Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 03, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Life moves quickly, and so does the Gospel. Even Matthew, who so often writes with a thoughtful, stylized aura of historical “past-ness,” can shake things up when he wants to. From our own experience we know that the highs and lows of joy and sorrow, success and frustration, brokenness and grace, can hit us faster than we can process them. Hearing Jesus tell his friend and close follower Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” is harsh, and we can almost feel Peter’s shame and Jesus’s frustration and anger. But it is all the more jarring once we notice that the story immediately before this one was the joyful account of Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as Messiah, the moment that moved Jesus to celebrate Peter and his faith as “the rock” on which Jesus would build his church. In the span of a few verses, less than a minute of reading time, Peter has gone from foundation to stumbling block, from celebrated follower to the chief threat to the movement.
We can read this and accuse Matthew of inconsistent characterization, slapdash construction, careless juxtaposition of two stories from different traditions about Peter. It’s always easier to criticize somebody else than to consider their pointed criticism of ourselves. And make no mistake, for Matthew isn’t making one here. Peter’s swift fall from the favored follower to the great disappointment is all too human, and more than that, Matthew is giving us more than a character study. This story comes in a chapter that’s all about the church, the community that is responsible for sharing the experience of Jesus Christ vertically, from one generation to the next, and horizontally, to people we meet who don’t yet know who Jesus is. Here, Peter stands in for the church herself, her boundless potential to bring Jesus to the world and her equally boundless capacity to fall short of that mission.
Jesus is so hard on Peter in this story because Peter’s seemingly supportive impulse to protect Jesus actually strikes at the heart of Jesus’s mission of reconciliation, redemption, transformation, and triumph. We can’t overemphasize the weight of the word “must” here; the Greek word is the same one that was translated “bound” in the previous story. Jesus is bound to go, to suffer, to die, and to rise. These are the actions that he absolutely, positively must take, and nothing will stop him, not his enemies, not even his friends. Jesus will be what he will be, a Messiah who overturns the order of the world, including our own expectations. So in a way Peter is doing us a favor, even when he goes so wrong, by warning us, even if the warning is unintentional.
Peter wants a feel-good Messiah. He wants Jesus and his mission to be comfortable and affirming — painless. Peter wants a leader and a movement that will make him feel good, and give him what he wants, now. Churches and individual Christians have lapsed into this tendency again and again. We easily forget that Jesus’s mission, and the mission of the Church, are not satisfaction, but transformation.
The transformation begins immediately. For while Jesus’s rebuke sounds harsh, Jesus doesn’t want to shame or punish or ostracize Peter; he wants him to be a faithful disciple. Jesus isn’t telling him off — just the opposite! Jesus is telling Peter to get behind him in order that he might return to following him. Our wills and intentions — our hearts — are unreliable.
Peter meant well. His reaction to Jesus’s description of God’s plan for salvation came out of love and loyalty. Jesus reminds him that despite his good intentions, thwarting God’s plan for salvation is the devil’s goal. We can only follow Jesus once we get behind him. Regardless of our intentions, ultimately there are only two responses to Jesus’s call: acceptance or rejection. Rejection can take many forms, like making discipleship conditional, or one priority among many, or trying to redefine discipleship, like Peter does. The result is always the same: distancing ourselves from Jesus.
Jesus can only overcome pain and death by touching them, and being touched by them. As his followers, only by touching the broken places in our souls and in the world will we be healed, and be healers. Only by letting go of ourselves, setting aside our immediate cravings, will we be able to pick up God’s mission — just the way it is — and grasp the deeper, more satisfying blessings of life in Christ. By embracing the true nature of discipleship, following Christ even when he leads us where we wouldn’t choose to go, trusting him to make the sacrifices he asks of us, we show the world a joyful new reality. By looking at his followers, the world can see Jesus himself, the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. His return only seems delayed until we realize how we are making Jesus present by following him. We can change the world, just as Jesus showed us, by touching brokenness and transforming it into grace.