This passage occurs in the RCL, year A (most recently Aug 30, 2020).
Summary: Whatever one does, we shouldn't water down this passage. It is harsh. As I reflect on it this year, I am really struck by the tenses of the verbs, that "deny" and "pick up" are aorist or one-time events, yet follow is a present, or on-going event. This suggests to me, with a Lutheran understanding of Baptism and vocation, of a life-long cross that we inherit in our Baptisms, the cross of service to our neighbor. We are always following Jesus, discovering what this cross entails. It looks different, but it is always the same -- care of our neighbor. Lastly, I think the good news for me is actually found in the next story, the transfiguration. We get overwhelmed by the cross but then Jesus opens our eyes to his glory -- and we can carry on.
Some words I'm chewing on:
διεκνυειν (-υμι, "show", 16:21) Although it is translated as 'explain' it has a more visual sense. See the following examples.
- "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us" (John 14:8, Phillip to Jesus)
- "...show yourself to the priest" (Luke 5:14, Jesus to a Leper)
- "He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready..." (Mark 14:15, Jesus to disciples)
- "The devil ...showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor..." (Matthew 4:8)
This makes me wonder -- how was Jesus communicating the necessity of the cross?
ιλεως ("merciful", 16:22) This is a fascinating word here. Perhaps you recognize "eleison" as its sibling? Anyway, Peter is saying, something akin to "Forgive you, Lord" or "God be merciful." He is not saying, "Never!" He is saying that Jesus' prediction is antithetical to God's purposes.
οπισω ("behind", 16:23,24) This word appears twice: 'Get behind me Satan' and then 'if you want to come behind me'. The second time its often translated as follow, yet its the same word. Either we are left behind or we get behind him.
απαρνησασθω ("deny", 16:24) and αρατω ("pick up", 16:24) What I have always struggled with here is that these verbs are in the aorist tense, which suggests a one-time event. Does this mean we should move toward a decision/one-time event understanding of faith? Keep reading...
ακουλουθειτω ("follow", 16:24) this is in the present tense. We are to pick up the cross one time, but then continue to follow Jesus are whole lives? Rather than understand this to mean that we make a one-time decision to follow Jesus, I argue we need to re-think what Jesus means by cross here. When I think of picking up my cross, I think of my baptism. The cross given to me in a my baptism confers on me the life orientation of living a disciple. In my life, this same cross -- living as a disciple -- unfolds in different ways, always through service to the neighbor. It is always the same cross- dying to myself and to the world, but it looks different -- patiently bearing the criticism of others, apologizing to my colleages when I am wrong, listening to my neighbor whine, potty training my daughter and so forth. In life, we don't get one particular cross, one challenge to bear, but the whole weight of our neighbor's needs is ever upon us.
To put it another way, the cross of life should weigh upon us so heavy that we call out to Jesus for mercy and forgiveness. And he then can carry the cross for us.
σταυρον ("cross" 16:24) Just a quick reminder that before we get to sentimental about cross, this was an ancient capital punishment device. We need to make the cross abstract to make sense of it (ie, we don't need to nail wood planks and walk around with them); but we need to not make it too abstract that we lose the challenge of it.
ψυχη(ν) ("soul", 16:25) This word is very tricky to translate. The NET Bible offers a good reflection:
The Greek ψυχή (psuchē) has many different meanings depending on the context. The two primary meanings here are the earthly life (animate life, sometimes called “physical life”) and the inner life (the life that transcends the earthly life, sometimes called “the soul”). The fact that the Greek term can have both meanings creates in this verse both a paradox and a wordplay. The desire to preserve both aspects of ψυχή (psuchē) for oneself creates the tension here (cf. BDAG 1099 s.v. 1.a; 2.d,e). Translation of the Greek term ψυχή (psuchē) presents a particularly difficult problem in this verse. Most English versions since the KJV have translated the term “life.” This preserves the paradox of finding one’s “life” (in the sense of earthly life) while at the same time really losing it (in the sense of “soul” or transcendent inner life) and vice versa, but at the same time it obscures the wordplay that results from the same Greek word having multiple meanings. To translate as “soul,” however, gives the modern English reader the impression of the immortal soul at the expense of the earthly life. On the whole it is probably best to use the translation “life” and retain the paradox at the expense of the wordplay. NET Bible: Matthew
πραξιν (-ς, "actions", 16:27) While Jesus may call us to set out mind of things of God and not "of people" (vs. 23), we are evaluated on our "praxis." Praxis means "business" or "actions", what we actually do. The godly life then, does not consist of other worldly activities, but activities in this world that somehow involve God. What might that mean for you? For your congregation?