Posted on Sep 03, 2017 by Pastor Dave Whetter
Our gospel story today actually began last week with Jesus asking the disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (16:13). In response, they reported that on the street people were saying he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another one of the prophets. But Jesus also wanted to know who the disciples thought he was, and when he asked them, Simon Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). In that moment Peter managed to do something that many of us often fail to do, and that is to profess our faith. For a brief moment, Peter had clarity about Jesus and who he was and what his actual mission was. But, as we heard today, that clarity was very brief.
As soon as Jesus praised God for revealing this truth to Peter and Peter for having the courage to recognize this truth, Peter blew it. Once Jesus acknowledged that he was the Messiah, he “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” (16:21). But this kind of messiah made no sense to the disciples. The messiah they were expecting was going to be like King David. The messiah they were waiting for was going to stand against Rome, and Caesar, and force them out of Israel. The messiah they were expecting was going to be strong and powerful, and bring justice to their land, at least the kind of justice they wanted, which was more like revenge. Suffering and being killed was not “messiah-like,” so Peter does what he thinks is right; he pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (16:22). If Jesus is the Messiah, he cannot suffer and die.
Instead of being praised for speaking out, like he had been just moments earlier, this time Jesus scolds Peter by saying, “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” (16:23). Jesus calls Peter “Satan!”. Peter is the one Jesus just praised. Peter is the one whose faith is so awesome that Jesus will build his Church on such a faith, and now Jesus calls him Satan. What is happening here? How did things unravel so quickly?
Well, maybe we need to take a deep breath and focus on a couple of things here. First, Jesus is not implying that Peter is that man in red tights with a pitchfork and fire all around him. That Satan is only in the movies. In the Scriptures, the name Satan means adversary, and in the Old Testament, when we hear about this adversary, he is part of God’s “heavenly court.” In the book of Job, (1:612) he is Job’s adversary and he is trying to prove to God that Job is only faithful because God has been so good to Job. In the book of Zechariah, Satan is again part of the court, and we are told he is standing before God waiting to accuse the high priest Joshua of wrongdoing, but God does not allow it. And in the Gospel of Matthew, Satan is the one who tempts Jesus in the wilderness. So often we think of Satan as being evil in mean and cruel ways, but the truth is, Satan is not that way at all. In the wilderness with Jesus all Satan was doing was attempting to encourage Jesus to do the things he had come to do anyway, but by taking the easy way, not the difficult way of the cross. He was tempting Jesus to jump to the end instead of making his journey. Jesus came to feed the hungry, so the first temptation was to encourage Jesus to feed himself. Jesus came to do great things like heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead, so Satan tempted him to create wonder by encouraging him to jump off a high tower and land safely. Jesus came to reign over God’s kingdom, and all Satan was doing was tempting him to do so painlessly and effortlessly, instead of the difficult path that was necessary. In every case in scripture, Satan is nothing more than the one who tempts others away from God’s ways. Like Satan, Peter was attempting to get Jesus to turn from God’s ways, and so Jesus chastises Peter and says stop being a stumbling block to God’s ways. That same message is sent to you and I today.
Unfortunately, for most Christians, especially those who succumb to the “televangelist theology” that is so prominent in the U.S. culture today, we believe that if we have faith in Jesus then no harm or suffering will come to us. We hear it all the time, “If you just believe more, or if you just work harder, or…” then all will be good. But that is not the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Following Jesus means we must take up our cross, which means our faith; far from protecting us from harm, our faith may open us up to persecution and suffering from political and even religious authorities. We are so used to thinking that our faith in God embraces our worldly attachments, our country, our family, our job, our sports teams, our hobbies, and so forth, that we may be shocked when we actually have to make a choice between the things we love and support and faithful living in Jesus.
Let me give you an example of what this might mean in today’s world. As many of you know, Portico is an ELCA ministry whose job is to provide benefits for ELCA pastors and employees of the church. Portico is the “insurance/investment” company that handles our benefits package. At ELCA national meeting last year, the issue was raised that although the Portico investments packages that we invest in for our retirement was doing very well, some of the investments were in companies/businesses that might be involved in business practices that did not uphold our values. The assembly voted to direct the Portico investment managers to not invest in any such business/industries. The result is that in many cases our investments are making less money, but our investments are in companies that uphold the values we seek to follow.
All too often we are easily tempted by Satan to take the easy path in our lives. All too often in the church we want to find the easy way, but God says to walk in His ways will be difficult. Yes we are called to care for the poor and the oppressed, and as we do that, we are also called to care for and grow the Church. Proclaiming Jesus as our Messiah with our lips is the easy part. The hard part is making the journey to living our faith. There will always be those who want to deceive us into thinking there is an easier path, and to them we must say, “Get behind me, Satan.”
The lesson for us is not that we should be looking for opportunities to suffer or deliberately choose the hard way, but that the way of discipleship is the one to which God calls us. Jesus says we must be willing to loose our lives for his sake, but he also isn’t saying to carelessly throw your own life away. In fact, he is saying just the opposite. As people of faith, we ought to invest in our lives, so we are prepared for a journey of faith that is often difficult and dangerous. Are you ready for such a journey? I pray you are. Amen.