(Sermon for August 31, 2008 || Proper 17, Year A RCL || Matthew 16:21-28)
Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is in Rome near the end of his life, thinking back on that day spoken of in this morning’s Gospel. *
The coals in the cooking fire still smoldered hours after the last log was cast on them. I awoke in the pre-dawn chill and warmed my fingers over the scant heat. Mine was the night’s last watch, and I muttered to myself about the senselessness of posting a sentry. But our resident Zealot,** the other Simon, had spoken persuasively about the need for vigilance, especially as Jesus’ words reached more important and more vindictive ears. As the foggy, half-light of dawn crept through our camp, I saw movement coming through the scrub from the foothills. I was about to wake the Zealot when I heard the tune of a psalm carried on the breeze, and then Jesus himself stepped out of the mist. Under one arm, he had a load of sticks and twigs, which he deposited on the coals. Blowing gently on the embers, he rekindled the fire and sat down next to me.
“Lord, you shouldn’t go off alone like that. It isn’t safe.” Apparently, I said this louder than I had meant to because our companions began to stir.
“You’re right,” he said, “It probably isn’t safe.” He turned to look at me and smiled. “But I wasn’t alone, Peter. No. None of us is ever alone.” He paused, held his breath. Then he exhaled slowly, and his cold breath mingled with the smoke from the damp twigs on the fire. He called out to those still sleeping. “Gather around, everyone. I have something to tell you.”
Once the rest of our group was seated at the fire, Jesus lifted his head and greeted us each by name. “My friends,” he said, “Yesterday, I asked you to keep my identity a secret. I asked you not to tell anyone that I am the Messiah. I know I can trust all of you, and this morning I have more to entrust to your confidence. Peter has just cautioned me about the danger of going off alone. Simon has you all standing guard through the night. I thank them both for their devotion to our safety. However, my friends, this morning I must tell you where our story is going, where my path is leading. Soon, I will abandon the safety of these hills and go to Jerusalem. Once there, I will ask you not to protect me. Men from the elders and the chief priests and the scribes will come, and they will arrest me, and they will beat me, and they will kill me. And three days later I will be raised from the dead.”
I stood up and looked down at Jesus. I didn’t know what to say. Twenty minutes ago he was rekindling the fire, and now he was talking about his own fire being snuffed out. I looked around at my companions—stunned into silence every one, even Bartholomew who always had some joke or jest on his lips. I started walking away. I needed to get away.
I thought I had everything figured out. I thought I knew what was to come. I saw him do amazing things: I saw him make the blind see and the lame walk. I saw him cleanse the leper’s skin. I saw him feed five thousand with enough to feed five. I saw him cry out in the storm and calm the waves. The words of the prophet were coming to life before my very eyes. The day before, Jesus had asked us who we thought he was. “You’re the Messiah,” I had said, and something inside me that was not myself told me I had spoken the truth.
But what kind of Messiah lets himself be led like some silent sheep to the slaughter? What kind of Messiah allows himself to be killed? The Messiah is the heir to David’s throne, the king who brings victory over our oppressors, the warrior who will sweep our enemies from our land and make us free once again. Not one who surrenders. Not a victim. Not a dead man.
These maddening thoughts crashed into me, and I dropped to one knee, my chest heaving, my cheeks moist with tears. I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up. Jesus was there, looking down at me. “Why, Lord?” I snarled from my kneeling position. Then I stood up and shouted in his face: “Why? I trusted you. I called you Messiah and you did not deny it. I gave you my life, and for what? So that I might dig your grave?” I turned around and put my hands on my head, squeezing as if the pressure would keep my mind from flying apart. “Heavens preserve you, Lord. This must never happen to you.”
Jesus turned and looked at me or into me. When he spoke, his voice was calm, but commanding. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on godly things, but on human things.”
Then he walked back to camp, leaving me alone in the morning fog. “None of us is ever alone,” I heard him say, as in a distant memory. I followed him back to the fire, my thoughts as thick as the fog. Yesterday, I was Rock. Today, I am stumbling block? Yesterday, the father in heaven was revealing things to me. Today, my mind is set on human things. What happened? What changed?
I had been clinging so tightly to my own image of the Messiah that I failed to see this new, brilliant vision of the Christ in my midst. Where was his army marshalling to cast out the Romans? Where were his generals and siege towers and chariots? Of course, there were none. Instead of soldiers there were blind men with new eyes. Instead of swords and shields there were loaves and fishes. Instead of slaughter and death there was healing and life for all. I realized in that moment that I was the blind one: I missed what was there because I was looking for what was not. I was the deaf one: I had never heard Jesus properly because I was always filtering him through my own preconceptions. I vowed then and there to listen with new ears and see with new eyes.
As I reached the camp, I heard him say to our companions, “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.”
I wanted to be that follower. But I couldn’t make it happen that cold morning. There were too many changes happening and just too much new information to process. And I couldn’t make it happen later that year. Instead of denying myself, I denied Jesus. Three times in one night. He took up his cross and I fled to save my life. But three days later, he rose from the dead, and I saw him, and that voice inside me remembered that he said he would do this. But was I his follower yet, even then?
The years bring clarity, and now I know that I was his follower even on that cold morning and on that terrifying night before his death. You see, being his follower had very little to do with how much I understood. I didn’t understand the kind of Messiah he was and yet he still welcomed me back, still loved me, no matter how much I shouted at him. Being his follower also had very little to do with how good I was at it. I denied him and yet he still welcomed me back, still loved me.
Yes, the years do bring clarity, and many things are clear to me now. Jesus never said that those who lose their life for his sake will save their life. The saving is Jesus’ job and his alone. No. He said that those who lose their life for his sake will find their life. You don’t find something without searching for it. The search gave me the space to let go of my preconceptions, to lose all those things I was holding onto so tightly—my own vision of the Messiah, my own need for Jesus to be exactly who I needed him to be. As I let go of those things, the search offered me the license to believe in Jesus without understanding everything he said or did. As my own death approaches, I see that the losing, the searching, and the finding are all somehow wrapped into one. The One I seek has already found me. The One I seek is bearing his cross with me. The One I seek is walking before me as I try to follow him.
None of us is ever alone. No matter how much or how little I think I understand, I hear Jesus’ voice inside of me saying, “Understanding will come…in time. For now, lift up that cross and follow me.”
* This narrative type of sermon has its roots in the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash, in which scholars took the stories of scripture and expanded them to reach new insight and new interpretive depth.
** The Zealots were a sect that favored violent encounter to achieve political ends. If they were around today, they’d be one man’s freedom fighters and another man’s terrorists. I try not to mix the accounts of the Gospel, but in this case, I borrow a bit from Luke, who assigns the category of Zealot to the other Simon. Matthew does not.