August 31, 2014: Matthew 16:21-28

September 4, 2014

Getting Behind Jesus

Year A, Pentecost 12                                             


            I confess that there are few things I enjoy more than getting the right answer.  For that reason and more, I empathize with Peter.  He was kind of the star pupil, or apostle.  At least he thought he was.  In the Gospel reading from last week Jesus asked the big question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” There were a couple of theories that the disciples tossed around.  “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus knew what people were thinking.  What he really wanted to know was who they thought he was.  “But who do you say that I am?” This time it was not all the disciples who answered, it was one.  Simon, Peter, the first disciple to be chosen by Jesus said: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

            I imagine that Peter was a little worried when he answered this question.  It seemed like an obvious answer.  But Peter was a simple fisherman.  He was not a rabbi or an academic.  He did not know what Jesus wanted to hear.  So he went for the truth.  He answered not on what he had seen, maybe not even what he knew for sure.  His answer was based on hope and faith.  He anticipated that Jesus would be the Messiah, the strong and powerful king who would save them all from the tyrannical Roman rule. 

Thus far, Jesus had done almost nothing to indicate that he would be that kind of leader.  But he had given them hope, hope that he would be greater than the prophets who had come before.  They knew that he was special and unique because they has seen his miracles and witnessed the influence he had on the crowds. So they put this special and unique person in the only category they could imagine, that of the Messiah.

            Had this been a simple written test, maybe a short answer, Peter would have done quite well.  Jesus commended him on his correct answer.  He responded:  “Blessed are you,… I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” That is quite a commendation.  Who needs grades when you are told that your answer is so good–so very insightful, that even the gates of Hades could not stand up to you and your correct answer?  I bet Peter was feeling pretty good about himself.  He had finally gotten the right answer.  And not only did he have the right answer but he was the star student and the teacher was the Messiah.  It could not get much better than that.  And it didn’t.  It got much worse…at least it seemed like it did. 

            Soon after that moment of clarity, that moment where everything made sense and all was right in the world, things took a dramatic turn.  Has that ever happened to you?  Perhaps things had been difficult and then something happened that made you think that God was looking after you and you were on the right track.  All the bad things that had happened were finally making sense. God had closed the door, but you found that window of opportunity that provided the explanation for all those closed doors.  Then suddenly with no warning nor any good reason the window was slammed as well. You could see what was on the other side, but you could not get there.  It has happened to me.  Just at that moment when all the pieces finally fell into place, then it all fell apart. 

            As soon as Peter had figured out who Jesus was, Jesus started telling his disciples, his friends, that he would soon have to suffer and be killed.  This would happen at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes…the religious authorities, the people who were supposed to know better.  Wait a minute…didn’t Jesus just admit to Peter that he was the all powerful Messiah?!? Those scribes and chief priests should be bowing to him, paying him homage.  Why would the Messiah, the son of the living God, suffer at the hands of mere humans?  Did that mean that Peter, the star pupil had been wrong? 

Since he was the star pupil, the very special disciple of Jesus, it clearly fell on him to clarify this.  Surely there was a misunderstanding. Jesus loved teaching moments.  This must have been one of those.  Jesus could not desert his disciples so soon after he had called them, so soon after they had put their faith and hope in him.  That would be a cruel joke.  Why bother even calling these disciples if he was just going to die?  If they wanted a dead messiah, they could have found that person anywhere.  This was the man they had tied their hopes and dreams to.  This was the man who had showed them love, grace and forgiveness. He could not die. 

            So Peter did what any good student would do.  He challenged his learned teacher.   “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”    Perhaps when we hear that now, it sounds a little disrespectful.  I imagine it made perfect sense at the time.  It would be like when your best friend or spouse says something negative about themselves.  Of course you would tell them they were crazy and to stop talking such foolishness.  And then they would look at you sheepishly and admit that was what they wanted to hear, what they needed to hear.  Because let’s face it, no one wants to hear the person they love telling you that they are going to suffer. 

Yet Jesus did not reply with a sheepish grin.  He did not say to Peter, “Right again my friend.  You get another gold star!”  Instead he replied: “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.”   That seems harsh and so contrary to what he had just told Peter.  He had told him he would stand up to the gates of Hades, and now he is calling him Satan, the landlord of Hades. 

There are many theories about why Jesus called Peter Satan.  He wanted to teach Peter that he was a different kind of Messiah, not the victorious kind that was expected. Instead he was the Messiah who would choose to suffer and die instead of conquer an army.  He called Peter Satan because Satan had already tempted Jesus to forgo the suffering and rule through earthly power.  That would have been easier for Jesus, but he knew it would not work.  Jesus knew that was not the kind of Messiah who was needed.  The Messiah that was needed would not free them from the Romans.  He would free them from sins, an entirely different kind of bondage.

It must have crushed Peter to hear those words because he thought he had figured it out. He finally had the right answer and now the answer that was before him was more suffering, more unanswered questions.   Jesus said that he would rise after three days, but I don’t think Peter heard that.  He tuned out after he heard that part about suffering and death.  Isn’t that so often the case in our own lives?  We get stuck in the struggling and the death and we forget that something comes after that.

It is natural to assume that life should get easier, maybe even smoother when we have the answers. Pop psychology tells us that we will find peace when we have accepted the truth.  But the reality is that there are no easy answers and no easy ways.  There are merely struggles that require more strength than we can possibly muster.  Sometimes faith does not lead us to peace, happiness, or the easy answer.  It leads us to a desperate cry.  It leads us to the realization that we do not have the answers, but we do have the guide.  So we follow.  “Get behind me Satan” sounds like an insult and perhaps it was.  Yet it is intriguing that he tells Peter to get behind him and then instructs his disciples to follow him.  You have to get behind someone to follow them. In a sense, he was telling Peter that even if he was the rock that he would build his church on, he was still a follower of Jesus.  Jesus demands that kind of humility from all of us. It would be transformational (perhaps even revolutionary) if all of our church leaders, our government leaders, our military and our law enforcement could display that kind of humility.  Even when we are convinced that we are right, we are merely followers of Jesus.  No more, no less. The only answer we need is the suffering Messiah that we follow.