Sermon for Sunday, August 30, 2020 || Proper 17A || Matthew 16:21-28
“Get behind me, Satan.” I’ve always wondered how Jesus said these words. Peter has just named Jesus the Messiah. And Jesus has just said what will happen if he continues his mission on its current trajectory. He will undergo great suffering and be killed! (He mentions rising again on the third day, but Peter doesn’t key in on that part.) Peter says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” That’s when Jesus says these famous words: “Get behind me, Satan.”
Did Jesus say them along with a frustrated sigh, like a geometry teacher trying to explain what a proof is? “Get behind me, Satan.
Or did he say them dismissively, with a flick of his hand, like one of the Fab 5 on Queer Eye, getting rid of a pile of cargo shorts: “Get behind me, Satan.”
Or did Jesus say them with a throaty, commanding tone, like Gandalf confronting the Balrog: “You cannot pass!”;* “Get behind me, Satan.”
No matter how Jesus said this iconic sentence, I don’t think he was addressing the command to Peter. Yes, Jesus is responding to Peter’s anxiety, but he’s not calling Peter Satan. Jesus is speaking directly to Satan. Jesus sees past the conversation he’s having with his disciples and confronts the insidious force of temptation that seeks only to unspool us from who we truly are.
(If that’s what’s happening with these words, then I’m liking the Gandalf version.)
Jesus cries out against Satan, the embodiment of temptation, because Peter’s words unwittingly tempt him. By saying, “This must never happen to you,” Peter gives Jesus an out. Jesus hasn’t been telling the disciples what he wants to happen, but what will happen if he remains on his mission of spiritual and communal awakening among his people. His death at the hands of the combined religious and secular authorities is all but assured based on the challenge Jesus’ way of life presents them. When Peter declares that God forbid Jesus from dying, Jesus knows the only way that he won’t die a horrible death is if he veers from his path.
But that would mean a fundamental shift in who Jesus is at his core – a person whose purpose is to bring people and communities fully alive within the love and the grace of God. Such a mission meant challenging unjust structures in his society. Such a mission meant transgressing boundaries of class, gender, religion, and ethnicity in order to show those boundaries should not exist. Such a mission meant living a life of radical welcome, risky love, and permanent vulnerability. That’s who Jesus was. To stray from that path meant a different kind of death – not a horrible physical death, but a spiritual death of the person whom Jesus had chosen to be, whom God had blessed him to be.
Satan, that insidious force of temptation, would revel in the unraveling of the beautiful identity that made Jesus who he was and is. But Jesus stands strong against the temptation, just like he did earlier in the wilderness. “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus will remain on his mission because his life is the mission. His very identity is Emmanuel – “God with us” – and each day of his life, he showed what that promise looked like.
One of the most miraculous things about Jesus was how he stayed true to himself in the midst of overwhelming adversity. Not only were the religious and secular authorities after him, not only did the Pharisees seek to entrap him, not only did he have no place to lay his head, but in our passage today even Peter entices him to give up. Again, I don’t think this was Peter’s intent, but I do think Jesus heard Peter’s words as a call to turn aside and become someone that he (Jesus) was not – someone who kept his head down and got along, never raising his voice against the oppressive society in which he lived.
With Jesus’ example before us, I wonder how you confront the insidious force of temptation that seeks to unravel us. Do you know what I mean when I talk about unraveling? It’s the only word I can find that comes close to describing the sensation I’m talking about. There’s a feeling you get in your gut, a few inches behind your navel. It feels like the thread of yourself is being pulled away, like a sweater caught on a splintered piece of wood. It feels like there is less of you than there was before.
This happens when we act in ways that run counter to the people God yearns for us to be. For example, I am tempted by a less than moral way of doing something. I know it’s technically wrong, but (come on) who’s it really hurting? So I cheat on the test. I plagiarize a little. I hop the turnstile. I download the album from a pirated file share instead of paying for it. None of these things seem all that bad, I convince myself, but each one unravels me just a little bit more.
The more I get used to living in an unraveled state, the easier it is to ignore when I fall farther and farther away from the person God yearns for me to be. I grow violent or reactionary or miserly. I lash out at loved ones. I hoard my possessions. I assume someone else’s gain must mean my loss. The more I unravel, the harder it becomes to see God’s image in myself, and that means there’s no way I’m going to be able to see God’s image in other people.
Unraveling happens when we act in ways that run counter to the image of God within. And unraveling also happens when we don’t act in ways that honor the image of God inside ourselves. For example, I am tempted to sit idly by while the great sins of the world run amok. I convince myself that since I seem to benefit from the way the world is, I might as well let it be. Or I convince myself that it’s someone else’s problem to fix. Or I convince myself that I’m just one person: what can I do? So I scroll by the news story of Jacob Blake, who last week was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, Wisconsin police while his children were right there. I might muster a sigh or a shake of the head before moving on to other things.
And while I am looking away from this latest gruesome example of death-dealing injustice, I will unravel a bit more. But I won’t notice because I am getting good at not noticing things. I give in to the temptation not to notice so often that I become a cog in the banal machinery of evil. And in my cog-hood, I don’t recognize the empty shell I’ve become. What happened to the person God yearned for me to be?
This is the temptation Jesus faces down when he says, “Get behind me, Satan.” It is the temptation to live a life other than the one God invites us to live. That other life often seems easier, but only if we don’t take into account what it does to our souls.
This week, I pray that you may take stock of how you are being tempted to unravel. In what ways is God beckoning you to become the person who you truly are? How are you living into that image? And how are you not? If you feel yourself unraveling, bring the feeling to God in your prayer. Ask for eyes to see the difference between who you are now and who you are in God’s dream for you. The good news is that, while our threads may unravel, they are never cut from the spool. And our God is the great Weaver of Creation. No matter how far we are from ourselves, God can knit us back together so that we can participate in God’s weaving movement in this world.
* I know Gandalf says, “You shall not pass” in the movie, but in the book he says, “You cannot pass,” and I had to go with the book.