Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 17A

TEXTS: Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28

From 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. (Matthew 16:21).

“From that time on”? From what time on?

If you’ve been reading my blogs over the past few weeks—and if you can call to memory the gospel lessons you’ve heard about—you’ll have some idea of what’s happening here. But, in case you’ve got a memory like mine … I’d better recap.

Someone has calculated that Jesus travelled over 3,000 miles during his three-year ministry—that’s more than 5,000 kilometres! And by the time we catch up with him today, he’s nearing the home stretch.

Two weeks ago (in Matt. 14:14-33), we heard about Jesus teaching and healing near Capernaum, where he wound up feeding over 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. When Mark’s gospel reports this same story, it says that Jesus felt compassion for the people there because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). This was actually a swipe against the religious leaders of Israel—the ones who were supposed to be shepherding the people, but in fact were failing miserably.

The week before that, we found him in the province of Syria, far to the north of Galilee, where he took pity on a Canaanite woman whose daughter was being “tormented by a demon” … whatever that might mean. Jesus heals the girl, and by doing so violates all kinds of rules of propriety, not least because the woman and her daughter are Gentiles. He even commends the mother for her great faith! When they hear of this, the Pharisees and Sadducees will be scandalized.

Returning to his own country, he is confronted by those same religious leaders. By now, they have realized that this Jesus is no fly-by-night religious fanatic who will soon disappear—and they’re getting worried. So they call a kind of showdown:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’  And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’  You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matt. 16:1-3).

“No signs!” Jesus says. “Even if I gave you a sign, you wouldn’t recognize it.”

The movement of Jesus’ ministry out of Galilee—and toward his death in Jerusalem—has now begun. Things are beginning to get dangerous for him and his little band of followers. And so, as we heard last week, once they arrive in the district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus gets serious with them: “Guys, you’ve been around the town. You’ve heard the talk. What’s the word on the street? Who do people say that I am?”

They tell him: “Some say you’re John the Baptist, come back to life. Some say you’re Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

And then Jesus gets really serious with them. “What about you?” he asks. “Who do you say that I am?”

Not surprisingly, Peter is the first to speak. “You are the Christ,” he says, “the Son of the Living God. You are the Messiah we have been waiting for.”

Jesus is impressed. He tells Peter that it was not merely human reasoning that had given him this insight, but divine revelation.  Then he declares that Peter—or, at least, the faith of Peter—is going to be the foundation stone for the church.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

This was a sacred moment. And it must have seemed like a triumphant moment, also.

But it would not last very long. Because—as we heard today—from that time on Jesus began to show them what lay ahead; that in Jerusalem he would suffer and die. He would be tried before the Sanhedrin—the Jewish Supreme Court—which would condemn him and hand him over to the Romans to be executed like a common criminal.

Peter is stunned by this news. He is shocked. He cannot conceive of such a fate befalling the Messiah. So he takes Jesus aside and begins to say to him, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you. Let’s get hold of those keys you gave me last week and we’ll do some binding and loosing. We’ll fix this.”

Peter means well, but Jesus … Well, Jesus loses it!

“Get behind me, Satan! You are getting in my way, for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

So in just six verses of Matthew’s account, Peter has gone from being a foundation stone to being a stumbling block—from the bearer of divine revelation to an instrument of Satan.

Talk about a rooster one minute and a feather duster the next!

Poor Peter. Nothing in his background had prepared him for this. The Messiah would be rejected by the religious leaders in Jerusalem? Israel’s champion would suffer a shameful death? Their great hero was going to lose?

How could that be? The Messiah was expected to inflict suffering and death upon Israel’s enemies, not to suffer and die himself!

It is kind of puzzling, isn’t it?

Well, isn’t it? For 2,000 years, the church has taught that Jesus’ crucifixion was a revelation of his glory. Some have even said that Christ’s cross was his kingly throne. But who can really understand that?

Our idea of being blessed is to have a good job. A nice house. Healthy, intelligent kids. Good return on our investments. A great retirement plan.

Jesus’ concept of blessedness is very different.

“If you try to hold on to control of your life,” he says, “you’ll wind up losing everything. But if you let go of your life—even if you pay the ultimate price for your commitment to me—you will discover real life. Eternal life. What’s the point of conquering the world if getting it kills your soul?”

I feel for Peter, don’t you? I relate to this guy. I think Peter is us! His heart is in the right place, but he has trouble following the plotline. He experiences the tension—and wrestles with the paradoxes—that we all do from time to time.

Like every serious Christian, Peter is caught between faith and doubt, between understanding and confusion, between obedience and disobedience. In his strengths and in his weaknesses, he represents us ordinary Christians who strive to be faithful followers of Jesus … but trip over the cracks in the sidewalk.

We are like Peter, aren’t we? We want the story of faith to go according to our script. We want it to make sense.

But Jesus overturns our tables. He crashes through our religious upbringing. He turns our cultural understandings inside out. He tosses our ambitions and aspirations out the window. Sometimes Jesus scares us as much as he inspires us.

We wish it were different, don’t we? I know I do. I would like a smoother ride. I’d like the way of discipleship to be more fun! More comfortable. More successful. I’d like to edit out the unpleasant parts of the story … especially when they include me as a character.

Ever heard of Ignatius Loyola? He founded the Society of Jesus—the Jesuit Order—way back in the 16th century. He is still regarded (and not only by Roman Catholics) as a kind of spiritual master. Ignatius spoke about the need to distinguish between the good and bad spirits which try to influence us.

We want to listen to the voice of a good spirit and reject the advice of an evil one. According to Ignatius, discernment of spirits is a way to understand God’s will for us.*

That sounds simple enough. Simple, but not always easy, because the bad spirit … Well, the bad spirit can seem so reasonable, so sensible, so in tune with our culture. Very skillfully, the bad spirit uses our fear and our guilt and our prejudices to delude and manipulate us.

That’s the reason why—just like Peter—we can go from certainty to confusion so rapidly. One moment, we see the will of God clearly—only to lose sight of it a moment later. We have to guard against that.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul urges us to live our lives with intention. He says:

“Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit … be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (Rom. 12:9-12).

These attitudes of the heart do not come to us automatically. Always, there are choices to be made: decisions about how we shall live and how we shall respond to others.

Yes. How we respond to others.

Discipleship is lived out in the midst of community. We are reminded of the call to follow Jesus through our interactions with others who share our journey. With them, we learn servanthood. Because of them, we are challenged to confront our own fears and prejudices. The apostle Peter faced these challenges, too—not always with success. But he persisted. And he did not cut himself off from the fellowship of believers.

That’s why Peter was present for that breakfast on the beach with the risen Christ—the one John recorded at the end of his gospel. And because he was present, he received a new commission—one which Jesus stated three times: “Feed my lambs … Tend my sheep … Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).

In other words, “Stay in this faithful community and serve my church.”

Perhaps that sounds less prestigious than being “keeper of the keys” … but through this kind of humble servanthood, Peter would perfectly emulate his Lord. And—by doing that—he would discover the meaning of grace.

May it be so for us, also.



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