Sunday, August 31, 2008

"Get Behind Me"

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 17)
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:21-27
Sunday, August 31, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Have you ever had the experience of being acknowledged for an accomplishment, or of being praised for some admirable quality you possess, only to have something happen that calls into question the veracity of the acknowledgement or praise you received?

I remember a time years ago, during my previous career. I had been working really hard, wanting so much to be promoted to associate – the second highest level in the company hierarchy, just below the level of partner. It was quite an honor to be made an associate, because it was essentially a sign of recognition on the part of the firm’s partners that you were among the top in your field and could, one day, be made a partner. My hard work paid off and I was promoted to associate. And then everything seemed to fall apart. After years of nearly flawless work with no significant mistakes, I seemed to become a walking disaster area. While I don’t remember the specifics (I’ve conveniently blocked out the memories), I do recall feeling like everything I did was wrong. I made stupid mistakes in my technical analyses. I made erroneous analysis assumptions. I had some difficult interactions with clients and other staff. As a result, I began to question my abilities. I began to question whether I really should have been promoted. I just knew that my boss was going to call me into his office and say “We made a mistake. You’re not associate material. We’re demoting you to project manager.” Of course, that didn’t happen. Things did get better over time. And truth be told, the things that seemed to go wrong were probably not really that big of a deal and were probably not any different from the way my work had gone before my promotion. But I still remember feeling for a number of months that I was a failure, a fraud, not worthy of the honor bestowed upon me.

I imagine that’s kind of how Peter felt in today’s Gospel lesson. To fully appreciate this, we first need to recall last week’s lesson, in which Peter, responding to Jesus’ question as to who the disciples think Jesus is, states that he is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In that moment, Peter seems to get it. He proves to Jesus that he has been listening to what Jesus had been saying, observed what Jesus had been doing, and put it all together. Peter, like no other person before him, understands just who Jesus is. In response to Peter’s revelation, Jesus responds “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Of course, he then notes that Peter undoubtedly had a little help from God in sorting it out, but that’s okay. Jesus then goes on to say “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” In this act of blessing, naming, and commissioning, Jesus has heaped great praise on Peter. And in commissioning Peter to be the rock, the foundation, on which the Church would be built, Jesus is giving Peter a promotion. He is now chief disciple, the designated successor to Jesus in proclaiming the Gospel to the world.

But then we have today’s lesson, which happens mere minutes after Jesus’ commissioning of Peter. In today’s lesson, Jesus tells the disciples about how he will suffer and be killed at the hands of the authorities, and how despite this, he will be raised on the third day. Immediately, Peter begins rebuking Jesus for saying such things. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” And how does Jesus respond? He says 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.” At this point, Peter must feel like a failure. Jesus had just blessed and promoted him because he understood who and what Jesus is, and now he’s basically blown it. Jesus might as well have said, “I thought you understood, but obviously you don’t. I guess I was wrong about you.” Well, that’s not what Jesus meant, but that’s probably what Peter heard.

So what happened? How did Peter, in a mere instant, go from being the rock, the foundation on which the Church would be built, to being a potential stumbling block to Jesus’ mission – a mission that would be necessary for the Church to be founded? In a way, you can understand why Peter freaked out and started rebuking Jesus. In one moment, Peter is saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, a revelation which Jesus affirms. And in the next, Jesus is telling the disciples that he will suffer and be killed. How can this be? How can the Messiah suffer and be killed? That’s not what messiahs are supposed to do. Messiahs are supposed be the savior of the people, to come in glory to overthrow the corrupt authorities who currently reign over God’s people, to free God’s people from tyranny, to provide them with a new way of life in a peaceable kingdom. This would have been Peter’s understanding of Messiah. But we know that Jesus’ understanding of Messiah, God’s understanding of Messiah, was very different. This Messiah would liberate people, but not necessarily from oppressive governments. This Messiah would liberate the people from the bondage of sin and death. This Messiah would give his own life that we might have new and eternal life. But in that moment, Peter didn’t understand that. He had a mistaken idea of Jesus’ messiahship. Or his personal feelings for Jesus, his love for his master, got in the way. Either way, all he heard was that Jesus would suffer and die.

Now Jesus did say that he would be raised on the third day. He may have even explained what that would mean. But Peter didn’t seem to get that part of the message. Like so many of us, Peter’s hearing shut down when he got to a part of the message he didn’t understand or couldn’t deal with. Peter only heard what he perceived to be bad news – distressing news that became all consuming to the exclusion of anything else. He became wrapped up in his emotional response. He was so overcome by his emotions that he was not able to hear the good news that followed. He had set his heart and his mind on the human things he was perceiving, not on the divine things that were to come – the divine things that he could not yet understand.

Jesus’ response to Peter may seem a little harsh to us, but conveys exactly what Peter needs to do to get back on track, and what we need to do when we get off track. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Now in this context, Jesus is not accusing Peter of being the devil, but is using Satan as a general term, common to that time, for one who challenges faith or tests loyalties. But the most important part is what he tells Peter to do. “Get behind me.” In saying this, Jesus is invoking a call to renewed and deeper discipleship. The words “get behind me” are part of a discipleship formula which does not so much indicate physical position, but rather the posture of the disciple. In other words, “you need to get behind me so that you can follow me. You need to do what I ask of you, what I have prepared you to do. You need to follow where I will lead you.”

Jesus then proceeds to tell Peter and the disciples what they need to do to follow him, to be his disciples. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus is going to the cross. Those who are truly his disciples are expected to follow. This undoubtedly comes as a bit of a surprise to the disciples. After all, they are only now learning the full ramifications of what it means to follow Jesus. They had thought they were following a visionary, one who would save them. They had not signed on for crucifixion, for loss of life.

And it is at this point that we, too, are often brought up short. We hear that as followers of Jesus, as good Christians, we are to deny ourselves. We are to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We are to lose our life. This is where we panic. This is where, like Peter, we stop hearing. We get so hung up on what this could possibly mean, what it might mean for us, what we might have to actually give up to follow our Lord, that we don’t hear the rest of Jesus’ message. We often don’t hear that if we lose our life for Jesus’ sake, we will find life. We do not hear that by losing our life, by giving it up to Jesus, we will actually gain a new life. We don’t hear that we will gain eternal life in a new kingdom, freed from the wages of sin and death that run rampant in this imperfect and broken world.

But, as we have seen, we are not alone. We are not the only ones who get hung up on the seemingly bad parts and don’t hear the good parts. If it can happen to Peter, the foundation on whom Jesus built the Church, the one who lived with Jesus for three years, sitting at his feet, hearing first hand his teachings, witnessing in person his miracles – if after all that, Peter still has a hard time getting it, it’s no wonder we have a hard time getting it. This story of Peter, the message of what we need to do to be Jesus’ followers, is not intended to be a reminder of our failings for which we must beat ourselves up, but rather should be a gentle reminder that even if we falter and fail, we are in good company. The disciples faltered and failed before their story was over. Peter failed so badly that when the going really got tough, he denied Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times.

But eventually, Peter overcame his failings. I imagine that following his denial of Jesus, following Jesus’ crucifixion, following his resurrection, Peter looked back and remembered the lesson Jesus had taught him – “get behind me, follow me, I will show you the way.” This is the same instructions that apply to us. When we do falter or fail, what we have to do is get behind Jesus, for he will lead us back to the right path. That doesn’t mean the path will be easy. In fact, in asking us to take up our crosses, to deny ourselves, and to give up our lives, Jesus is promising us that it will indeed be difficult at times. As one commentator notes, “Here is both the challenge and the good news in this text: If we follow Jesus, we will be seriously called to bear certain crosses and lose hold of our lifestyle, if not our life. Yet, in all our weakness and human mindedness, it is Jesus' own death on the cross that enables us to do what we cannot” otherwise do (Schmit).

Jesus does not ask us to do what he has not prepared us to do, what he has not given us the tools to do, what we are not capable of doing. In addressing this struggle between what Jesus asks of us and our own humanness, another biblical scholar observes that “It takes a lifetime to grow into full understanding of God’s mission, purpose, and methodology, and the road to that understanding (as . . . Peter can attest) is full of missteps and misunderstandings (Langknecht, 182). Taking up the cross, denying oneself, losing one’s life, is scary business. It’s enough to make anyone back away from such demands. But we must remember not to get hung up on the human things, but rather set our sights on the divine things. That yes there may be difficulties. There may be death. But there is also resurrection. And you cannot have resurrection without death. The old must die so that the new may be born.

But we do not face such difficulties alone. That’s why we have the Church – established by Jesus on the foundation of Peter, who, like us, sometimes faltered and failed. That’s why we have communities such as this one. This is a place where we can support each other as we take up our individual crosses, as we struggle to deny ourselves for a greater purpose, as we continually discover what it means to lose our lives, only to find them in Christ.

I believe this is what Paul is talking about in Romans when he calls upon us to present ourselves as a “living sacrifice.” In ancient times, the faithful took animals to the Temple to be sacrificed on the altar as a gift to God. Today, we do not bring animals to sacrifice. Instead, we bring ourselves. We come week after week to this place, to this altar, laying our lives upon it as a sacrifice, as the ultimate gift of self, to God. Instead of physical death, we experience a spiritual death in which we die to self, and a rebirth, in which we are made new, made whole, given new life. The sacrificial gift of our very lives, as imperfect as they may be, we give to God for continued transformation and renewal as members of the Body of Christ, focused not on the failures of human things, but rather on the glory of divine things, the new kingdom promised by Jesus, in which we are all truly the beloved children of God.

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


Langknecht, Hank J., et al. New Proclamation: Year A, 2008, Easter to Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Schmit, Clayton.

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