The Unentitled Gospel

The Upside-Down Cross

Many of you have asked, and likely many more have wondered why I chose an upside-down cross for the Unentitled logo. While you may think it is simply for shock appeal, it carries a far deeper meaning to the underlying message of this blog. It is true that the symbol has been stolen by Satanists as a sacrilegious display of their anti-Christian sentiments. That is not, however, the origin of this jarring visual. The inverted cross – also called the Cross of St. Peter – was iconized in one of the most humble deaths recorded in the New Testament era, second to that of Jesus himself. Peter was brought from being one of Jesus’ most entitled disciples to a radically unentitled posture culminating in his death on an upside-down cross.

More sermons have been preached about Peter than almost every other disciple. Perhaps it is because he is considered to be the most “human” of all the disciples, his foibles and follies all too familiar to our fleshly tendencies. Or maybe it is because Jesus referred to Peter as the rock upon which He would build His Church. Regardless, Peter demonstrated an honest and passionate desire to follow and serve the Lord boldly, albeit imperfectly.

Peter, like most of the other disciples, mistakenly assumed that Jesus was a king who would reign and rule in an earthly kingdom rather than a King who would die to initiate a heavenly kingdom. In fact, Peter was so appalled when Jesus told them He was going to die that he was the one who exclaimed “Far be it from you, Lord. This shall never happen to you!” (Matt 16:22) You can certainly bet he was one of the disciples who – on three different occasions – were debating who was the greatest among them (Matt 9:46-48, 20:20-28 and Luke 22:24). It is clear that Peter and the other disciples associated their allegiance to Jesus to a greatness of rank, dignity, importance and status – thus completely misunderstanding the true nature of Jesus’ power and authority.

In one occasion, Jesus hinted at Peter’s future martyrdom by saying “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.)” And what was Peter’s response to this? Rather than being humbled by such a declaration from his Lord, he immediately turned and “saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them” and asked Jesus “Lord, what about this man?” Peter’s first response was to compare the “glory” of his fate with that of the disciple perceived to be particularly favored and loved by Jesus.

Throughout the Gospels, it is clear that Peter considered himself to be Jesus’ most faithful servant. One quintessential demonstration is when Jesus predicts that the disciples will fall away after his death and Peter boasts that “though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” (Matt 26:33)

Have you ever had God call your bluff?

Jesus called Peter’s bluff the moment Peter felt most sure of himself. “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” But Peter’s response is adamant – “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matt 26:35) After denying Jesus for the third time, you can easily imagine how grieved Peter must have been as he went out and wept bitterly. However, what we don’t often consider is how Peter must also have been wondering “What now?” He had just spent the last three years following his Lord only to deny Him at this most critical juncture. At that moment, Peter was left with neither confidence in his own faith nor conviction in the object of his faith – both of which he had so fervently boasted up to this point.

Even after the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room, Peter does not linger around to celebrate with the rest of them. Think of how estranged and ashamed he must have felt around the other disciples, knowing that he was the one who had denied their Lord, the one who had failed the test of faithful devotion. Recall that the response Judas had to betraying Jesus was to commit suicide rather than live with that kind of infamy. Instead of considering the gravity of Jesus’ resurrection and what kind of impact that would have on his future, Peter swiftly went back to the occupation he had before he began following Jesus.

Fast forward a few days later and we find Peter with a few disciples out in a boat, fishing, when they see a figure on the shoreline. The moment they realize it is their beloved Lord, Peter jumps off of the boat and swims to shore. (John 21) After the initial rush of adrenaline from launching his body into the water, I can imagine him wondering “What will I say to him?” Or more frightening yet, “What will He say to me?” One of the last interactions they had was when Peter literally said “May curses be brought upon me if I know this man.” If there was ever a way to effectively and completely cut off a relationship with someone, I’m pretty sure that would be it.

Soon after Peter arrives at the shore Jesus asks him – at his most vulnerable and insecure moment – “Do you love me?” The word he used here was of course agape – unconditional love. Now, could Peter in good conscience answer yes considering his denial? Therefore he responds with “Lord you know that I love you” but uses the lesser form fileo, or brotherly, love. By the third time Jesus asks the question – one for every denial – Peter is deeply grieved. Jesus’ question struck at Peter’s deepest insecurity which was that he was not, in fact, worthy to be considered a faithful follower of Christ – a conviction which he had adamantly held to up to the moment he denied Jesus.

Why did Jesus present Peter with this question? Was He merely taunting him or did Jesus need some kind of affirmation of Peter’s devotion after his denial? It is clear that it was not Jesus who doubted Peter’s love, but Peter. Peter needed a reminder that his devotion to Jesus was not dependent on what he could offer to him or gain from him, but simply based on his love for him and the desire for a relationship with him.

But why did Jesus wait until now to ask this loaded question? I can easily imagine what Peter would have said if Jesus had posed this question prior to his denial. Without a moment’s hesitation he would have said “Yes, Lord! Of course I love you unconditionally!” In fact, when Peter proclaimed that he would rather die than deny Jesus, he was essentially avowing unconditional love and devotion.

However, Peter’s problem was two-fold: 1) He was prideful of his fervent devotion to the Lord and 2) He misunderstood the true nature of Jesus’ kingship. These two things together created a sense of spiritual entitlement that because of his radical devotion to the Lord, he could expect to be exalted with Jesus when He rose to His rightful throne of power.

However, this entitled mindset was not revealed until the moment Peter realized that Jesus was going to die, thus shattering any expectations of exaltation. At that moment, Peter was tested to see precisely where his true devotion lay. In denying Jesus, Peter was effectively stripped of any entitlement of what he stood to gain from his fervent devotion. Now, if his expectations laid solely in the potential for earthly glory, he might have committed suicide like Judas did. But he did not.

In fact, when Peter saw Jesus on the shore he launched himself headlong towards Him, though having nothing to offer of himself and nothing to gain but Jesus Himself. Jesus could not have asked “Do you love me unconditionally?” until the earthly conditions and expectations Peter had placed on his devotion had been effectively removed. All conditions of conditional love stem from some form of entitlement. Therefore only after Peter was stripped of his spiritual entitlement was he able to fully receive and respond to Jesus’s unconditional love.

Now let us fast forward through several more years of Peter’s faithful discipleship to the very end of his life. History informs us that Jesus’ prophecy was finally fulfilled when Peter was sentenced to death on a cross. By this time, however, Peter’s attitude had undergone a radical transformation. This disciple who had previously argued about who was the greatest now insisted on being crucified upside down to deny any exaltation of equality with his Lord’s death.

Peter went from comparing how close he was to Jesus in life – to becoming a martyr who refused to make himself an equal of Christ even in death. While the former Peter would have relished the honor of dying in a manner comparable to Jesus, the latter Peter refused to grasp at any such glory for himself. In this way Peter represented the full self-denying identity of Christ who, though being equal with God “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” (Philippians 4)

Peter’s choice of the upside-down cross was the truest symbol of unentitled devotion because he refused to exalt himself even in imitation of Christ, thus representing His completely self-denying identity. The only response of a true disciple when confronted with the cross of Christ is to lose all sense of pride in your own glory, to release your earthly expectations and take up your cross and follow Him in the pattern of unconditional lay-down-your-life love.

Peter’s swim towards Jesus after his humiliating denial was not unlike the road the Prodigal took to go back home after being stripped of all his earthly entitlement. At that moment, the Prodigal knew he had nothing to offer and he expected nothing in return – yet there was no other place he would go than back to the house of his Father. The moment we reach the end of ourselves and what we feel we have to either offer by or expect in return for our own devotion to Jesus is the moment we can receive and respond to His unconditional love.

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