The gospel text for today is a continuation of the text we read last week. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am,” Peter is the first to answer, declaring that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. For that, Jesus heaps praise on him. Yes, Peter, you got it! And on the strength of this truth, Jesus says, he will build his church.
It was a pivotal moment in the ministry of Jesus. It was a moment of profound transition in the gospel of Matthew.So, as the story continues today, the gospel writer tells us that from that point on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and undergo great suffering, and be killed, and be raised on the third day.
After 16 chapters working up to this moment, of Jesus teaching about the true nature of God, of Jesus calling disciples into ministry with him, and his teaching the disciples how to be disciples and even giving them a few practice runs, once the revelation of Jesus’ divinity is made, Jesus moves on to revealing the purpose for his coming; Passion; Death; Resurrection.
But, hearing Jesus talk about his own destruction and death is more than Peter can comprehend or bear. “God is merciful to you, Lord! This will never ever happen to you!” In Peter’s mind, the God who loves, sent, and guides the Messiah could never allow such suffering to befall him – could never allow such an end to come to the Anointed One.
Jesus’ response to Peter is, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a big problem to me because you are not gripped by the concerns of God but by the concerns of human beings.” That, my friends, is the crux of the problem.
I have compassion for Peter. Following so closely on a pinnacle moment for Peter, Jesus’ response indicates that in his eyes, Peter now embodies evil. In the blink of an eye, the movement of the text goes from praise to condemnation.
Rather than being praised for possessing knowledge that is the rock upon which the church of Jesus Christ would be built, Peter is denounced as a stumbling block. A rock that doesn’t build up the work of the church becomes an impediment and worse – it causes other to trip, to fall.
How easy it is for us to lose sight of who we are supposed to be.
Peter’s problem is that his imagination is crippled by the way he wants things to be – by the way he’s always understood or imagined God works. He is crippled by the comfort he experiences as he imagines how God will save God’s people, and he is unable to imagine, he cannot fathom, the way that Jesus has revealed salvation will come.
Peter confessed a Jesus he thought of as the conquering hero, mighty warrior king the people of Israel had been expecting. It was leap enough for him to imagine this itinerant rabbi who had become his friend as the Anointed One sent by God to redeem Israel, but once he got past the fact that this man who seemed so ordinary was fact God’s Son, well, he reverted back to assumptions based on the way it had always been: the weak were routinely overcome by the more powerful; therefore of course the victorious Messiah would show himself to be the ultimate, most powerful avenging hero.
Are we any different in our expectation for God? Greed for power and wealth still drive the world in which we live. Therefore, power and acquisition are still viewed as vital requirements for and measure of success, even in the church.
David Lose writes – “Like Peter, what we most often want is a little more of what the world already offers – be it force or security or wealth or status or popularity or whatever. But Jesus didn’t come to comfort us with a little more, but instead to free us. And freedom first means realizing that we’ve settled for something that isn’t life giving.”
It's like this: Imagine you are making lists on a paper with 2 columns on it: 1 side for the way God blesses us, and the other side for the way God challenges us.
On the blessing side, we would likely list words like comforts, consoles, feeds, nourishes, saves, gives us life and love and riches and family, health, wealth, friendships, church, activities, forgiveness, light in the darkness, etc.
The other side, the one for the challenges might list things like, “sends us out to feed the hungry, tells us to forgive our enemy, love our neighbor, embrace the outcast, accept and accompany those who aren’t like us, insists we must bear the Cross of countercultural activity in Jesus’ name.
God demands that we name evil things for what they are – egoism, racism, poverty, discrimination, white supremacy, religious intolerance, ignoring the desperate, pursuit of wealth at the expense of the less fortunate, sexism, homophobia, perpetuating injustice through our choices. Ignoring the least, the last, the little, the lost and the lifeless. The list just goes on, and on, and on, doesn’t it?
We tend to pray easily for those things on the “blessings” list – we try mightily to ignore the things on the challenges list – the call to move counter culturally in the realm into which Jesus calls us.
Jesus’ way is countercultural and mysterious – he is fully divine yet fully human; he has power over the earth yet submits to death on the cross; and he neither yields to those with earthly power nor does he beat them into submission with mighty arms.
Instead, Jesus declares, it is divinely ordained and even necessary that he go to Jerusalem where he will be condemned by those holy and righteous leaders of the religious tradition and the political elite. They will torture him and kill him. But Jesus also predicts, and to be honest I don’t think that Peter and the rest of the disciples even heard this part of what he says, as shocked as they are – that on the third day he will rise from the dead.
They miss the point of what Jesus’ true victory will be – that through his death and resurrection he will defeat the powers of sin and death, and he will rise again. And you can’t blame them. They have absolutely no experience on which to base what Jesus is telling them about how God will act in this story. They have no way to even begin to imagine it. They have no way to comprehend that in the midst of death God brings life and even when Jesus dies on a cross, God will use him to raise us to new life.
So, today I invite you to join me as we challenge our imaginations – where are the places that God is at work in and through your life for the good of the world? Can you imagine what you, your congregation, or your community has to offer the world? Can you imagine, that when you befriend the lonely or encourage the frightened heaven rejoices? Can you imagine that, though afraid, when you stand up to those who spew hate God is with you? Can you imagine that even smallest acts of love and generosity can change the world order and introduce a different reality; That through your hands, God’s work truly is done? Can you imagine that love is more powerful than hate and that you hold that power inside your own beating heart? Can you imagine that God raised Jesus from the dead in an act of defiance, strength, power and life for the world?
Many of us have been moved by the outpouring of love and support across racial and economic lines for the victims of Harvey this week – we’ve even joined in. We’ve been amazed at the heroic acts by strangers who risked their own lives to save the lives of those in peril.
I don’t believe, and I sincerely hope that none of you believe, that this hurricane was a sign of God’s wrath, judgement or punishment. While God’s ways are mysterious to us, so too are God’s enormous store of strength and compassion and drive for forgiveness and relationship. I believe that God is at work in acts of kindness and generosity large and small in the healing of those affected by the storm and floods and that God can use these blessings to change hearts and build bridges.
When we drift and falter as Peter did, God is there to challenge us, bless us, and call us back. God forgives us and frees us to set our minds, wills, and action in the direction God intends for us as redeemed children of God. In Paul’s letter, we hear the call to let love be genuine, hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good. Life places us in a complicated world. But with Jesus’ blessing, each day we have an opportunity as his disciples to live out the radical, unexpected love of God in Christian life and service. May the Holy Spirit empower us, that it may be so.