I have to tell you, I have been dreading this gospel text all week. We are in a season of life that feels completely out of our control: whether we direct our attention to the looming presidential election in just ten weeks, the fires and hurricanes bearing down on our neighbors, the impending start of a new school year – whose daily schedule is still unclear, or the ever pervasive global pandemic and the way the pandemic has disrupted our physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial lives. Even planning this year’s church calendar with our Vestry this past month felt like a game of pin the tail on the donkey – as we tried to guess where our lives would be in two, four, or even six months.
As experts in living an out-of-control life, we can totally understand Peter’s actions in our gospel lesson today. An impending sense of doom and the anxiety-provoking lack of control lead Peter to rebuke Jesus, declaring vehemently that Jesus must never experience the great suffering and death Jesus predicts for himself. Peter, who literally two verses before this text is praised for his bold proclamation of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, is severely scolded by Jesus. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus yells. Peter, who has just been called the rock on which Jesus would build his Church, is now a stumbling block, getting in the way of Christ’s mission. We understand Peter’s actions though. When Peter declares Jesus the Messiah, he means a triumphal, redeeming Messiah, not one heading to death. Peter’s Messiah is not supposed to behave this way, and Peter will not stand idly by and let his Messiah self-destruct.
Our tendency is to look at Peter and shake our heads. Poor Peter – always getting things wrong: sinking in the water when walking to Jesus, misunderstanding what Messiahship means, getting confused at the Transfiguration, insisting he will never abandon Jesus at the end. But we have to be really careful with Peter because Peter is not that much different than each of us. We have all had those instances where we rebuked God for one reason or another. We too have faced hurricane forecasts and have rebuked God. As we have watched our political life crumble, we have rebuked God. As colleges close, mandated technology gets delayed two weeks after school starts, and school schedules are still unknown, we have rebuked God. As friends are infected, lose jobs, or die from the pandemic, we have rebuked God. Like Peter, we too have yelled out, “God forbid it!” We have seen the darkness and pain looming ahead and have desired with every inch of our being to stop the suffering.
And yet, suffering is what Jesus predicts for all of us. Jesus says, “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’s words make us very uncomfortable and confuse our notions of a loving, grace-filled God who beckons us to come to God when we are weary. We hear these words about suffering, recalling all of the pain in our lives – the loss, the heartache, the loneliness – and we cannot imagine that God plans for us to suffer in these ways. Predestined suffering does not fit our understanding of who God is. And yet, here we are with Jesus’ words today.
What helps me with this text is to go back to Peter. What is interesting about Peter’s rebuking of Jesus is that he seems to rebuke all of what Jesus says without actually listening to all of what Jesus says. Jesus says 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.” Peter hears the suffering and the killing part and seems to totally miss the part about being raised on the third day. If Peter had been listening, he would have heard the good news imbedded in Jesus’ words. He would have heard the promise of resurrection, the promise of everlasting life, the promise of resurrection life for all of us. Yes, the road will be dark and painful – maybe even unbearable – but there is goodness at the end of that road. God’s promise of salvation, of resurrection on the third day, is good news for Peter. Suddenly Jesus’ scolding of Peter seems much more justified.
The invitation for us today the same: to listen. Listen to the entirety of what Christ is saying to us. If we get lost in the words about suffering and death, then we become like Peter. Now I am not arguing Jesus is encouraging us to go recklessly surfing in this hurricane of life. Instead, Jesus is inviting us into a life that matters – a life lived not inwardly guarding our own comfort, but a life that lets go of control, not worrying about the cost for self, but a life that is poured out for others. We can enter into that ambiguous place because God promises us that even if our lives end in the process, God has more life in store for us. Jesus’ invitation to take up our crosses is not an invitation into death, but an invitation into life.[i] This week, boldly take up your cross; knowing that on the third day, Christ will be raised. Resurrection life awaits! Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 80.