Proper 17A

Last week’s hero is this week’s goat.

Last Sunday we heard Peter, the first-called of all the disciples, praised for correctly answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter quickly blurts out.

“Blessed are you!” Jesus praises Peter. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

And then Jesus tells Peter, which means rock in Greek, that he is the rock upon which the Church will be built, and that he will hold the keys to God’s kingdom.

Pretty heady praise and power for a former fisherman.

But Peter’s glory doesn’t last long.

We heard today the very next scene in scripture, where Jesus tells the disciples he is going to Jerusalem, where he knows he will undergo great suffering and death.

Peter is appalled at this grim prediction. “God forbid it, Lord!” he cries out to Jesus. “This must never happen to you!”

Peter’s protest seems perfectly appropriate. If your friend and teacher, the one you had left everything to follow, suddenly declared to you that he was on his way to a city where he knew people were waiting to torture and kill him, wouldn’t you try to stop him? Why walk into a situation like that when you can turn around and walk away?

Who wouldn’t react as Peter does?

But Jesus is not touched by Peter’s concern for his safety.

“Get behind me, Satan!” he harshly rebukes Peter. “You are a stumbling block to me: for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Suddenly, Jesus and Peter are on opposite sides. The disciple who moments earlier received a special revelation from God is now mired in a very human way of thinking. The one specially blessed by Jesus is now called Satan by him. The rock on which the church is to be built suddenly turns out to be a stumbling block.

Why? What does Peter do wrong? All he did was protest Jesus’ statement that he must suffer and die. All he did was say that there must be some other way to be the Messiah, some way that doesn’t include pain and death.

Peter’s cry sounds exactly like the response that any loving friend would make. But as far as Jesus is concerned, the voice that he hears is that of Satan, the one who tempted him in the wilderness after his baptism.

Three times the devil tried to tempt Jesus, and three times Jesus resisted.

And then, scripture says, the devil departs from Jesus “until a more opportune time.”

What more opportune time could there be to tempt Jesus than when he is facing his own suffering and death? The real temptations in life are not to do the things that are obviously wrong or bad, but to do things that on the surface appear to be good.

We can assume from the harshness of Jesus’ reply that Peter’s offering of an alternative to suffering and death must be a real temptation to Jesus.

Peter, like the tempter in the wilderness, is offering Jesus a way out, a detour around Jerusalem with all its risks of pain and death. And for a moment, perhaps, the possibility seems real and desirable to Jesus.

That is why he snaps and cries, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Then Jesus tells the rest of the disciples, “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.”

Not exactly an attractive proposition.

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says that what troubles her most about this passage is this:

“Does Jesus mean that all of us who pray to be delivered from suffering and death are on the side of Satan, and that the side of God is reserved only for those who are ready and willing to die?

“Does he mean that all of us who want to be on God’s side had better go out and get ourselves killed as soon as possible?”

Of course that is not what Jesus intends. What he means is not that God wants us to seek out suffering and death, but that our fear and avoidance of those things may rob us of life.

“Fear of death can turn into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not life at all,” Taylor says. “The deep secret of  Jesus’ hard words is that the way to have abundant life is not to save it, but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and saved.”

I think of my grandmother who had drawers full of beautiful clothes, tablecloths and linens that had never been used. She didn’t want to get them dirty because she was saving them for a special occasion, she said.

When she died all those beautiful things were still in her drawers, still pristine and unopened, unused and unenjoyed.

Peter wants Jesus to live like that. He wants to preserve Jesus’ life, find a way for him to be the Messiah without getting dirty, without taking risks.

Peter, like most of us, misses the final point of what Jesus says to his disciples.

Listen to the beginning of today’s gospel reading again. “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Peter doesn’t notice that after the suffering and death there is life again, for Jesus and for all of us.

“You never get that far if you let suffering and death throw you off track,” Taylor warns. “If you let your fear of those things keep you from sticking your neck out, from taking the risks that make life worth living.

“You can try to save your own life. You can try to stockpile it, being very, very careful about what you say yes to; being very, very cautious about whom you let into your life, frisking everyone at the door and letting only the most harmless people inside; and being very, very wary about going out yourself, venturing forth only under heavy guard and ready to retreat at the first sign of trouble.

“You can live that way, but don’t expect to enjoy it very much, or to accomplish very much, and do not expect to be missed when your safe, comfortable life finally comes to an end and no one notices you are gone.”

Jesus is not urging us all to be daredevils.

But he is telling us that there are things more important than safety and comfort; there are risks worth taking; that life is to be lived, not wrapped in plastic and put in a drawer; and that even when our lives here run out God will have more life for us, because our God is a God who never runs out of life.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus says.

These words are ultimately not an invitation to follow Jesus into death, but an invitation to follow him into life.

Amen.

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