Sermon: "Carrying Our Cross"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 3.1-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12.9-21; Matthew 16.21-28
Last Sunday we noted Jesus’ question addressed to the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Upon hearing their answers, Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” We noted Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus was pleased with Peter’s answer, for he said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Johan! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16.13-119; NRSV).
We further Jesus’ question “Who do the people say the Son of Man is?” is a question of identity but the second question, “Who do you say that I am?” is a question of allegiance. The locale for raising a question of allegiance was fitting, for Jesus and his disciples were in the region of Caesarea Philippi, the regional seat of Roman power and pagan worship. Jesus was asking where do you pledge your allegiance – to the kingdom of heaven or to the kingdom of this world?
Questions of identity are associated with belief whereas questions of allegiance are associated with practice, with commitment. While reading commentaries this week, I encountered a quotation from Alice walker which gets at this fundamental difference: “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week” (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, p. 351). Your belief in Jesus might get you to church on Sunday, but your allegiance to Jesus is reflected in your living as Jesus lived the other six days of the week!
God bless Peter! He recognized who Jesus was! He recognized we owe our allegiance to Jesus, not to the Caesar’s of this world.
Then we turn to today’s gospel lesson which immediately follows this account. “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” (Matthew 16.21; NRSV). Matthew tells us Peter took Jesus aside, i.e., he had a private conversation with Jesus, and said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16.22-23; NRSV).
Talk about a quick reversal – one moment Peter is at the head of the class and the next moment Jesus is calling him Satan! I have no doubt that Peter meant well; Peter loved Jesus. As far as he was concerned, he and the disciples would see that Jesus never suffered such things. Remember how Jesus had to tell one of the disciples to put away his sword when they came to arrest him. Peter was so right while being so wrong!
Why would Jesus call Peter Satan? What Peter was proposing, what he was offering, was tempting. It was reminiscent of Satan’s temptations while Jesus was in the wilderness. In Luke 4.13, we read: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (NRSV). Peter was an unwitting accomplice, but this time Satan cloaked the temptation in Peter’s love.
I like Fr. John Foley’s explanation of Jesus’ strong reaction to Peter’s having said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Foley writes,
When Jesus was hungry, Satan had said, stealthily, you are Messiah! Why don’t you simply turn these stones into bread? After that, have your angels save you from all danger. And then, be a real Messiah, be in charge of all the lands there are. Why not?
Because all of this would require bowing down and worshipping Satan.
To put it another way, Jesus would have to act according to the self-seeking, self-interested part of human nature. Go for the wealth, the power and the reputation. Forget Godly love.
Since he was human, Jesus must have felt within himself the rewards that would come with such desert temptations. And he must feel it now as Peter gives him the same enticement.
So he reacts strongly.
Does he really mean that Peter is Satan? No. But surely he remembers with pain the devil’s temptations.
No wonder that name slips out. (https://liturgy.slu.edu/22OrdA083020/reflections_foley.html )
After having called Peter Satan, Jesus further said, “You are a stumbling block to me” (Matthew 16.23). The Greek word for stumbling block is skandalon, literally a rock over which one stumbles. So Peter went from being the rock upon which Jesus would build the church to the rock which would cause Jesus to stumble.
Peter was lacking in spiritual insight and maturity. He understood Jesus to be the promised Messiah, but he did not yet understand the true nature of his mission or his kingdom. Peter’s words served as the impetus for Jesus’ further instruction: “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. 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” (Matthew 16.24-26; NRSV)? Our natural desires seek the things of this world -- wealth power and prestige. Madison Avenue and our consumption driven economy play on those desires.
We face a fundamental question – will we pledge our allegiance to, will we commit to, will we identify with the things of this world and imitate those who strive for such things or will we imitate Jesus. As I have noted on prior occasions, our human nature is imitative. The story of Adam and Eve and their desire to be as the gods, to possess the knowledge of good and evil amply demonstrates this fact. We imitate each other’s actions and desires.
Rene Girard characterizes this imitation, this mimesis, as follows: “If two friends imitate each other’s desire, they both desire the same object. And if they cannot share this object, they will compete for it, each becoming simultaneously a model and an obstacle to the other. The competing desires intensify as model and obstacle reinforce each other, and an escalation of mimetic rivalry follows; admiration gives way to indignation, jealousy, envy, hatred, and, at last, violence and vengeance” (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper17a/ ).
Peter wanted Jesus to imitate the world – to trust in power, violence, and vengeance. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” If we are to set our minds on divine things, we must sacrifice the things of this world and imitate Jesus. This is what it means to take up one’s cross and follow him. When we imitate the ways of the world, we lose eternal life. When we imitate Jesus and take up our cross, we gain eternal life, for in Christ Jesus we have the promise of the resurrection.
I love the story of Peter’s life! I do not know about you, but I identify more closely with Peter than with any other disciple. I have loved Jesus yet denied him, but like Peter, I have experienced forgiveness and have come into greater knowledge of God’s kingdom, of what it means to take up one’s cross. Now I strive to imitate Jesus more fully. Each day presents it trials – some days more than others! We may not see much progress in the short term, but we should in the long term. Our God is a merciful God who is always ready to forgive. Thanks be to God!