Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28
After Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16), Jesus reveals the ultimate purpose of his ministry. These words prove hard to accept, even for a disciple whom Jesus has called a “rock.”
21From that time on, [after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah,] 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?
27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
This week is a turning point. Summer is over. Fall is upon us. School has started. Evenings of relaxation, fireflies and campfires are replaced by baseball practice, piano practice, girl scout meetings, homework, choir, and the sinking feeling that it’s going to get dark at 4:45 next week.
This week is a turning point. The disciples have just found out that they are going to be witnesses to the culmination of history. The long-awaited Messiah has arrived! The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight – and the Messiah will lead the people out of their oppression and poverty into a new world order of everything that they hoped and dreamed of during their slavery in Egypt, their exile in Babylon, and their oppression under the romans, the last of a long line of oppressors of the Hebrew people.
This week is a turning point. “From that time on,” Jesus starts to explain that the Messiah would not be embraced but rejected, not crowned but executed, not empowered by might but weakened by affliction.
Last week, when Peter proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah, he got it partly right — and mostly wrong. After hearing Jesus say that he must undergo suffering and be killed, Peter presumptuously takes him aside and rebukes him. Peter apparently has a vision of “the Messiah” as a deliverer who would never suffer or be conquered or killed — indeed, on the contrary, Peter likely shares the vision, common in those days, that “the Messiah” will be a military conqueror and will vanquish the Roman occupiers and restore the monarchy, as the son of David, once and for all.
The traditional ideas of the coming messiah focused on someone who was to be the warrior, prophet, and priest. To lead the people to victory over their oppressors. Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, and his way will lead to victory, but his mode of opposition isn’t armed with a sword; he has in mind a deeper way, a more subversive kind of resistance to the powers that be. Jesus opposes self-centered, grasping forms of power.
After all, the opposite of a grasping, domineering fist isn’t a bigger fist, but rather an open, loving hand. Jesus will lead a revolution — but a revolution of love, service, and justice. On the surface, he will suffer and be rejected. On the surface, he will at last submit to the ultimate imperial instrument of cruelty and intimidation, the Roman cross. On the surface, he will be defeated — but God’s deeper way will prevail. After three days, he will rise again, and a movement called to love, service, and justice will be born.
Peter wants to get behind Jesus as Messiah but can’t get past his training and beliefs of what that Messiah will look like and act like, And Jesus exclaims, “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus hears Peter’s argument, and it’s a powerful temptation, reminiscent of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness being tested by “the devil.” Jesus spars with Satan in the wilderness, overcoming the temptation to do things his way, to get more power, and to achieve victory. And Peter brings it all back here…If you are the Son of God, if you are the Messiah, take these dazzling powers of yours and raise up an army, legions of angels to deliver the faithful! Invade and destroy the Temple to Augustus — and build an even greater Temple to Jesus of Nazareth!
And Jesus says emphatically no, this is not God’s way.
In the background here is Isaiah 53, the ancient, enigmatic vision of the “suffering servant,” a figure who’s rejected and despised by all — but through whom God’s deliverance is nevertheless carried out. This is the same theme that Jeremiah draws from in his sufferings. When Jesus says that the Son of Man, the Child of Humanity “must undergo” suffering and rejection, he draws on this ancient, mysterious tradition. And he heads towards the cross, rather than fight against it, knowing God’s power alone redeems suffering.
But the way of the cross is not salvation through doing nice things and letting yourself be a doormat to others. Certainly, some are called to martyrdom, but the rest of us, probably not. The way of the cross is choosing selfless compassion when you come to a turning point, instead of everybody for themselves.
The turning points in our lives are opportunities to respond, and Romans gives us a starting point for our perspective. From this point on, things are different and so I must respond differently. Whether it is a turning point of your own making, or a situation outside of your control, we’ve all experienced it. We come to a crossroads, or are forced to make a turn, and we must respond to this change. How then shall we respond? What should we consider?
But I cannot say this strongly enough, if you are in a relationship, any relationship, where the power dynamics are such that you are being abused, you are not called to suffer that, you are not called to die for that. Jesus already did that. It certainly does notmean is to remain in an abusive situation and valorize it as one’s “cross to bear.” It does not mean hiding out from life’s joys and blessings and responsibilities, enclosing oneself in self-righteousness, and calling that “self-sacrifice.”
What it does mean is explained better in another of today’s readings from the lectionary. The list is punctuated with actions and attitudes that make life meaningful: genuine love for others, tenacious goodness and perseverance even as evil encroaches, patience in suffering, blessing even those who persecute, cultivating empathy and rejecting opportunities for retribution and so much more. Truly living for the sake of the Gospel means recognizing God’s love for each one of us, including ourselves. (https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22/commentary-on-matthew-1621-28-6)
The way of the cross is the way that Jesus has gone, and his suffering and death alone are what saves. Not ours. This hymn of the day I chose is not necessarily a favorite of mine, it’s old school. “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” But I have periodically found myself humming it over the years. One season of my life, I hummed it a great deal, and couldn’t remember the words till I looked it up. Over and over, I would hum, till I finally googled it quick, and I found – “and pour contempt on all my pride.” Oh no. You are not the savior. I am not the savior. My fictitious martyrdom saves no one. The cross is what we turn to, and Christ is who we follow. Amen.