Our Gospel lesson today is pretty harsh. We read with sympathetic ears for Peter: partly because, objectively speaking, Jesus is being rude. But we are also sympathetic because we can identify with Peter more than we might like to admit. Peter has decided that he knows what being a Messiah is, that Jesus is that same Messiah, and that Jesus is not acting how he should.[i] So he rebukes Jesus in front of everyone. Peter’s desire to control Jesus makes sense. His life has been out of control since the moment he left his boat to follow this crazy man. Trying to control Jesus is the natural response of someone desperate for some normalcy. For Peter, Jesus being the conquering Messiah will validate Peter’s decisions – but only if Jesus acts in accordance with the definition of a Messiah. If Jesus starts redefining the concept of Messiah, Peter will be left floundering, his life spinning even further out of control than his life already feels. Anyone who has been paying attention during this pandemic knows what having little control over life around you feels like.
One of my favorite book and film series is Harry Potter. In the first movie, while trying to save the Sorcerer’s Stone, the main characters, Harry, Hermione, and Ron, fall into a pit. At the bottom of the pit is a bed of vines that cushions their fall. But they soon find that the vines are magical vines, which start weaving themselves around Harry and the others’ bodies. The more they struggle, the tighter the vines wrap around their bodies. Hermione remembers from class that the only way to escape one these plants is to totally relax your body – to surrender. She relaxes, and her body sinks into the bed of vines, disappearing. Harry and Ron freak out, but Hermione shouts from below that they just need to relax and they will reach the floor. Harry listens to Hermione and relaxes his body and is also sucked in and released. Ron, however, totally loses his cool. He completely panics, and thrashes about so much that the vines wrap themselves around his screaming mouth. After losing the battle of trying to convince Ron to relax, Hermione has to use a special spell to get the plant to release him.
Sometimes I think our relationship with God is a lot like Ron’s relationship with that strange plant. We are creatures who want to be in control. We want to control how our careers develop, what our relationships will be like, our plans for retirement, and the timing of major life events. Although we are rarely successful, we try to control other people too – our family members, our friends, our co-workers. And most of all, we try to control God. We see this desire most readily in our prayer lives – we ask God for things, we pray for specific solutions to our problems, and we get angry with God when things do not go our way. We rarely say those words that Jesus says, “Not my will but yours be done.”[ii] And even more rarely do we sit in prayer with God and just listen. When we examine our relationship with God, we are more likely to find our hands grasping tightly for control than to find ourselves with open hands, willingly ceding control to God.[iii]
The unfortunate thing about our desperate need for control is that we miss what God is trying to do in our lives – just like Peter. By being so controlling with Jesus, Peter is unable to really hear Jesus, and unable to understand the radically wonderful way that Jesus will not only redefine the concept of the Messiah, but will do so much more than the expected Messiah could do. But that is not the scariest part. The challenge for us today is not just the ceding of control; the challenge is when we finally cede control with Peter, there is more to the story. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that once we understand what a Messiah really is, we too must behave like a Messiah. We too must follow the way of Christ – the way of the cross that leads to death. That cross up there over our altar, the one that we hang everywhere, including around our necks, is not just a symbol for what Christ did for us. That cross is a symbol for the life that we take up too. The cross is not simply Jesus’ cross, but the cross is our cross.
But, if we can trust Jesus, trust God, if we can relax our bodies in those tangled vines that are trying to squeeze the life out of us, we might just fall into the place where we need to be. We might just realize that taking up our cross does not only lead to suffering; taking up our cross also leads to a glorious life of greater joy than we can imagine, and salvation beyond our wildest dreams, where death and suffering have no power over us. When we move our hands from being tightly closed fists of control to open hands of trust and acceptance, we create space for God to rest in our hands, to show us the way. The other side of those tangled vines of our desire for control is a glorious place. All we have to do is let go and let God. Amen.
[i] Martha L. Moore-Keish, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 70.
[ii] Luke 22.42.
[iii] Patrick J. Wilson, “Cross Culture,” Christian Century, vol. 111, no. 5, Feb. 16, 1994, 165.