A sermon preached by Tom Leach online on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 30 August 2020.
The gospel reading this morning has a powerful, dramatic moment and leaves me feeling acutely uncomfortable
Who do you say I am?
This crucial question to his disciples and to all his followers blazes down the years to the present time in the midst of our pandemic chaos, and to us ourselves. Who do I say you are, Jesus?
Simon Peter’s answer – you are the Christ, the Son of the living God- is the first time any of the disciples have used the title Christ/Messiah. Jesus’ response is immediate and fulsome: you are the rock on which I am going to build my church; bless you Simon Peter, and I am going to give you power you never dreamt of – the very keys to the kingdom of heaven. This is startling, powerful, a moment of huge drama and intimacy. Peter was the only individual disciple recorded as being blessed in this way by Jesus.
In the next breath, Matthew’s account has Peter saying what any of us might be tempted to say. You talk of suffering and being killed. But we, your close followers, will never ever let that happen. We love you and will remain loyal and will prevent our Christ, our Messiah from falling into the hands of those who wish to do away with him.
Then this shattering rebuke. Matthew follows Mark in the strength of his reaction to the person he so recently blessed, and praised and made an unimagined promise to. Satan, get behind me. Get out of my face! You are not talking about God’s Things. Your mind is obsessed with human ways of thinking. What a dramatic turn of events and emotions. You are a stumbling –block to me. The words resonate with Jesus’ earlier struggles with temptation in the wilderness.
Why this sudden burst of anger? What could lie behind it? A moment of drama in a text which describes a new phase of Jesus’ teaching; intended to explain to his followers about the deeper meaning of his life and his destiny. The deeper explanation of Who I Am and Whom You Can Be- if you follow me.
Was it a challenge from one of his closest followers that made him angry? Was it Peter’s failure to understand that Jesus had to suffer, that he must be killed in order that he be raised to life on the third day? Was it Peter’s confidence that a determined force of his followers could protect their Messiah, with all the wrong-headed display and splendour of a conquering hero?
There is enough in these passages to suggest that Jesus was acutely aware of the precariousness of his mission and the volatile environment in which he moved. He warned his disciples shortly after blessing Peter that they should not tell anyone that he was the Christ/Messiah. We can only guess the precise reasons. Did he fear the sort of reaction Peter had given? In Matthew’s time (following AD 70) the ultimate calamity, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, threatened the very identity of Judaism. In our time a global pandemic threatens our Christian activities, and our church life. Who do we say Jesus is? Who are we?
The second half of the gospel reading goes on to lay out what followership will mean.
Behind are the engaging puzzles of the parables and the startling events of Matthew’s chapters 14 and 15. Jesus the teacher has begun to open the eyes of his followers in a process which will continue, in the very next chapter of Matthew, with his transfiguration, when some of his followers will see him in his true relation – the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. The ‘journey to Jerusalem’ has begun.
The approach now is very direct and uncompromising. If you want to be my follower you will have to take up your cross (like me). There follow these characteristic paradoxes of Jesus’ teaching: to save your life, you must lose it; in losing it, you will find it. …What is the good of gaining the world but forfeiting your soul?
This is very stern stuff. The passage links Jesus suffering with that of his followers and, as other commentators have pointed out, it vies with another gospel message about the abundant saving grace of God for sinners.
He invites us to make a complete commitment – a whole hearted change from our old ways of thinking. This is not comfortable, nor is it intended to be, particularly when pandemic fear and climate breakdown cloud our vision. Like Simon Peter we may run the risk of being diverted by human distractions.
So this is a timely invitation to reframe our thinking.