Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "From That Time On," Matthew 16:21-28

Sermon 8/31/14
Matthew 16:21-28

From That Time On

            Today, we continue immediately after our text from last week, where Peter proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, in response to Jesus’ question, “And who do you say I am?” Remember, we talked about how Peter claiming that title meant that he understood that Jesus, even though he wasn’t the typical picture of a king like David, an anointed one like the line of kings from the Hebrew scriptures, even still, Jesus was truly the anointed one, the messiah, ruler of the realm of God, this unexpectedly ordered way of God on earth. Jesus entrusts to Peter and the disciples the mission of continuing this reign of God. Today, our passage opens with the words, “From that time on…” These little seemingly throwaway phrases in the scriptures, especially when we’re reading the scripture in little pieces at a time, can feel so unimportant. But this phrase is important because it actually tells us: What happens next is directly related to what just happened. What’s coming next is a direct result of what happened most recently. So, we read, “From that time on, 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.” In other words, Peter naming Jesus as Messiah is almost like a trigger, the cause. Because Peter correctly calls Jesus Messiah, from then on, Jesus talks to them about the fact that he’s going to head to Jerusalem, where he will suffer at the hands of the religious authorities, be put to death, and rise on the third day.
            Peter, so on top of things in last Sunday’s reading, rebukes Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, this must never happen.” Of course, it seems like rebuking Jesus is probably always a bad idea. Chances are if you find yourself in the position of rebuking Jesus, and telling him, “God forbid it” in response to something he says, it’s not going to work out really well for you. On the other hand, if the person you loved most in the world told you they were about to suffer and be put to death, even if they said they would be raised on the third day, how could you do anything but say, “Absolutely not! I refuse to let that happen!”
            But Jesus is not sympathetic in his response to Peter. Peter, just named as the Rock, is now called Satan. “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus says, “You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” For Jesus to call Peter a stumbling block was a pretty significant criticism. In English, “stumbling block” sounds like you accidentally left a child’s toy where someone might step on it. In Greek, the word for stumbling block is skandalon, where we get our English word scandal, and it means more literally “a trap or snare laid for an enemy.” It’s an intentional action. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Stumbling blocks weren’t just bad luck. They were obstacles placed by an enemy to prevent a person from completing whatever path they were travelling on. And in this case, the enemy is Satan. And the path is the path to the cross, to the crucifixion, but also to resurrection. It is Jesus’ mission. And anything that stands in the way of that is an enemy laying a trap. In fact, Jesus’ language takes us back to the beginning of the gospel, just after Jesus was baptized, when he was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness – and do you remember what happened? He was tempted by Satan. And every temptation focused on a stumbling block, a snare, a trap laid for Jesus that would lure him into believe he could do God’s will without actually … doing God’s will. For Jesus, these words from Peter, from one of his own disciples, don’t just represent someone upset about what suffering Jesus will face. Peter’s words are echoes of the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness – the temptation, the powerful idea that he could somehow complete his mission … without all that awful suffering and death stuff.
            It does sound tempting, doesn’t it? But Jesus has already faced that temptation. And Jesus knows that the only way to show what it means to be truly the messiah – not a conquering, ruling by force and might messiah – is to demonstrate to the uttermost how mixed up we’ve got things. Jesus’ authority will be demonstrated even in pouring out his very own life for others – and then showing that even death can’t conquer God’s reign, God’s ways, God’s vision. Even death is powerless in the face of God. But Jesus must face it to demonstrate that.
            And so, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers,” if we really want to claim Jesus as messiah, if we’re sure we know what we mean by that, we demonstrate it by picking up our own cross and following where Jesus is leading. “For,” Jesus says, in his upside down way, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Under Roman rule, those sentenced to death would have to carry their own cross beam to the site of their crucifixion. Jesus is asking us to carry not a traditional symbol of power – no sword, no crown of gold, no other symbols of status. Instead, to follow him, we too take the cross. A sign that we are pouring out our own lives in order that we might have room for God to fill them up.
            Jesus is trying to tell us that we don’t get to choose just part. We can’t call Jesus messiah without the part that happens “from that time on.” They go together. They’re inseparable. Trying to separate them is a stumbling block. More than that, it’s a trap laid by an enemy, trying to convince us we can follow Jesus without actually following Jesus.  
            In some ways, then, what Jesus says is quite simple, quite straightforward. If you want to follow me, you have to follow me. And you can’t follow Jesus without following Jesus. When you put it that way, it sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it, to think anything else! It’s a package deal. If Jesus is the Messiah, then from this time on, what goes along with that is knowing that Jesus’ path leads to the cross. And if Jesus’ path leads to the cross, and if we’re followers of Jesus, if he is our messiah, well then, from this time on, following Jesus means we take up the cross too. A package deal. We can’t take it piecemeal. It’s not even possible. Trying to convince yourself or anyone else otherwise is a stumbling block. Are you a follower of Jesus? If you are, then from this time on, there’s only one thing left to do: Follow Jesus. Amen.
           



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