8/30/2020 Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost Text is Matthew 16: 21-28.
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning Jesus scolds Simon Peter, “you are a stumbling block to me”. Wait a minute, just five verses ago, as we read last Sunday, Simon became Peter, and Jesus anointed him as the “rock” upon which the Christian church would be built. In about sixty seconds Peter was transformed from the foundation of the church to Jesus’ greatest impediment to his mission. One minute Jesus is metaphorically handing Peter the keys to the kingdom and the next he tells Peter to “get behind” him. What just happened; and how did it happen, especially so quickly?
Let’s think back to last Sunday; Jesus tells Peter that his knowledge of Jesus as the Son of God was revealed by the Father. Thus, Simon’s renaming as Peter was brought about through God’s interaction. But when Peter hears that Jesus must be killed and rise again, that’s when the purely human side of Peter is exposed; he is simply unable to process this information. But really who can blame him? Jesus announces that he will build his church on earth and that Peter will be in charge of it; in the next breath Jesus tells the disciples that he must travel to Jerusalem and be put to death. Can you see why Peter was incredulous at this news? As we’ve seen many times, Peter is a bit of a slow learner; he seems to be in a constant struggle with coming to grips with Jesus’ identity and the true nature of his earthly mission. I daresay each of us would have found ourselves facing the same struggle, attempting to process all that was going on around Jesus. What with healings, raisings from the dead, associating with sinners and prostitutes, outwitting the revered theological scholars of the day, and basically doing everything the opposite of what was considered normal behavior. It’s only by virtue of knowing how the story turns out that we are able to look back to Peter’s time with Jesus, and understand what was really happening.
Still, it seems rather harsh that Jesus would rebuke Peter so strongly, after just appointing him the head of the church. This is one of those times when a closer look at the original Greek that Matthew wrote in, adds a bit more nuance to the Scripture reading. When Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness, he tells Satan to “get behind” him. The Greek translates this as “go away”. Jesus is dismissing the devil. When speaking to Peter this morning, when Jesus tells him to, “get behind me”; the original language is more like, “follow me”. And this is the same term that Jesus uses when he tells the disciples to pick up their cross; again, he says, “follow me”. He is not so much casting Peter away as reminding him that Jesus’ mission is set and that Peter, and the others must fall in behind Jesus and follow him on his messianic journey. Sort of, “I know you mean well, but you don’t know the whole story; let me do what I must do. Don’t get in the way; but trust me, follow along behind me. This will all make sense later”.
In essence, Jesus is telling Simon Peter, the disciples, and us to line up behind him, have faith in him, and be prepared to walk the path he walks. This path leads to the cross, and beyond it, to the coming kingdom of God. It’s a fair bet that Peter and the others were not expecting this. They imagined a triumphant warrior Jesus, the Messiah to lead the revolt that would overcome their Roman occupiers and restore freedom to Israel. And by the way, this call to discipleship will require that all Jesus’ followers “take up their own cross” and follow. We are all expected to bring our own personal cross along as we follow Christ to the one that would extinguish his earthy life. “We all have a cross to bear”; so goes the old saying. This has generally referred to the suffering that humanity must face in this life. I don’t buy into that; there is more to Jesus telling us to get in line behind him. Christ’s mission may have led to the cross, but ultimately, and by the grace of God, beyond it. Jesus’ resurrection transformed this cruel method of Roman execution from a cross of death into a tree of life!
Martin Luther preached that as Christians, we should not adopt a “theology of glory”, but a “theology of the cross”. A glorified theology places emphasis on human, abilities, wants, and needs. But adopting a cruciform theology, one that looks to the cross as the symbol of God’s mercy; this is the only source of knowing who God is, and how God saves. The cross that Jesus admonishes us to pick up and carry throughout our lives, as we walk along beside him, is not a collection of burdens. Rather, it serves as a symbol of responsibility. Of opportunity. Of discipleship. A reminder that, by it we follow Jesus to and beyond his death, to his resurrection, and ultimately into God’s kingdom. The crosses we bear are reminders of the salvation, mercy, and love of God, as evidenced by Christ’s raising from beyond the cross he bore.
And mostly, we are admonished to remember that we are not only to be witnesses to the life, mission, and ministry of Jesus. Rather, we are called to be participants; actively involved in Christ’s mission, especially knowing that he has returned to the Father and we remain here to continue his work.
It is God’s desire that we live abundant lives; the power of the cross ultimately saves us, even though there may be suffering in the here and now. The “theology of the cross” confirms this.
We are called to work to help others to share in the abundant life that God wants for all God’s people. To bring others into the kingdom, to acknowledge that the cross that leads to everlasting life is to be a symbol for everyone seeking new life in Christ. And if we aren’t very capable of following along and showing others the way, the very least we must do is to not be a stumbling block. There is another old saying, “lead, follow, or get out of the way”. This aphorism offers three distinct options, but I think you will agree that as Christians we are admonished to accomplish all of them, and at the same time. We are to toss our cross over our shoulder and follow Jesus. We are expected to lead others to Christ, and as Jesus told Peter, we mustn’t stand in the way of the Gospel.
But the most important task for us is to follow; to “get behind” Jesus, carrying our cross of participation in the work he began, and that we are encouraged to continue. Jesus no longer has hands and feet here on earth other than ours. Our hands can lift the cross of Christ’s mission and our feet can take us to wherever the work needs to be done. To wherever God’s people do not share in the abundant life that is God’s desire for all. To wherever there is the need to feed, clothe, or shelter our neighbors. And we will surely find that the crosses we bear aren’t nearly as heavy as we thought; and that we don’t have to walk very far at all, to discover that our neighbors in need are right around the corner. We know what we are called to do; let’s go forth and “get behind” Jesus, as he travels the road he beckons us to follow.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, your Son commands us to take up the cross and follow him as participants in his mission to do your will. Give us the will and the strength to bear the weight of discipleship, and the willingness to “get behind” Jesus in service to our neighbor. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, whose cross brings new life to the world. Amen. God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.