« why an upside-down cross? »
while many may see the symbol as a satanic or sacrilegious symbol of anti-Christian sentiments, the inverted cross was originally an icon of one of the humblest deaths recorded in scripture.
Peter’s problem was two-fold: 1) He was proud of his fervent devotion to Jesus and 2) He misunderstood the true nature of His kingship. This created a sense of spiritual entitlement, whereby Peter assumed he would ride Christ’s coattails as He rose to take up a throne of worldly power. However, any expectation of earthly exaltation was shattered the moment he saw Jesus being led like a lamb to the slaughter. Peter had spent three years following the Lord only to deny Him on the eve of His crucifixion.
And yet Jesus’ prophesy (John 21:18-19) and church tradition tells us that Peter was later sentenced to death on a cross for his ardent allegiance to Christ. By that time, however, Peter’s attitude had undergone a radical transformation. The disciple who had once argued about who was the greatest in the kingdom now insisted on being crucified upside-down to avoid any similarity to his Lord’s death. Peter, who was once the most entitled disciple, had come to embrace a radically unentitled posture—ultimately culminating in death on an upside-down cross.
Peter went from comparing how equal he could get to Jesus in life—to become a martyr who refused to make himself an equal of Christ even in death. And while the former Peter would have relished the honor of dying in a manner comparable to his Lord, the latter Peter refused to grasp at any such earthly glory for himself. In this way, Peter’s death was a human echo the divine self-denial of Jesus Christ Himself who, though being equal with God “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” (Philippians 4)
So what had changed? I believe a major change of heart is evident in the first recorded interaction between Peter and Jesus after His death and resurrection. When Peter saw Jesus on the shore and swam towards Him, he had no idea what to expect. He had just squandered all relational currency with Jesus in his emphatic denial of all association with Him just days earlier. Nonetheless, Peter instinctively launched himself out of the boat and headlong towards Jesus, with nothing to offer to Him and nothing to gain from Him.
As Peter walks up the shoreline towards Jesus with his head hung low in shame with, I imagine, water dripping from his hair and clothes, Jesus asked a seemingly cruel question: “Do you love me unconditionally?” I can almost feel the long painful moment of silence before Peter replies, his hoarse voice barely above a whisper, “You know I love you like a brother.” The verb Jesus used for love was agape, and yet Peter exchanged it for fileo.
After all, how could Peter possibly claim to love Jesus without condition after he had just denied all relation to Him? The truth is that up until the day Jesus embraced the cross, Peter’s love had been conditional—he had served Jesus under the hopeful (yet false) assumption that His victorious kingdom would be of this world.
So the reality is, Jesus could not have asked this question at any other time and received a truthful answer. Only when Peter was at his weakest point—after every single condition he had placed on his love for Christ was removed—could his devotion to Jesus stand in stark independence from all he had to offer to or gain from Him. Suddenly, Peter was acutely aware of his pure love for Jesus and his naked desire for intimacy with Him.
Peter’s swim towards Jesus after his humiliating denial was not unlike the moment the Prodigal Son’s return home after spending his inheritance. The Prodigal knew he had nothing to offer and nothing to expect in returning to his father’s house (“perhaps he will receive me as a servant”)—and yet there was no other place he would rather go. The prodigal son had to be emptied of every single penny of his deserved entitlement before falling back on the mercy of an undeserved relationship as the unworthy son of his father.
But what does all of this have to do with us as modern-day believers?
We must all reach the end of ourselves—and everything we feel we have to offer God or expect in exchange for our devotion to Him—in order to fully receive and respond to God’s unconditional love. For it is as we are stripped of our spiritual entitlement and released of our earthly expectations, that we can finally learn to love God on the basis of who He is—His character and presence in our lives. And only then can we take up our crosses daily, loving God and our neighbor without condition, expectation or reservation.