In classical church architecture and art there were often elaborate paintings or sculptures that adorned the walls above altars. This is at the point in history where all altars were still East facing, and the priest faced the altar with the people, instead of turning towards the people. The art was often meant to offer images to reflect on as the mass is said, images of Christ’s suffering or of Christ’s resurrection. Throughout history these altar pieces often became more elaborate, with multiple panels that would swing aside to reveal a different painting, and this offered the church the ability to show several different scenes from our holy scripture throughout the church year.
There is one altar piece in particular that came to mind when I studied the readings for today. The Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France. It’s on display in a museum now, but originally it was created in the 16th century for the Antonine Monastery in Isenheim. The Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony were a monastic order that existed for the care of plague sufferers. Their purpose was to take in those afflicted and care for them in the hospitals attached to their monasteries. These are all critical facts to understand why the altarpiece is so unique.
The most famous panel is the first one, and it depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. But why it’s important is that the painter chose to do something no one had ever seen before. He put plague sores all over Jesus’ body, reflecting the suffering of those that would have been in the hospital for similar illnesses. It shows patients that Christ suffers with them, that he knows their pain and that they do not have to fear their ordeal.
So often I see our faith trying to sanitize the image of Jesus’ life to leave out his brutal death at the hands of the authorities. We want to focus on ministry Jesus walking around the Galilean hills preaching and healing people. Or we want to focus on the triumphal post-Resurrection Jesus, who has conquered death and Hell and assured our salvation. Those are both wonderful and important aspects of our faith and the good news of Jesus Christ, but they are not the whole story and we see in our Gospel lesson today what happens when Peter tries to convince Jesus to leave that part out.
After Peter has spoken the truth of Jesus’ nature as we heard in last week’s Gospel, Jesus now pushes further in his education of the disciples about what must come next. No doubt this is hard for the disciples to hear, especially with the foundation established about Jesus’ divinity! Certainly now he must take Jerusalem and cast down all those that oppress them! But that is not the route God has laid out, and it is not our path as followers of Christ. To be clear though, none of this makes a difference if we didn’t have the assertion last week of Jesus’ divinity. Otherwise, this is just another martyr for a cause.
Charles Hambrick-Stowe writes, “The cross […] makes sense only in connection with knowing Jesus as “Messiah, the Son of the living God”. There is no great theological meaning in martyrdom for an ideal or in death that otherwise results from force, injustice, misunderstanding, or accident. Only if Jesus is who he says he is – and he identifies himself as Savior and Son of God by blessings Peter’s confession – does the gospel build to redemptive climax and hope-filled conclusion.”
We often give Peter a pretty bad rap for how he responds to what Jesus says. Really Peter often ends up being the one to exemplify the wrong response. But it is no surprise that he reacts so strongly to Jesus’ assertion that suffering and death must come. Peter tries to find a different way, to argue that surely there can be triumph without defeat. He even pulls Jesus aside to convince him otherwise. We are told that Jesus rebukes Peter in a very strong manner… “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus’ rebuke is not fully directed at Peter though. Peter’s words take Jesus back to the desert and the temptation that the Deceiver offers him…all the world’s power if Jesus but bows down and worships. All of the victory with none of the sacrifice. This is not the way it is to be, and Jesus knows this. He is trying to teach his disciples the importance of this and because they are human, because they don’t know any better, they are looking for a resolution that doesn’t come at such a price.
Then Jesus gives us an even harder teaching to grasp. If we want to follow him, as his disciples, then we too are invited to take up our cross and follow him. Hambrick-Stowe writes, “Astonishingly Jesus offers crucifixion to those who would follow him. In a bold assertion of God’s boundary-crossing grace, Jesus takes as his logo the grim killing tool of the world’s superpower: “Take up [your] cross”. If you want to follow me, deny yourself; if you want to find your life, give up your life. Jesus dies in our place, but not to exempt us from the cost of discipleship. The gospel is an invitation to death before it bestows new life. This is how God’s love will redeem and resurrect sinners from the futility of life devoted to profit in this world. Because Jesus dies for our sin, we may now give ourselves to him and die to the powers that posses and control us. Atonement that is for us will involve us.”
This doesn’t mean that we affect our own salvation. God has assured that. What this invitation does do is offer us a path to follow Christ, as we so often proclaim that we do. But we want the easy way. We want to carry a cross for a few miles that has a wheel attached to the bottom of it so it makes it easier. We want to carry a cross that is about a minor hardship. In Jesus’ time, the cross was not a symbol of hardship, it was a symbol of death. Christ calls us to life that puts us in harm’s way. When we stand for the Justice of God, the Love and Peace that God calls his people to, we will be standing against the world that lusts for power and control.
We want to look for the easy way, to put the values of the world above the values of God. We don’t want to hear when the Gospel contradicts our way of thinking. We argue that it sounds too political, or too antiquated. Perhaps that it just doesn’t apply in this particular situation. But deep down we know it does. We know that time and time again we fail to live up to Christ’s invitation to take up our cross. Whether it is because we are afraid of the consequence, or the wood is too heavy, or the journey seems to hard.
And yet, Christ knows as well that we will fail to do as asks. He knows that we are imperfect, that we cannot measure up. He moves ahead with the plan of salvation all the same. Just because we know that we aren’t perfect doesn’t excuse us from following Christ, from taking up our cross. There are examples we can look to, Dietrich Bonheoffer who stood against the Nazis, Jonathan Myrick Daniels a freedom rider who died protecting a black girl from white supremacists in 1965.
There is still so much suffering in this world, so much worship of power, of wealth, of domination. We are called to stand outside of that as followers of Christ and to be willing to take up our cross…an emblem of death… for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The old hymn says, “Take up your cross; let not its weight; fill your weak spirit with alarm; Christ's strength shall bear your spirit up; and brace your heart and nerve your arm.”