A reflection for Sunday 25th February by the Rev'd David Warnes

Think for a moment about something that you once said about which you now feel embarrassed or ashamed. Don’t be alarmed, I’m not going to ask any of you to share it with us. That moment of recollection will give you some insight into how St Peter must have felt when Jesus rebuked him. It’s a moment that he would never forget, though reflecting on it in the light of Easter he knew that he had been forgiven for this and also for later denying that he knew Jesus. 

We can be confident that today’s Gospel is an accurate record of this exchange between Peter and Jesus because it meets what historians call “the criterion of embarrassment”. It shows Peter, a leader of huge importance in the early decades of the Christian movement, in a bad light. Peter’s words must have been stronger than most translations of the Bible make clear. We read that he rebuked Jesus. The Greek verb that the Gospel writer uses (epitimao) is used elsewhere in the Gospels when Jesus challenges demons. That helps to explain why Jesus reacts by rebuking Peter with the words “Get behind me, Satan.” But there was almost certainly another reason why Jesus said that. He was remembering his forty days of fasting in the wilderness and the temptations that he faced, temptations which all, in different ways, were about the misuse of power. Peter, who has just acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, is shocked by Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering, death and resurrection. That didn’t fit his belief about how the Messiah would use his power to liberate and restore Israel. 

If the first part of our Gospel reading meets the criterion of embarrassment, the second part, in which Jesus tells the disciples and the crowd:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

meets a different test of authenticity, which we might call the criterion of toughness. It’s not the sort of thing you say if your aim is to win friends, influence people or attract supporters. It’s not the sort of thing that politicians will be saying in the coming General Election. And the passage gets tougher still.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

For the first readers of St Mark’s Gospel, those words had an immediate, literal and frightening reality. They knew that Peter, Paul and other Christians had been martyred during the period of persecution ordered by the Emperor Nero. Sadly, these words still have a literal meaning for Christians facing persecution in some parts of the world. What are we to make of this saying, given that we can worship openly and in safety, and that the worst that we face from our contemporaries is indifference or misunderstanding? We are unlikely to be challenged to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel in a literal sense, but this text challenges us to reflect on the impact that discipleship should have on our lives. 

In thinking about this, I’ve been reminded that the phrase “living your best life” has come into widespread use in recent years, especially on social media. It was first popularised by the American chat show host Oprah Winfrey. Put that phrase in a search engine and you’ll find a range of views as to what it might mean. You’ll find sensible guidance from psychologists and psychotherapists, for example:

“Beware a sense of entitlement to a trouble-free life. No one can claim exemption from hard knocks and unfulfilled expectations, hopes and dreams.”

You’ll also find advice that is rooted in individualism and tends towards selfishness. That’s the thinking that lies behind the kind of tweet which consists of a selfie taken in an exotic holiday destination or an expensive restaurant with the caption “This is me, living my best life”.

This sermon isn’t heading in a puritanical direction. Holidays, entertainments, good food and wine, these are good things to be enjoyed, though our enjoyment should be tempered by an awareness that we are fortunate to be able to enjoy them when many cannot. Today’s Gospel isn’t a call to rigid asceticism. Jesus isn’t saying “deny yourself things that you desire”, though that can be a good short-term Lenten discipline and becomes vital to our spiritual health and to the well-being of others if our desires get out of control. He is saying “deny yourself”. This is an invitation to recognise our own self-centredness and to move away from it, centering our lives on him. Doing so has the potential to transform our relationship with others, enablibng us to live our best life.

We cannot deny ourselves in this sense unless we come to some knowledge of ourselves, our flaws and weaknesses. That kind of self-examination is an important part of discipleship, and Lent is a good time to emphasise it. But that self-examination should always happen within the secure knowledge that we are loved by the God who knows our weaknesses and shortcomings far better than we know them ourselves and that God loves us unreservedly. 

I began by asking you to recollect something about which, on reflection, you feel embarrassed or ashamed. That’s one step on the journey of self-examination but it’s only a first step. If we’re embarrassed about something that we said or did because it made other people think less well of us, we haven’t yet escaped from the prison of our own ego. If, on the other hand, we are regretting the hurt we have caused to someone else then we are acknowledging that we haven’t on that occasion lived our best life and we are opening ourselves to the transformation that the Grace of God makes possible.