Pentecost 12A Jeremiah 15:15-21, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-29
Before we get started looking at today’s scriptures, I have a confession to make: I do not like a single one of the texts for this week. Not one. In the first one, from the Old Testament, Jeremiah is whining on and on, as he does pretty much throughout his entire book. Then there is that text from Romans which makes Paul sound like a father with a list of advice for his kids as they head off to college. It reminds me of a speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when a father rattles off a list of paternal advice to his son. Each time I re read the epistle text, I kept thinking at any moment St Paul was going to say “Neither a borrower or lender be, for a loan oft loses both itself and friend!”
And then we have the gospel text?! Oh what a downer! Particularly after all the exciting things of the past few weeks, with miracles and walking on water and grand confessions of Jesus as the Son of God, even a trip to the Gates of Hell and a declaration from Jesus that rock like faith of Peter’s was the very kind of thing upon which he would build the church. But now, things have changed and taken a decidedly darker turn.
I just didn’t want to deal with any of it! Haven’t you ever felt like that? We probably all have. Everything has been going great, everyone is happy and enjoying life. Sort of like Summer vacation. Then something happens and everyone is brought back to reality. The tone of life changes. We change directions. Nope, I just don’t want to do it, either. Here’s what might make us feel better about this: neither did Peter.
There is a change in the air in today’s Gospel lesson. Up until now, things have been really exciting for the disciples, particularly Peter. For the most part, they’ve been pretty good, too. Just imagine being part of the crowds witnessing Jesus healing the sick and standing right there beside him while he healed. Imagine handing out fish and bread to thousands of people, food that had barely been enough for a single family, much less for these countless hungry mouths. Yet no one…no one went hungry that day. Imagine hearing all those cryptic parables from the storyteller himself: wheat and weeds, yeast and bread, pearls of great price, and faith like tiny little mustard seeds. Then there was that fateful morning with the wind and the waves, sitting in the rocking boat and seeing Jesus walking across the water. It was Peter’s chance to step on the waves himself. And walk. And he did, if even for a moment.
Who was Jesus to Peter? Of course, Jesus was the one who immediately reached to save him as he sank into the sea. The Messiah. His Messiah. His savior!
But now, things were changing. Jesus’ tone is changing. Everything is about to change. Instead of agricultural tales of wisdom, Jesus is now talking about going to suffer. About going to Jerusalem, right into the territory of the Pharisees and scribes who had opposed them every step of the way. This was disturbing enough, but then Jesus also says that he is to be killed.
Truth is, this is more than just a downer. This is terrible news. It’s a terrible idea! Peter doesn’t like it a bit and is having none of it. Who can blame him? Things are going so good! Why does Jesus have to suffer? Why does Jesus have to die? Peter does not like this at all and surely he must do something about it! He must convince Jesus that this isn’t right. God forbid it!
We can understand Peter. When things are going well, we don’t want to stop to deal with what might go wrong. We do not want to hear whining prophets or wise advice that seems tedious at the moment (no matter how valuable it may actually be.) More than that, we do not want to hear someone talk about the bad stuff that may happen, the challenges we’re going to face, just around the corner. Even more than that, who wants to hear that we must face difficulties if we are going to continue on the path we’re on, despite the fact that it is truly the right path.
God forbid it, Lord! Peter says. This must never happen to you!
And to make matters even worse, was Jesus thankful for Peter’s concern? Did he say, ‘thanks for worrying about me, Peter, but I’ll be fine.’? Did he say, ‘Yes, maybe God will forbid it. Maybe we will be ok.’? Did he say, ‘April Fool! Just kidding!’? Nope. Instead, he calls Peter the devil and tells him to get out of the way. You’re a stumbling block for me, he tells Peter.
You’re setting your mind on human, not divine things.
Divine things? Going to suffer is a divine thing?
Jesus then tells all of 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.’
It is a jaw dropping moment, one that was bound to be a surprise to his disciples. We may not feel it so much sitting here now, because we know the story. We know what’s coming next, but they do not. It is one thing to think and talk about the kingdom of heaven, to follow this amazing rabbi all over the country and another thing altogether to hear him talk about suffering and dying; to hear him talk about the necessity of crosses, losing lives to gain lives.
Remember those bumper stickers that said WWJD? And all the jewelry, notebooks, plastic cups and so on that said WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? It’s a good question, of course. You can still see it from time to time on all kinds of Christian paraphernalia. What would Jesus do? The idea for this question actually came from a book written by Charles Sheldon called In His Steps. Sheldon, a pastor in Kansas, wrote the book in an attempt to encourage Christians to consider their faith as an every day imperative. In your everyday life, considering what would Jesus do in a given situation can greatly affect the choices you make.
That’s a fabulous idea. When we’re talking about healing and fish and bread and walking on water and telling parables, that is. But that isn’t where Jesus stopped. He also suffered and died. Suffered greatly and died painfully. What would Jesus do? He would go to the place where it is going to hurt. A lot. He would suffer. A lot. And he would die. And he would do so not just for friends and people who loved him, but for people who didn’t like him, who wanted him dead and thought he was a blasphemer and political enemy.
That’s the part that Peter didn’t want to hear about. And, if we are all honest, it isn’t something we want to hear either. But that is exactly what Jesus says and does.
But there is something else here, too. Something else that is easy to miss. Just a tiny little phrase in what Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples that is so easy to overlook. Possibly because it sounds utterly senseless and impossible.
Jesus tells them that he must go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed. And on the third day be raised.
On the third day be raised. Raised from the dead. Raised to new life. He must do these things, yes. But he must also be raised to new life. Divine things are not merely suffering and death but something far greater than these: being raised from the dead to new life.
Jesus speaking about the crosses we bear, losing our lives to gain it, all of this is not merely in the light of his going to Jerusalem to suffer and die but, more than any of that, it is in the light of his resurrection. That’s the life we gain. The new life in him.
Sometimes, people will use these words of Jesus’ and those in other places of scripture to indicate that it is good for people to suffer in general, that people who are abused or harmed in some way are actually better because of the suffering itself. This is not what Jesus is talking about here. And, in point of fact, I think the notion that the suffering inflicted upon others comes from anything other than evil is probably contradictory to Jesus’ teaching. What Jesus’ suffering does mean, however, is that Jesus suffers along with us and that we are never alone in it, regardless of its source or purpose or lack thereof.
It is not likely that many of us will ever face significantly painful consequences because of our faith, certainly not torture and death. There are those who have, both through out history and in some parts of the world, experienced significant oppression, harm and death as a result of their faith. And yet, there are things in our lives that we must choose to do differently because of our faith. If we truly did think about what Jesus would do or, better yet, what Jesus is doing right now because Jesus is alive and at large in the world, it makes a difference in every single thing we do. It means that we may sometimes have to make difficult choices and decisions that relate to our money, our time, our families and our futures.
Try that out, the next time you are facing a choice or decision. What would Jesus do? What is Jesus doing? Going to the place where it hurts, suffering, and dying for the sake of others, then rising to new life, making a new world that’s better for everyone. We must go to the difficult place in our lives where we know what is right but don’t want to make a choice because it hurts. We must make that choice because it is right. Experience the consequences if there are any, and most likely those consequences aren’t being crucified. We must die to ourselves; let go of what we think we need because in the end, God has given us everything we need. And then, we live in a new life, in a new place or perspective that’s better for everyone.
It isn’t just any kind of suffering he’s telling his disciples about. He’s talking about suffering that is brought about by those who are opposing the Son of God. Jesus is not saying that it is a divine thing for someone to be put to death. He is saying that the forces that try to harm him, the disciples or us are the kind of suffering we all may have to face at some point in our lives, but facing these difficulties with the help of God is faithful. The cross he will bear, the crosses that all of us bear, the mark of the cross on our foreheads, is not a divine thing because of the painful suffering that may come but because of the new life we gain in Jesus. The new and eternal life it brings us in him.