(A sermon for Proper 17A — August 28, 2011 — Matthew 16:21-28)
Let me be completely honest with you. When I read this gospel passage, I always feel sorry for Peter. He blurts out his best thoughts, not wanting to believe his dear friend and teacher, his comrade and co-conspirator, his inspirer, will have to die.
Peter is invoking God – “God forbid it!” – probably thinking there is no way that God would want someone as wonderful, as special, as clearly superior as Jesus to suffer the fate he describes for himself.
He’s in denial.
You see, he doesn’t really understand who Jesus is. Which is pretty funny since last week we were giving him back-pats for saying it so clearly: You are the Messiah, the Son of God.
And Jesus lets him have it.
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!”
They exchange rebukes.
If you’ve ever exchanged harsh words with someone you love, in a situation where you absolutely disagree and both *know* you’re right, that will give you something of an idea about the emotion passing between Peter and Jesus.
And here’s the thing Peter doesn’t understand. Jesus is not only God; he is also human. And that complicated reality means he has the power to put a stop to what lies ahead. It’s not just that he can appeal to Our Father Who Art in Heaven. He has the power himself. He is God. He understands what has to happen, what is inevitable, what it’s going to take for the truth to be apparent, and he’s ready to go through with it.
Jesus is trying to prepare the people closest to him for what lies ahead.
Peter doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want it. Can you blame him?
And on some level, Jesus doesn’t want it, either.
Now, I don’t believe Peter is actually evil here, though some people might tell you he was literally demon-possessed at that moment, hearkening back to the temptation Jesus experienced in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. You remember, don’t you? After 40 days of fasting, Jesus meets up with the Devil and is tempted to turn stones into bread, or to throw himself off the Temple just to prove God will save him, or to bow down to the Devil and then rule the world. The Devil wants Jesus, the ultimate in Goodness, the incarnation of Godness, to break the covenant under which he came into the world, to do something supernatural for his own sake, instead of for ours.
And when Jesus said “no,” whether you think it was to the personification of Evil or to his own human nature, when he said “no” in the wilderness, he was saying it in a vacuum. He had not begun his ministry. He had not used his power to make the blind see and the lame walk and to raise people from the dead. He had not called the disciples who would follow him, or met any of the other women and men who would form their cohort, traveling around together, bringing the Good News of God’s Love. All those experiences and relationships still lay ahead of him.
And because he was human, those experiences and relationships mattered.
So when Peter takes him aside and gruffly says, “No! No! Don’t say it” – Jesus must feel the temptation to change the rules. It’s not a temptation unless he actually has the power to change things. And that’s why he pushes back so hard on Peter.
Peter wants to make it all too easy. It’s very tempting, isn’t it? We do it, too, trying to make life easier for people we love, to protect them or maybe even to protect ourselves. Because it can be a painful business when we take up our crosses and follow him. It may not look like what our parents or our friends want for us. It may not turn out to be what we expected, either.
But Jesus knew what to expect. He knew. It must have been very tempting to avoid it. Still, he went ahead and lived through it, out of love for us. He let humanity do its worst to him, and he died. He had to die in order to show us the utterly remarkable power of God. He had to die in order to live again.
It’s very tempting for us, like Peter, to seek the smoother and easier way. It’s very tempting to say to each other, and to ourselves, there must be some safer course, some more acceptable way to live in the world, some way to avoid attracting attention and trouble and criticism and death.
There are always easier ways.
They are very, very tempting.
But the person who takes up his cross to follow Jesus chooses a path of love and truth, a path to becoming fully the person God made her to be. It’s the way we find ourselves, find our lives.
It’s why we pray, lead us not into temptation. Lead us not into the places where we will lose ourselves while seeking to save our lives.
Our friend Peter will continue to go back and forth between getting it wrong and getting it right.
(So will we.)
I love him because when it’s very tempting to give up, his story reminds me that even the person who was closest to Jesus had trouble getting it right. He’ll be even farther out of bounds before it’s all over, denying he even knows Jesus on the night of his arrest and trial. But he will also be a witness to the Resurrection, the rock on which the church is built.
He gives us hope that no matter how wrong we get it, there is still a chance to get it right. And that, my friends, is Good News.