Matthew 16:21-28

Saint or Stumbling Block

By The Rev. John Bedingfield
In the name of one God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen

In recent years I have become a fan of the Apostle Peter.  In the past, I admit to having had a secret affinity for the Apostle John; not only do I carry his name, but I also fancied myself as somewhat of a deep and almost mystically spiritual being, so I wanted to be identified with John, the one about whom some believe the phrase, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” is used.  However, I am at least a bit more self-aware these days.  I can now look in the mirror and recognize, as I heard it said one time, the three sure signs of aging: a middle-aged spread, graying hair (at least what’s left of it), and feet of clay.  I envision Peter the same way, and the Gospels tend to bear me out, especially this morning’s reading from Matthew.

This morning, Jesus is beginning to prepare the disciples for the end of His earthly ministry.  This is the beginning of His teaching to them regarding what the future holds, both for himself and for them.  Now remember that it was only a scant few verses ago in the Gospel (last week in lectionary terms) that Peter had confessed to all who were listening that he knew who Jesus was.  Remember in verses 15-17 of this very same chapter of Matthew, we had this exchange:

“(Jesus) said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

“Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’.”

Then Jesus went on to say, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.  I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Now here we are, barely five verses later, and Jesus refers to Peter as Satan, the stumbling block, attempting to separate Jesus from the will of the Father.

I can’t blame Peter.  After all, when he confessed Jesus as the Messiah, he was definitely speaking in the power of the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t mean that he really understood what he was saying.  Peter was still a beginner in this faith business.  Although his faith was strong, his understanding was shallow.  He knew what Messiah was supposed to look like.  The prophets had said that Messiah would be a warrior-king who would ride in to save the nation of Israel from her enemies and who would restore justice and peace on earth.  In Peter’s mind, how did that square with what Jesus had just said?

Jesus told the disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering and be killed at the hands of those whom the disciples respected as leaders of the faith, so that He could rise again in three days.  This is one of those times when I can really get inside Peter’s head and heart.  He must have been thinking, “What!?!”  “You’ve got to be kidding me!  I know you are the Messiah, but what kind of justice and vindication do you think you can bring to Israel by dying!?!”

This would be akin to someone running for the combined office of President of the United States and leader of the Christian world on a platform of — “Elect me and I promise to be assassinated!”  So you see, I understand why Peter reacted as he did, but oh boy, what reaction he drew from Jesus.

“Get behind me, Satan!”  This is the strongest rebuke Jesus uses in the Gospels.  And He uses it on the one on whom He has just bestowed the ultimate compliment and to whom He has promised the greatest of power on earth, the power to bind and loose sins.  And it is this very paradox that makes us so Petrine, so like Peter.

In St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, there is a carving that says, “Tu Es Petros,” “You are Peter,” but to be completely accurate, underneath that carving should be a second one that reads, “Tu Es Satana,” “You are Satan,” because that is exactly what Peter was being.  Satan, the great tempter — the one whose life’s work it is to put the easy way in front of us so that we might turn from the work that God has given us to do, so that we might seek worldly fame and glory and lay our cross aside in the process.  That is precisely what Peter did to Jesus, tempt Him to abandon the hard road that the Father had given Him to travel and to take the easy way — exactly as Satan had done when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness.

We who hear this story today must be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap Peter did. We alsoknow that Jesus Christ is Messiah, but like Peter, we tend to deny that fact when it is easier or more enticing to follow the wide, well-paved road.  After all, the Tempter tells us things through the mass media every day: the one with the most toys wins; there is no such thing as being too rich or too skinny; if you get enough plastic surgery, you can be beautiful and therefore happy; you cannot live without the newest and latest of everything, because to do so would admit failure in the eyes of your peers; all of which are just different ways of saying that our destinies are in our own hands and we can ensure our own happiness and well-being by working harder, earning more, getting additional power and prestige and caring most deeply about our appearance.  Get Behind Me Satan!

Those things I just listed are the same things that Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness

— only phrased in second millennium terms.  But each time Jesus was tempted, he looked inside, where He knew that the Holy Spirit lived, and drew the strength to resist temptation and continue with the mission the Father had given Him.

In today’s Gospel story the temptation must have been incredible!  “No Lord.  This must not happen … indeed, cannot happen to you!  Just use the power we’ve seen you use to heal and feed people to strike the authorities, both Temple and Roman, and bring in the Kingdom of God as it should be — with great fanfare and triumph!”  How that possibility must have called like a siren of the deep to the man, Jesus.  But He responded not with agreement, but with his own call to discipleship, and not just discipleship, but radical discipleship.  Rather than, “OK, Peter, you’re right,” Jesus says,

“If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.”

This incredible call to discipleship, the call to lay down our very lives and pick up our crosses is the absolute antithesis — the polar opposite — of what Peter has tempted Jesus with.  Come with me and suffer for the sake of the Kingdom, there you will find your life.  Or, as the famed Christian writer, Oswald Chambers put it, “The meaning of sacrifice is the deliberate giving of the best I have to God that He may make it His and mine for ever: if I cling to it, I lose it, and so does God.”  Christians in America in 2008 often do not want to hear that call, but there it is and it’s pretty darned plain.

I think what Jesus wants is for us to begin to deny the temptations of the world, just as He did — hard though it may be — and to put the Gospel message first in our lives.  To worry first about loving the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves and to worry second about how much glory, how many possessions we have in this world.  If we worry first about living out that Great Commandment and fulfilling the Great Commission, to go into the world and make disciples, baptizing those who come to believe because of our examples, we will have very little time to spend fighting against the Great Tempter, but we will also be well-armed for whatever battles may come up.

For us this means sacrificial living.  We all need to look and see where Jesus is calling us to sacrifice in order to carry our crosses.  Whatever is most important in our lives is the thing Jesus calls us to sacrifice.  If you worry about money, that’s what you need to sacrifice.  If you’re a workaholic, it’s your time.  If you’re a recluse, it’s your home.  Whatever you put first in your life is the thing Jesus calls you to put down, to sacrifice, so that you’re ready and able to take up your cross and follow Him to the ultimate sacrifice.  Jesus is the Messiah, but His arrival doesn’t mean what we might think.  It doesn’t mean everything is rosy for His believers and we will all be held up on some pedestal because we know Jesus.  No. His arrival in our lives means we now know what the most important thing in our lives is, and we have to put everything else in its proper place in order to be disciples.

We’re all called to be Christian disciples.  We can’t hope to be perfect as Christ was perfect … but we can hope to be faithful to God’s call, like Peter, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but always trying our best to get our priorities right, to take up the cross and to go out into the world.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009, John Bedingfield. Used by permission.