Matthew 16:21-28

Solid Rock or Stumbling Block?

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Once again, we pick up where we left off last week.  Last Sunday we heard Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?” and, in response, Peter’s great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:15-16)  This morning we’ll focus on the scene that follows.  In the words of Paul Harvey, “And now, for the rest of the story!”

After Peter made his confession, Jesus commended him and went on to tell the disciples what was to come.  According to Matthew,

“From that time, Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things
from the elders, chief priests, and scribes,
and be killed,
and the third day be raised up.” (Matthew 16:21)

When Peter heard that Jesus was to suffer and die, he lost it.  He rebuked Jesus – which, as a disciple, was totally out of place.  He was way out of line, but determined not to let this happen.  You can just hear the desperation in his voice: “Far be it from you, Lord!” (Matthew 16:22)

Unintentionally, to be sure, Peter – the rock upon which the church was to be built – became a stumbling block standing in the way of Jesus’ destiny to redeem a fallen world.

What I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning is this: The very same people who stand for Jesus often stand against him.  As Christians, we need always to be asking ourselves, “Am I a solid rock of faith, or a stumbling block inhibiting the faith of others?”  My hope is, by asking ourselves this question, we’ll be more intentional about our Christian witness.

Here’s the first point: When it comes to standing with Jesus, there’s no middle ground.  In the 12th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who doesn’t gather with me, scatters.” (Matthew 12:30)  You’re either for him or against him.  Disciples don’t have the luxury of straddling the fence.

I thought about this in relation to police officers on duty.  They suit up, put on all that heavy equipment, and go to work keeping us safe.  Whether they’re responding to an emergency or just patrolling the streets, they’re visible – and that, in itself, helps to thwart crime – plus, they’re available to come to your aid, if needed.  Can you imagine running up to a police officer in a crisis and being told, “Hey, Dude, that’s not my problem.”?

Today is Boy Scout Sunday.  These boys can tell you that, when they put on their uniforms, they stand out.  What they do and say – how they act – reflects on the whole troop, and on Scouting, in general.  People notice, and they know that, if they needed help, they could count on any one of these boys to come to their aid.

As Christians, we don’t wear uniforms, but it might be a good thing if we did.  Others need to know whose side we’re on.  We need to be recognizable and visible in the community if we’re to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Jesus said,

“You are the light of the world.
A city located on a hill can’t be hidden.
Neither do you light a lamp, and put it under a measuring basket,
but on a stand;
and it shines to all who are in the house.
Even so, let your light shine before men;
that they may see your good works,
and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
(Matthew 5:14-16)

There’s no such thing as an anonymous Christian.  You’re either for Christ or you’re against him.  When it comes to bearing witness to him as your Lord and Savior, neutrality isn’t an option.

Neither is mediocrity.  As disciples of Jesus Christ, we’re expected to live by a higher standard than the world around us.  Jesus asked his disciples, “What more do you do than others?” (Matthew 5:47)  If you only love those who love you, big deal!  Everybody does that.  “Therefore you shall be perfect,” he said, “just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)  That doesn’t mean you have to be sinless or never make a mistake; it means that you should strive for the righteousness of God and not be content with the status quo.

You hear it all the time: “But everybody else is doing it!”  Even if that were true – which it’s not – it’s no excuse.  As Christians, we’re called to live by a higher standard; and when we do, others are sure to take notice.

Have I told you about the minister who moved to Houston a few years ago?  It’s a true story. I read it in his church newsletter.  He wanted to find his way around.  So, he took a bus and rode it until it came back to where he got on.  As he rode, he made a mental note of as many landmarks as he could along the way.  It was a great way to get his bearings straight, so he took another bus route, and then another.

One night he got on a bus, but didn’t have any change, so he paid the fare with a five-dollar bill.  The driver grumbled, but gave him his change and he took his seat; but as he counted the money, he discovered that the driver had overpaid him a quarter.  He started to say something about it, but then thought to himself, “It’s only a quarter.”  So, he sat back and took in the sights.

As the bus approached the stop where he had gotten on, he dug into his pocket and retrieved the quarter.  He handed it to the driver and said, “You gave me a quarter too much.”  He said the driver smiled at him and said, “I know, Reverend, I just wanted to see what you’d do when you found out.  I may just come visit your church one of these days.”

We’re called to live by a higher standard; when we do, others notice, and when we don’t … well, others notice that too.

I attended a workshop Friday on the subject of addictions, mostly having to do with the Internet.  I had no idea.  Not only are people becoming addicted to the Internet in general, spending countless hours surfing the Web; they’re getting hooked by video games and gambling sites, prostitution, extra-marital relationships and pornography.  This is serious stuff, causing the breakup of families and the demise of individuals.

But what I found most alarming is the fact that not only is this going on, but it’s not confined to big cities like Little Rock and Dallas.  If you believe the statistics, it’s going on right here in Hope, Arkansas.  Those who are becoming addicted are not drug lords or Mafia figures, but the very same people who get dressed up and come to church on Sunday morning. You may have first-hand knowledge of what I’m talking about.  If so, I wish you’d tell me.  I want to help.

For now, the point is this: In a small town like Hope, others don’t have to be told who you are and where you go to church.  They know.  And, like it or not, they’re watching to see how you live out your faith.  What you say and do makes a difference.  You either help others come closer to the righteousness of God, or you cause them to stumble – and when you do, there’s a price to pay.  Remember Jesus’ words?  He said,

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble,
it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck,
and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.”
(Matthew 18:6)

If you don’t think you have an impact on others – think again.  You have a tremendous influence, which is all the more reason to live by a higher standard than the world around you.

The third point is this: We’re expected to act on the basis of what’s best for all concerned, not just as our wants and wishes.

I had a friend years ago who got to sit in the press box at the Astrodome during a college football game.  It was a big deal.  He and his host were given special ID tags and sent up on a VIP elevator.  He got the royal treatment, which not only included a ringside seat for the game, but an elaborate spread of just about every food and drink you could want, all free.

He said he watched the game for a while, then got up to get a sandwich and a cold beer.  When he got back to his seat, he said his host gave him the most hurtful look he’d ever seen.  He realized that his host was a very conservative Christian and that having a beer in his presence was a slap in the face.  He tried to blow it off, but the damage was done.  He told me if life had do-overs, this was one experience he’d like to do over differently.

Personally, I don’t believe it’s a sin to have a beer or a glass of wine at an appropriate time and place. The point is we don’t live in a vacuum, so if having a beer or a glass of wine is a problem for others, it’s better to abstain.

In Paul’s day, the big controversy in Corinth was whether it was a sin to eat meat that had been offered in sacrifice to idols.  Some said yes; others said no.  It nearly split the church.

Here’s what Paul said: Eating meat offered to idols is not a sin.  But, if eating meat offered to idols causes someone else to sin, then you shouldn’t eat it – not because you don’t want to, or think it’s wrong – but out of respect for what’s best for all concerned.  Paul put it this way:

“But food will not commend us to God.
For neither, if we don’t eat, are we the worse;
nor, if we eat, are we the better.

But be careful that by no means does this liberty of yours
become a stumbling block to the weak.
For if a man sees you who have knowledge sitting in an idol’s temple,
won’t his conscience, if he is weak,
be emboldened to eat things sacrificed to idols? …

Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble,
I will eat no meat forevermore,
that I don’t cause my brother to stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8:8-13)

It’s not about you.  It’s about what’s best for those around you.  What you do has a tremendous effect on others.  You can either be a stumbling block or a rock of faith.  This is why, after Jesus rebuked Peter, he went on to say,

“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.”

(Matthew 16:24-25)

This is a paradox the world has yet to comprehend: How can you gain life by losing it?  The answer lies in the Cross of Jesus Christ.  Jesus died for the sins of the world and, in dying, he was raised again to eternal life.  When we follow his example and walk in his footsteps – serving others, rather than seeking pleasure and avoiding pain – we come to experience lasting peace, joy and fulfillment, such as the world has never known.  In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes,

“For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom,
but we preach Christ crucified;
a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks,
but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
(1 Corinthians 1:22-24)

Here’s the bottom line: Seek life and all its worldly trappings, and you’ll lose it; lose your life in devotion to God and service to others, and you’ll find it.

The Cross is the answer – a stumbling block to all who would bring God down to their level; yet, the cornerstone of God’s kingdom on earth.  Put your faith in him and, not only will you experience life in abundance, you’ll be a solid rock of faith for others.  Isaac Watts has the last word:

“When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering  far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Copyright 2011 Philip McLarty.  Used by permission.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.