A sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017
Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York
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.
I intentionally skipped over the gospel lesson last week because it is only the introduction to this week’s gospel. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples to reflect on who he is, what his significance is. They talked for a while about what other people thought Jesus was, who he resembled and so forth, and then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter was the one who responded and he said what his experience had led him to believe: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God!” Peter was perceptive and correct. He knew that Jesus, the man that he knew, in his life and his teaching and his actions was bringing the healing compassion of God into the world. And this insight was so important that it was the foundation of the church, the assembly of the forgiven, so Jesus gave him his name: Rock—Petros is simply the Greek word meaning rock.
Why is this important to know for our Gospel reading today? Because there’s a dramatic moment in today’s reading when Paul responds to Jesus telling him he must go to Jerusalem, suffer and die, by saying, “God forbid it, Lord!” and then Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan!”
Jesus just called Peter his rock and now he’s calling him Satan? What, indeed, is going on here?
Today’s reading has to do with the real love and compassion of God. It’s not what we like to think of as truth and compassion – something that doesn’t disturb our comfortable lives, our routines, our safety. That’s what Jesus was going to encounter in Jerusalem – people who were comfortable living untruthful and self-serving lives, believing they were entitled to their comfort. And Jesus knew what the result would be of speaking to them of God’s truth and compassion. Someone once said to me in another context, “if you poke a narcissistic system, all you will get back is rage.” Jesus was realistic, far more realistic than so-called realists who counsel avoiding the truth if it creates difficulties.
Like the rest of us, Peter had grown up surrounded by that kind of realism and he reacted in just the same way. He took his friend aside. He had been Jesus’ friend for a long time and Jesus had just told Peter that he was the foundation of his church that was to come. So Peter reacted like any friend steeped in the realism of the world would have, he took Jesus to task.
“Get behind me Satan!”
Peter was responding from the position of the demons of this world—those forces that push for untruth and avoidance of responsibility; those forces that easily accept the suffering of others to avoid the discomfort of encountering the truth. It’s easy to think of such things as “smart” or “grown-up” when what they are is cowardly and what they do is build up evil consequences. Given enough time those evil consequences will be detached from the people who caused them to the point that the evil appears to come out of nowhere. In other words, demons are created. Those people who caused Jesus’ suffering weren’t especially evil, they were ordinary, worldly leaders, urbanely sophisticated, with good connections. They were regarded as having prudent judgement. They arranged to have our healer and Lord killed.
Jesus didn’t so much take this personally; he wasn’t worried about himself. Jesus was concerned to bring the love of God, the mercy of God, the compassion of God to all people, including those he had to face in Jerusalem. After setting Peter straight about what is wisdom and what is demonic, Jesus began to teach all his disciples. I think we can read it to include us: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The love that Jesus lived is not limited or unique to him. The depth of truth and compassion that took him to Jerusalem also guides his followers, and the consequence of following Jesus may well be painful, it may indeed involve loss. Certainly in Christian history, it has even involved the literal loss of life. To be sure, when I talk about deep truthfulness, I am not talking about delivering facts in a way calculated to hurt our competitors or enemies, or even “inadvertently” saying things out of resentment or anger that might be true, but are not compassionate. Living in the compassion of Christ involves the courage to be truthful, even to ourselves about our own lack of compassion (sometimes that’s known as confession).
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Abundance of life involves the boldness to live for others and being serious enough to continue that when it is not easy—putting the priority on one’s own life is the surest way to end up wandering in dissatisfaction and misery—we see it daily: the voracious need for affirmation and adulation among the most selfish and entitled; who already have the most. Surely they are losing their lives.
It is a challenge living, as we do, in a context of great wealth, where we and our children hear over and over again from people around us, that the basis of value is in having things and money. Those things are not life, that money is not value. Value is in human caring, caring that extends beyond ourselves, that rejoices in abundant happiness of others. Jesus says it right here: “For 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?” Take up your cross, and follow him. Do not be afraid. You will be surprised at the abundance of joy, when you give away your fear, and your anxiety about what you might keep.
Let us pray again in the words of our collect for today:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.