The American painter Benjamin West was speaking with King George III. The monarch asked the painter what George Washington would do after independence. West said: “They say he will return to his farm.” George III replied: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
George Washington did something twice that most people wouldn’t do once: let go of power. It was because of his leadership America won independence in the first place, and if they followed the standard of the day, Washington would have been king. They would have given it to him if he wanted it. He could have held onto command of the army indefinitely, no one would have objected if he stayed in uniform, wielded power from there. But once independence was certain, he resigned his commission, handed over command, and went back to Mount Vernon.
Most of the leaders who achieve this kind of power keep it as long as they can. We think about Napoleon, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Stalin, we think of men who gave up power after catastrophic defeat or death. Rarely do we find someone who held great power and laid it aside willingly.
In 1788, Washington got active in politics again. Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts awakened him to just how fragile this new country was, and he gladly participated in the Constitutional Convention to fix things. They chose him to be the president of the convention, and when they wrote the description for the office of President of the United States, the delegates knew they were writing it for him. He could have been elected as many times as he wanted. Yet after two terms, he handed over power, left office and went back to Mount Vernon. When his country needed him, he stepped forward and did what he had to, and when it was over he laid power aside.
In today’s Gospel reading, Peter recognizes who Jesus is: the Christ, the anointed one. It’s something the crowds haven’t caught yet, nor the other disciples, but when Peter makes his statement, we can imagine what the disciples felt. The Messiah was supposed to deliver them from their oppressors, the Romans, probably by force and perhaps by raising an army. He was to restore the Kingdom of Israel, the Kingdom of David, and begin God’s direct rule on earth. They were one the Road to Glory; they where going to be free, rich and powerful.
Immediately, Jesus leads them down a different direction. He rejects the road to power, the road to self-preservation, the fulfillment of popular hopes. He tells them he’s going to give up his life, hand himself over to his enemies, and that’s the way their hopes will be fulfilled. He calls his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, through death and darkness to new life and new light.
We live in a culture that preaches power, that preaches self-promotion and self-accomplishment. It offers us a promised land of wealth, power and control over our lives, it offers us the chance to be a law unto ourselves. Rules are for other people, aren’t they? Freedom to be who we are means freedom from everyone else. We’re supposed to be whatever we want to be, and heaven help anyone who gets in our way.
How would Jesus look at this? He said if we try to preserve our life we will lose it. We’re not supposed to turn away from our dark side, our failures and our weaknesses, we’re not to try to get control over others to accomplish our goals. We’re called to embrace the Cross, to empty ourselves as Christ did, to find new life on the other side of giving away power. Our vision of ourselves can trap us as surely as any sin, our expectations of others can lead us to evil as surely as any vice. It’s by throw off all those selfish notions of what we are and what we should be that we find the freedom and promise of hope Christ offers us.
We come together to share in Christ, to embrace the one who gave up everything. We’re called to imitate the One who emptied himself for us. It’s through our embrace of the Cross, our rejection of power, that we find our true selves: the people Christ made us to be.