15O Lord, you know;
remember me and visit me,
and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance do not take me away;
know that on your account I suffer insult.
16Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
17I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
18Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
19Therefore thus says the Lord:
If you turn back, I will take you back,
and you shall stand before me.
If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless,
you shall serve as my mouth.
It is they who will turn to you,
not you who will turn to them.
20And I will make you to this people
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you,
but they shall not prevail over you,
for I am with you
to save you and deliver you, says the Lord.
21I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.
21From 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. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying,God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.23But 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.
24Then Jesus told his disciples,If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For 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?
When I used to build houses I was amazed at the number of tools that our little operation had and we needed them to be able to get the job done effectively. It seems like there are thousands of different little tasks that go into building a house and just about each one has some kind of specialized tool that makes that particular task significantly easier… and yet as helpful as those tools are, if any one of them is underfoot when you're trying to do something else, it's amazing how fast that tool, which is necessary in one instance can turn into a stumbling block in another.
Two weeks ago, we looked at the passage
in Matthew's gospel where Peter was praised for recognizing that Jesus
is the Messiah, the Son of God. When Peter did, Jesus affirmed him
and said that the church would be built on this rock… and it's
amazing how fast that rock also turned into a stumbling block. This
week's passage is the very next story in the gospel… It's not
ten verses after Peter's testimony and Jesus' declaration, but here we
find the two interacting again, and this time the tone of their
conversation is quite different. Peter was not happy with what he was
hearing from Jesus and they exchanged rebukes of each other and it
ended up with Jesus saying
get behind me, Satan, you are a
stumbling block… The rock has become the stumbling block.
And isn't that the way it goes sometimes… I know I feel like it's happened to me before… where I have some insight, or a beautifully clear sense of understanding of who God is or what some scripture text or experience might mean for my faith journey, and then not much later I'm wondering what the heck happened… I'm more confused or discouraged than before I started. There are other times when I feel like I'm actually doing good things, wonderful things, ministering to people in ways they need and being the kind of support in someone's faith journey that I always hope I can be; and then something, it could be any number of things, but something pulls me right out of that space to a completely different space of frustration or feeling like I'm not sure what good I'm able to do anyway. Just when we think we have God all figured out something happens that throws things into doubt…
Now in the flow of the gospel, Peter had just declared Jesus to be the
messiah and the son of the living God, and then according to the text,
from that point on, Jesus didn't only tell the disciples he was going
to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed, but he showed them… I'm
not sure exactly how he showed them or even really what it means to
show them that he's going to suffer and die, but they clearly began to
get the message. It seems like Peter knew exactly what Jesus was
talking about because it bothered him… (doesn't it bother you?
It sure bothers me that someone would die because they challenge
unjust systems and offer a different way of being that's based in
compassion, and love… and among a few other things, that is
what led to Jesus' death.) I'm not sure if Peter understood the
trajectory of the whole story of Jesus Christ at this point, so it
probably bothered him for a totally different reason… the idea
of Jesus suffering and dying probably bothered him because that wasn't
the kind of messiah Peter expected and it wasn't the kind of messiah
Peter wanted; and he had the guts to say so. He rebuked Jesus
This must never happen to you… and that's when
Jesus called Peter Satan and a stumbling block;
one who is setting
his mind on human rather than divine things.
And that particular part of the passage has always troubled me a
little bit… I'm not sure how much difference there is
human things and
divine things except the
perspective that we carry as we see what's going on. God's able to
speak to us through whatever medium God wants to… whether we
see human things or divine things might just depend on we have ears to
listen and eyes to see. And I think maybe the problem here is that
Peter isn't seeing what God's up to — Peter doesn't see what
God's up to and Peter doesn't trust the way God's going about it so he
sets out telling Jesus how he should do his job. There's one person
who wrote about this passage saying that Peter was actually trying to
save Jesus here… isn't that a little ironic… but I can
see the point that author was trying to make because Peter was saying,
Jesus you can't suffer, you can't die… we won't let that
happen. Peter wants a different way of being saved, whether Peter's
way would be easier or not for Jesus is debatable, but it's certainly
more understandable… there has to be a way forward for Jesus
that doesn't involve suffering and that doesn't involve dying…
and in the end, if it does involve dying, at least it would involve
dying on his own terms making a stand for something rather than being
tortured and suffering at the hands of the unjust system he
And you know, I'm relatively certain that there was a way forward for
Jesus that didn't involve torture, suffering and death at the hands of
the religious leaders… And in this story of Jesus and Peter
rebuking each other, I get the sense that Peter's really worried about
keeping Jesus alive. And he may have the best of intentions…
he may want to keep Jesus alive so that everyone can come to know and
follow the messiah; which seems like a pretty worthwhile goal in my
book… But then in the passage, that's the
Jesus is speaking against… It seems like Jesus was more worried
about doing what he was here to do… in fact when Jesus rebuked
Peter for being a stumbling block he didn't say that Peter was a
stumbling block to everyone, but rather that he was a stumbling block
to Jesus himself.
Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me.
Peter's suggestion, though it might have made life easier for Jesus and prevented some suffering, also would have prevented countless people from knowing the character of God that Jesus revealed to us, and seeing the glory of God that Jesus made known. When it came to the trajectory that Jesus was on, God wasn't the cause of the suffering, but Jesus revealed God's character by refusing to take any easy way out of that suffering. God didn't require Jesus to die but Jesus revealed God's character by choosing to accept death rather than turn away from his mission to God's people. I don't believe Jesus wanted to suffer and die, but he did so that the character and the glory of God would be known. So when Peter offered an alternative, Jesus said, don't distract me and don't tempt me… because showing everyone what God is up to is worth it… Yes he would be tortured, yes he would suffer, yes he would be killed… And he would do it all so that people would know that God can and will go through anything before giving up on the message of radical inclusion, unending compassion and unfailing grace… That's why Jesus would suffer and die. And the part that would have been practically incomprehensible to Peter were the last few words of verse 21… that on the third day he would rise again… God's steadfast love endures forever… and the divine truth that Peter may not have grasped in the moment is that God can use anything, anything… even death… to communicate that steadfast love.
So after calling Peter to set his mind on divine things, Jesus turned
toward a bit of ethics.
If any want to become my followers, let
them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me;
Historically, that phrase has been used to inflict a lot of
psychological damage on people. The saying has often been twisted to
mean that what God wants and what you want are mutually
exclusive… so by all means don't do what you want because
whenever you do what you want you're going against what God
wants… And I don't buy that interpretation. There may be many
things that are asked of us, including dedicating our lives. As
Bonhoeffer pointed out, the call of Christ is indeed a call unto
death, but for us carrying a cross is a metaphorical idea. Jesus,
some of his early followers and many others who committed crimes
against Rome did literally carry crosses… but that practice is
long gone… Often the idea of carrying a cross has been reduced
to doing things we don't want to do, or suffering silently through
some physical ailment or being
good when everything around us
seems to be going south.But Jesus didn't die as an example of good
behavior… he died because death was the logical consequence of
steadfastly following his mission of revealing God's character in a
way that nobody else could. He didn't take the easy way… he
took the faithful way… and I think that might be the invitation
and the meaning behind the command to take up the cross. So the
question becomes what is it that we can do, that I can do, that you
can do… what decisions can you make that will 1) help you to
see the power of God at work and 2) help the world (or at least your
circles of influence) see the power of God at work in you.
I'm convinced most of us know something at least one thing some change we could make that would enable us to go forward growing in faith… most of us know at least one thing we could do to go forward loving our neighbor… definitely there are many. And the exact place we start may be less important than the fact that we actually do choose to start. For some it may mean choosing to reconcile rather than disregard someone who has hurt us… for some it may mean paying attention to the justice issues that lay just under the surface of what we eat and what we wear… Or for some it may mean reexamining how we spend time or where we spend money. And still for others a faithful response to God's steadfast love may involve starting a habit rather than ending one… reading scripture, opening up to other people so that they might be able to be support to you, listening rather than talking to a friend… but whatever the specifics, the goal is to take the faithful way rather than the easy way… to do what may be difficult in order to see God at work… Because God is at work… it's easy to see when we feel like we are being used exactly as we were intended, as the perfect tool for the job… but even when we feel like we may have been a stumbling block, part of the promise of the steadfast love of God is that when we give our lives, when we lose them, in order to see and to know and to communicate God's work, we will indeed find life more fully than we can imagine and that is good news! Thanks be to God. Amen.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Dan Holland at the United Parish of Bowie on September 4, 2011.
© 2011 Daniel Holland