow me they must take up their cross."
Yet even at the gate of death we cry Alleluia. So speaks the language of our Prayer Book. If our faith isn't an escape from hurt, isn't a faith about a Messiah who comes to do it all for us, it is a faith that brings us extraordinary joy in walking the way of the cross through death into life. Peter was crucified, legend tells us, upside down because he was not worthy to suffer as his Lord did. Poor Peter. He couldn't prevent his friend's death, and he suffered the same fate.
If Mark repeats Peter's own testimony in this passage, he demonstrates an honesty we would wish to emulate. Yes, we believe. Yes, we seek to avoid suffering: keep Easter but not Good Friday. Yes, we want to liberate those who suffer just as long as we don't suffer ourselves. Yes, we want our rights and fail in our duty. But just as Jesus used the fallible St. Peter as the rock on which he built his Church, so he uses the smaller, often split rocks of our uncertain faith to spread the gospel to a needy world.