The Beginning of the End
The beginning… the end… the beginning of the end… this last long weekend of summer is one or all of the above. The beginning of fall… the end of the summer… the beginning of “regular” routines… the end of the slower summer pace. Many of us are no longer bound by the strict school schedule but this weekend still tends to hold a kind of psychological place in our lives and in the life of our community. It is a time of ending and beginning… the beginning of the end, that is reflected in our Gospel today: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” It is the first of Jesus’ predictions of his passion – his suffering, death and resurrection – in the Gospel of Matthew but it is not the last. It is the beginning of the end. Beginning with this passage, Jesus’ public teaching takes a backseat, as one commentator describes, he “turns his attention to instructing the disciples in his destiny and what it means for the new community being formed.” (NIB, 316)
Our passage today contains one of the most shocking reversals in the Gospel. In the scene immediately before, Peter becomes the hero and leader of the newly forming community as he identifies Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds by blessing Peter and giving him the keys to the kingdom, saying in part: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” It is a grand beginning for the new community forming around Jesus. The glow of the moment has barely faded when the conversation continues, seemingly immediately with no change of location or setting. Never could Peter have imagined, or I would suspect, the other disciples, that Jesus being the Messiah – God’s new means of salvation – would mean rejection, suffering, death. Salvation is supposed to be about rescue, presence, success, victory… salvation is not supposed to go through absence… failure… pain… death.
Moments after Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, and is rewarded by himself being declared key to the new community of faith, they come to a sharp corner. Like the early snowstorm a few years back when the trees were still full of green leaves. Today, Jesus begins “to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elder and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” It is not what Peter wants to hear anymore than the rest of us: “God forbid it, Lord!” he exclaims, “This must never happen to you.” We can understand Peter’s resistance. Undergoing great suffering and being killed couldn’t possibly be part of God’s plan. This is not what God’s Anointed One should experience, even among an imperfect humanity. But Jesus is steadfast, declaring Peter now a stumbling block, concerned too much with human things… perhaps a human desire for divine victory that will rescue us from all that ails us within and without. We want a new beginning with Jesus as Lord, not a terrible ending. How can we understand, let alone embrace, this teaching of Jesus?
Peter Rollins is a contemporary theologian whose 2015 book The Divine Magician develops a theology using the model of a magic trick. He describes 3 classic elements of a vanishing act as: 1. “an object is presented to the audience”; 2. “this object is made to disappear”; and, 3. “The object then miraculously reappears…” usually somewhere else. (3) A small ball hidden under 3 cups mysteriously vanishes, then reappears from behind an awestruck child’s ear. He likens the first part, the Pledge, to a sacred-object inaccessible because of some kind of prohibition or barrier. This sacred-object is whatever it is that we think will solve all our problems… in a religious sense this might mean that which we think will bring us harmony, peace, joy, eternal life… but sacred objects are no less present in our secular world… if only I had better health, a younger body, the right job, a fulfilling relationship, more money… all would be well.
The second part, the Turn, is the moment of disappearance, which he likens to Jesus’ crucifixion. It is the moment when whatever it is that we thought would make everything right, whatever we thought would save us, disappears. It is the moment when our sacred-object is revealed as nothing… gone. Rollins describes this moment as “a type of earth-shattering, existential revelation. For this is not about understanding something, but about undergoing a transformation in how we live.” Experiencing Jesus’ crucifixion involves “the shock of realizing that the sacred does not exist out there…” “… There is no forbidden fruit with the power to make us gods… there is no sacred-object that will make everything right.” (61) It is a radical theological framing of the Jesus story that helps us to grasp why Peter protests so vehemently against Jesus’ passion prediction… and why Jesus responds by calling out Peter’s protest in the harshest of terms. Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death, even when followed by resurrection, serves to dismantle our entire way of being. If our whole lives revolve around seeking after our sacred-object and that sacred-object dies, thereby revealing its impotence to save us as we sought… as we thought… the resulting existential crisis is real, profound, life-changing, transformational. And that is precisely the point.
Rollins goes on to describe the final part of the vanishing act when the object miraculously reappears: the Prestige. It is the moment “we receive back the sacred, but no longer as an object that seems to dwell just beyond our reach…”(90) It is an experience that transforms an idol into an icon. An idol is an “imaginary thing we believe will make us whole, while [an] icon is a way of holding something that draws us into an experience of wonder and awe. In contrast to an idol, which eternally stands outside our world, an icon is in our world.” (96-7) More than believing, Jesus’ death and resurrection is about “a life that has been freed from an idolatrous existence that turns us from the world to an iconic engagement with the world.” (102, italics his) It is the end of looking beyond – out there or up there – to be passively rescued from the circumstances of our life – and it is the beginning of freedom to live life more fully. It is freedom even from seeking an overarching meaning because we become so engaged in living radically in the present, actively living with a hope committed to the idea that better is possible, that our faith becomes “a lived protest against forms of life that treat existence as worthless.” (119)
Rollins theology is a compelling way of considering the cost and promise of discipleship that Jesus goes on to describe in our passage today. His prediction of the troubles and triumphs coming soon to him extends beyond his own life to that of his disciples: “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 will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” What if the life Jesus promises we will lose in following Jesus’ way is an idolatrous life of seeking after some object: money, power, security, health… even an image of God? What if the life we will gain is a life of freedom from a never-ending search that will ultimately disappoint? What if we lose the exhausting, death-making drive for that which we think will solve all our problems and gain instead a life of greater, deeper and more love-filled engagement with our world, here and now?
Today Jesus says that the way is to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow. This denial is not about pretending. It’s not pretending we are other that who we are but rather it is about admitting who we are so we are free to make choices that bring life not just to us but to the world. It’s the difference between pretending I don’t like ice cream, saying “no, I don’t want any ice cream on this perfect, sunny summer day when it would taste particularly amazing.” And admitting that in fact, I love ice cream and want it so, so much… but I will not be held captive to that desire because of a deeper need. It’s the difference between pretending we don’t get hurt or hurt others through insensitive or cruel words and actions… and admitting when we are, in fact hurt and angry, sad and sorry, so that we are not held captive by those wrongs – done or done to us – and can instead choose repentance and forgiveness. Denying ourselves and taking up our cross is about radical honesty, with ourselves first and foremost, so that instead of living weighed down by the death contained in unacknowledged grief, pain, and suffering, we are free to choose that which brings us and our community greater life. That is the kind of ending that is the beginning of hope.
What ending do you pray is beginning for you and your life on this Labour Day weekend? What hope is there for you in Jesus’ first prediction that the end of one way of living is coming and another beginning? What freedom might you gain by losing a life of seeking? For what would you give your life and in the giving, gain a fullness beyond imagining? What will you give in return for your life? Whatever your answers are, may the ending that will bring life begin for you today.