by Father J. Sergius Halvorsen
Everyone loves a winner.
We celebrate athletes that run and jump, throw and catch better and faster than anyone else. We marvel at entrepreneurs who start companies that earn billions of dollars. We idolize the actors and musicians who are at the top of their craft. Everyone loves a winner.
We live in a culture that worships winners. It’s all about winning elections, winning arguments, winning friends and influencing people. Winning may be our greatest obsession. What does it take to win? What strategy will give us an advantage over our opponent? What kind of training and preparation will give us the edge that we need to come out on top? We work and plan and scheme to figure out a way to win, and then we dream about the glory that will be ours.
This is probably what Peter was thinking when he and the disciples entered Caesarea Philippi with Jesus. It was there, in that city with its famous pagan temple, that Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples said, “Some people think that you are John the Baptist, some say that you are Elijah, and others say that you are one of the prophets.” But then, Peter, going for the win, says, “You are the Christ, God’s anointed, the Messiah!” Peter does not think of Jesus as some member of the supporting cast; he says that Jesus is the Christ, the one that God sent to deliver His people. But Jesus immediately commands them not to tell anyone about Him. Isn’t that strange? Why does Jesus tell them not to say anything about Him? It is because Peter was wrong.
Yes, Jesus is the Christ, but what Peter has in mind when he says that Jesus is the “Christ” is completely off base. Peter thinks the Christ will be the great hero who ends up with more money and more power and is more feared than the Emperor of Rome. Peter thinks that the Christ will raise up an army to fight for the Hebrew people and crush their Roman oppressors. Peter thinks that the Christ is going to be a winner on the world’s terms.
Jesus must have known exactly what Peter was thinking.
And this is why Jesus immediately starts telling His disciples that the Christ, the Son of Man, must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed, and after three days be raised.
Yes, Jesus is the Christ, but He’s a different kind of Christ than the one Peter was looking for. After Jesus spells out very plainly to the disciples that the Christ is not going to bring about victory on human terms, Jesus began to teach the disciples that the Son of man must suffer many things, that He would be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, that He would be killed, and after three days rise again. Jesus told them all of this in plain unequivocal language. But then Peter took Him, and began to rebuke Him. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him. Peter actually rebukes Jesus.
In other words, Peter speaks to Jesus like some sort of campaign manager, “Lord, what are you talking about? Rejection, suffering, being killed… are you kidding me?!? This is not what God’s anointed is supposed to do, and this is certainly NOT what you are going to do!”
Peter thinks that he knows better than Jesus. Peter thinks that Jesus needs to be corrected about what it means to be the Christ. And how easy is it for us to make the same mistake. In our effort to win our own victories, how easy is it to tell God what to do and how to do it?
“Lord, make sure that I get a big payoff.”
“Lord, make sure that my plans work out this time.”
“Lord, do exactly what I want, so that I can win.”
Sometimes we may think that God has strayed from the playbook; things aren’t turning out as we planned, so maybe we need to give God a reminder about what God is supposed to do. Peter definitely thought that he had to tell Jesus what to do in order to achieve an earthly victory. That’s why Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan. For you are not on the side of God but on the side of men.” Jesus tells Peter and us that winning, according to the rules of this world, is a false victory. Christ says “Whoever would save his life would lose it.” An earthly victory is a false victory because, for every army that marches home in victory, there are scores of widows and orphans who weep in the ashes and rubble of defeat. For every billionaire entrepreneur, there are millions of people living in poverty. For everyone who wins an argument, there is someone who is left in anger and resentment. And the bottom line is that we don’t always win. More often than not, when we lose, or when our plans don’t work out, in our desperation we can so easily turn against God and turn against the people we love.
This is exactly what happened to Peter when he denied Jesus on the night before the Crucifixion. In the cold darkness of that courtyard outside of the house of the high priest, Peter watched and waited, hoping that somehow his plans and schemes for the Messiah could still be salvaged. But when the bystanders said, “Hey, aren’t you one of Jesus’ friends; Yeah, you are one of Jesus’ disciples; You are a Galilean, you must be on of Jesus’ followers,” three times Peter denied that he knew Jesus, invoking a curse and swearing, “I do not know this man Jesus.”
And when Peter realized what he had done, he broke down and wept. Everything had gone wrong, and in his desperation, he had denied and abandoned Jesus. Peter’s life had become a living hell. To worship the false victory of this world is to live in hell. Perhaps in that moment, Peter remembered Jesus’ words, “Get behind me Satan.” But in that moment, maybe Peter also remembered what Jesus said right after that. Jesus says to His disciples, “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” These are the same words that Jesus speaks to us on this third Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Cross.
Jesus does not say, “whoever desires to come after me should go out and get himself crucified.” Jesus specifically says, “take up the cross and follow me” — which is the complete opposite of everything we know about winning. To carry your cross is to experience the absolute shame of defeat. It is like the condemned man who is commanded to prepare the noose for his own hanging. It is like the victims in the concentration camp who are forced to dig the pit that will become their own mass grave.
In Jesus’ time, the ritual of forcing a condemned man to carry his cross was murderous mockery. Carrying the cross was part of the bloody Roman propaganda that said, “Behold this man, who disobeyed our commands. Look at how we crush him and strip him of his last shred of dignity. Look at how we force him to carry the cross that we will use to execute him. Look at the power of the Empire, look at how we have won.”
And Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, submits to the Cross willingly, to show that God’s victory is not the victory of this world. Christ’s death on the Cross is the sign that the power of God is greater than the most hideous power of this world. For in the very midst of the humiliation, and agony of crucifixion, as they nailed His hands and feet to the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
And at that moment, the world was forever changed. Because the hateful power of this world was defeated by the Love of God.
By carrying His cross, Jesus shows that the evil of man is powerless against the mercy of God. By carrying His cross, Jesus marches straight into the depths of hell and broke the bonds of sin and death. By carrying His cross, Jesus shows us a way out of the darkness of sin into the pure light of forgiveness. This is the victory of Christ, and this is why we bow down before the Cross.
Jesus’ victory on the Cross is the most unlikely victory that the world has ever seen because, in the Resurrection, Jesus did not return to take vengeance on the people who betrayed Him and murdered Him. In the Resurrection, Jesus returned and forgave Peter. And then Jesus sent His disciples out to preach the good news to the very people who had killed Him, the gentiles, the Romans.
We see this so clearly in Acts, when Paul and Silas had been arrested and beaten and thrown into jail. There they are in that dark, dank prison, singing hymns and praising God, when all of a sudden there was an earthquake and the doors were opened, and all the chains of the prisoners were loosed. When the jailer woke up, and saw what had happened, he assumed that all of the prisoners had escaped, and in his despair, he was about to kill himself. But Paul cried out, “Don’t harm yourself, we are all here.” In that moment, it would have been so easy for Paul to have said, “Ha, let that jailer get what he deserves.” But instead he saved the man from his despair. The jailer cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul told him about the love and mercy and power of Jesus, the Crucified Messiah.
This is the victory of the Gospel—those small, bright moments of reconciliation, when people who would otherwise be enemies, turn and embrace one another in the love of Christ. This is what it means to take up the cross and follow Christ.
Paul and Silas, and Peter and all the other disciples took up the Cross and followed Christ. They were given divine courage to endure the same kind of humiliation that Christ endured, and to share the love and mercy of God with everyone.
And today, as we fall down before the Holy Cross, as it is lifted up and we praise it in our hymns and songs, we are strengthened with the same divine courage. We face the evil and the anger of this world and we take up our cross and follow Christ, showing mercy and forgiveness to everyone around us, glorifying Jesus Christ. For Jesus’ victory, His victory on the Cross, the victory of God’s love, is our one true and lasting victory.
Priest Dr. J. Sergius Halvorsen received his M. Div. from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and completed his doctoral dissertation at Drew University in 2002. From 2000 to 2011 he taught at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, Cromwell, CT, where he also served as Director of Distance Learning. He was ordained to the priesthood in February 2004 and currently serves on the faculty of St. Vladimir’s Seminary as Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program.