A friend of mine has a Guinness World Record for a death-defying stunt they once did. I’m a little bit in awe! They’re so adventurous; I’m not at all adventurous, just the thought of what they did makes my heart race and my palms sweat and puts me fully in panic mode.
In panic mode is how I imagine we find Peter at this moment in the Gospel narrative, having just been rebuked by Jesus and chastised for having his mind on earthly things. I feel a little bit sorry for Peter here. Earlier on in Mark’s Gospel, we see that Peter is the first of the disciples to recognise who Jesus really is, that he is the Messiah. He’s witnessed Jesus do miracles of feeding thousands, healing people who have been sick for years, and challenging the ruling authorities of the day. In one sense, Jesus is following the exact trajectory of what your ideal messiah would say and do; a politically-minded messiah where physical liberation is seemingly on the way.
But Jesus’ behaviour has subverted expectations. He’s warned his disciples not to speak of the miracles he has done. And now he says that he is to undergo great suffering, be rejected, killed, and then rise again after three days. This doesn’t make sense to Peter, this doesn’t fit his imagined and longed-for idea of what a messiah should be. Dying isn’t part of the trajectory of a successful Messiah, and rising after three days? Well, that all sounds a little farfetched. And following Jesus suddenly seems like a lot more risk and a lot less success.
Fifteen years ago today, the 21st February 2004, in a converted warehouse in glamorous Watford, I made a decision which has radically affected the trajectory of my life. I made a decision to follow Jesus Christ. And it has been quite the adventure! If you had told me then that fifteen years later I would be training to be a Church of England priest, studying for a DPhil at Oxford, and worshipping in a setting like this with a brilliant choir, I would have thought that all sounded rather farfetched! I would also probably have asked what happened to my dream of becoming a world-famous popstar…
Following Jesus has been and continues to be an adventure with plenty of unexpected turns, but, let’s be honest, it hasn’t quite followed the trajectory of the world’s standards of success. Following Jesus has not made me rich; it’s not made me immune to the stresses and struggles of being a student at this university; and as for future security, well that’s not guaranteed. At times it has been and will be hard, really hard, deny yourself and pick up your cross kind of hard. And I will admit to looking at some of my successful friends and thinking ‘I kind of want what you have.’
But, actually, I wouldn’t change a thing. And neither would Peter. Because that throwaway comment about rising in three days, which we celebrate in the Eucharist, is not so farfetched after all. And resurrection hope is so potently powerful that it can’t not be my primary source of hope. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful, to have hopes and dreams, to aspire to certain things, but when they are the only or primary thing we put our hope in, they’re not really as satisfying as we might imagine and we can get stuck following a path that the world says we should be on, but which doesn’t allow much space for adventure.
Following Jesus leads to unexpected adventures as the human impossible meets the divine possible. And on those days, when panic mode sets in and earthly success seems far preferable, I hear Jesus ask the question of me that he asks of all of us: what good is it to gain the world but lose your soul?