230903 – Wait, What?

Yr A – Pentecost 13 –Matthew 16:21-28

The companion reading for today is the story of Moses and the burning bush. Talk about an experience of the holy that completely changes your life! Moses had his entire worldview turned upside down, all because he turned aside from his regular life, and allowed himself to experience God’s Presence. God says, “I want you to go back to Pharaoh and free the people of Israel.” And Moses says, “Wait, what?” It’s a wonderfully dramatic story.

Similarly, it’s tempting to dive right into the drama between Peter and Jesus. I mean, one minute Jesus was calling Peter ‘the rock’, and the next he’s calling him a Satan. It doesn’t mean Jesus thinks Peter is ‘the devil’. The Hebrew word satan literally means ‘accuser’ or ‘adversary’, as in a prosecuting attorney. So, what precipitated such drama?

Matthew 16:21 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.

The very next thing that happens in Matthew is the Transfiguration (Jesus, disciples, mountain, bright light), after which Jesus is on a collision course with a cross. Notably, a cross is an instrument of torture that the Romans wield. Up until now, Jesus has been battling Pharisees and the like. He even says in verse 21 that he’ll undergo suffering at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders. But now he’s also realizing that his ministry and message of living God’s loving-kindness, and of challenging the way the world works, will have the terrible yet inevitable consequence of angering the people who profit from the way the world works. That’s not so much the Jewish religious types – it’s the Romans. Jesus foresees his ending – not because he’s magic, but because he’s politically astute.

Now, the disciples, and especially Peter, either can’t or don’t want to see that reality. So Peter lashes out. Poor Peter. The person who he has just professed to be the Messiah has in turn entrusted him with the foundation of the church. “Wahoo! Look at me! I’m the Rock! I’m the man!” Five short verses later, Peter comes crashing back to earth.

Peter must have been floored. Messiah’s aren’t supposed to go and suffer and die. It was a paradox that Peter could not accept. So he reacts: Matthew 16:22 – Peter says, “Wait, what?” – no, “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’”

All Peter is doing here is trying to show Jesus support. He can’t believe that the Saviour has come to die – that seems so passive – so ineffective. No way! The Messiah was supposed to come and kick butt.

Jesus wasn’t turning out to be the Messiah Peter perhaps thought he was supposed to be! The one Peter had fashioned in his own mind. 

Do you ever do that?
Get mad at God because God isn’t meeting your expectations?
Lose faith because Jesus didn’t say what you wanted him to say?

So Peter spoke out. He was passionate. He was one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples, the rock upon whom the church was to be built. And what does he get for giving his counsel to Jesus?  

Verse 23: “Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan (accuser)!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”   Ouch!!! 

In verse 17 Jesus says, “Blessed are you Peter” but in verse 23 it’s, “Get out of my sight, you Satan, you. You are dangerous to me because you are not thinking in God’s terms, but in human terms.”
Does that hit home?

Peter had completely changed his life. He’d given up his old ways to walk with Jesus, to learn, to be a disciple, and he was to someday be ‘the rock’ – but first he had to unlearn everything he thought he knew about faith.

These are dark moments in these characters’ lives – moments of truth when they were called by God…and blew it. 

Peter hung out with Jesus every day and yet he missed the point. “You are not thinking in God’s terms, but in human terms.” To follow Jesus requires thinking in new and different ways. Our old ways, our old strategies, our old assumptions, all have to be unlearned to make room for God’s new Way.

In Matthew 16:24 Jesus goes on to say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants 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?”

Wait, what? You gotta lose your life to save it? Yup. This is what it means to think in God’s terms instead of human terms. Jesus says, “You want to be my follower, fine. All it costs is everything. But if you trust in God completely – you’ll find that you have more than you ever dreamed of.”
(Not more ‘stuff’ – more of God!)

I suspect most of us will hear that like Peter did. “Too lofty for me. Too hard. I just want to come to church and feel better for an hour or so.”
[shrug] Sorry.

The Greek word rendered as life here can also be translated as soul. I like soul better than life in this context. Losing your life for Jesus’ sake can have an ominous ring to it. We tend to associate life with physical things – heartbeat, breathing. But speaking in terms of one’s soul moves the reflection into more of a metaphysical vein. “For what good will it be for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul?” Or maybe the word ‘self’? Gain the whole world yet lose your sense of ‘self’.

Here’s a puzzler – you have to lose yourself to find your ‘self’!

St Catherine of Genoa gave us this gem to ponder: “My deepest me is God.” Your deepest you, is God.
Let the enormity of that idea sink in.
The deepest, truest, most real part of you, the very centre of your being, is God, is divinity, is holy, is sacred, is love.

But you can’t reach that depth if you and your ‘stuff’ are still the centre of the universe! And here’s the part that confounds us – you can’t reach that depth by effort, or good deeds. You can only get there by abandoning yourself to God’s holy presence and letting the Spirit do its thing in you.

That means letting go and trusting.
That is what it is to lose your life to save it.
This is so completely counter to our current culture. We have so much to unlearn.

Matthew 16:24 from the New Living Translation reads, “You must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross and follow me.” Put aside your selfish ambition and focus on God first – that’s clear enough. 

“Shoulder your cross” – that’s tougher. Obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally, but what exactly do you think he’s getting at? Bear your burdens? Keep a stiff upper lip? Do what is asked of you? Be prepared to suffer? – Maybe. Or maybe it’s just this:

Trust in God completely! “…and follow me.”

My hero, Brother Lawrence, uses the word abandonment to talk about this. Abandoning yourself to God sounds pretty radical – and it is! It’s about utterly letting go, surrendering, and trusting.

They say that you can’t really learn a new language until you totally immerse yourself in it, and learn to think in that language rather than translating from English first. That’s what abandonment means – so totally immersing yourself in God that you start thinking in ‘God’s terms’ rather than in human terms. Jesus was totally immersed in and abandoned to God. Peter wasn’t there yet. Am I? Are you?

What about the Church? Is the Church abandoned to God? Does the Church think in God’s terms or in human terms?

What’s the purpose of the Church? – to keep the doors open come hell or high water? – to fill the pews and the coffers?
Whose agenda comes first at church? – God’s? The minister’s? The treasurer’s? The traditionalists’? The radicals’?
Who’s in charge? Who’s in the centre? We all know what the answer is supposed to be…

What would church look like if we committed every day to putting God at the centre? – if we made every decision from God’s terms instead of human terms? – if we set aside our selfish ambition, took up our cross and followed Jesus? – if we trusted God absolutely, come what may? What would church be like? I don’t know. It would feel pretty scary. But I bet it would be glorious, and powerful, and amazing – if we really had the guts to risk it…if we really had the trust.

What if we swapped in the word ‘church’ for ‘life’ in verse 25? How about this?

For whoever wants to save their church will lose it, and those who lose their church for my sake will find it.

I hope you take that one away and ponder it all week long.

For whoever wants to save their church will lose it, and those who lose their church for my sake will find it.

One of my favourite authors, Brennan Manning, offered this benediction when he did speaking engagements:

May all of your expectations be frustrated,
May all of your plans be thwarted,
May all of your desires be withered into nothingness,
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child
And can sing and dance in the love of God,Who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There is nothing ‘same old same old’ about that. It’s the lesson just about everyone in the bible had to learn. It’s the lesson Peter had to learn. It’s the lesson I’m trying to learn. I think it’s the lesson the church needs to learn. And I truly believe that we can. But to learn it we need to do a bunch of unlearning too – to lose something so we can find Something More. Deep down this is why we’re all drawn here – to encounter and be transformed by Jesus’ unconventional, world-subverting wisdom – to learn to think in God’s terms, not human terms.

Oh, we need the warm fuzzies too. We need to feel seen, and heard, and known, and loved. We need the beloved community that we share together. These are beautiful benefits that come with church life. But if you’re not saying, “Wait, what?” about your faith life and your church experience, well, you might not be diving in deep enough.

When Jesus teaches this hard stuff it can make our heads kind of spin. It’s very disorienting. It shakes us to our core. It challenges everything we think we know about how things are and the way things work. That’s what makes it so great. You must lose your way to find your way – to find God’s Way. And as you go, may all your “wait, whats” be blessed.
Amen.