Preached by Rev’d Janey Hiller
• Matthew 16:21-end
• Romans 12:9-end
We’ve come to a something of a turning point in Matthew’s gospel today. If we look back at last week – Peter had an inspired revelation about who Jesus was and the passage ended with Jesus telling his disciples to keep that knowledge to themselves – it says he ‘sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.’
Then, this morning’s gospel starts in contrast with knowledge being revealed – it reads: ‘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.’
So we’ve got this gear-shift from keeping things under wraps to things beginning to be revealed:
- about Jesus’s purpose,
- about Jesus’s mission,
- And about what will need to happen to Jesus in order that they will be fulfilled.
One of the key characters in this story line is Simon Peter, and in that shift from last week to this week, there are some interesting contrasts in the way Simon Peter and Jesus interact.
First off, last week, in response to Simon’s revelation, Jesus renames Simon as ‘Cephas’, Peter – the rock – saying that rock would be the foundation stone of the church. But this week we have a very different type of rock – the kind of rock that you stub your toe on when you’re walking along – Peter – the rock – is now called a stumbling block.
A second contrast is around the source of Simon Peter’s inspiration. In last week’s passage Jesus blesses Peter for recognising him as the Son of God, saying the revelation was divinely inspired. This is not simply Peter drawing a human conclusion – rather it’s knowledge revealed to him by the Father. Contrast that with this week’s gospel where Jesus issues a biting rebuff to Peter. He effectively curses him – calling him ‘Satan.’! Then doubles that up by saying that Peter has set his mind on human things, not divine things.
So, Peter goes:
- From blessed to cursed
- From rock to stumbling block
- From divinely inspired to carnal
It’s tempting to feel sorry for Peter – he just can’t seem to sustain these high-point moments. But more often than not, I’m inspired by Peter – because of his fallibility. We may not experience such profound contrasts in our walk with Jesus, but we are all fallible. We all have those times where words come out of our mouths and we wish we had a ‘delete’ button, or where we have an opportunity to act ethically and justly, but opt to preserve our own comfort, or we have the opportunity to trust, but choose to be bound by anxiety.
All of these little micro-choices we make on a day-to-day basis are just what it is to be human. It shows us that, even though we are able to touch divinity through Christ, we are all dust and flesh and we are making our journeys of faith both with a sense of awe and wonder as well as with a sense of trembling and fumbling and stumbling.
Back to the story.
The thing Peter is objecting to is the idea that Jesus is going to have to suffer. Not only to suffer but to be killed! Peter says, “God forbid it – this must never happen to you!” I can imagine Peter thinking about Jesus getting arrested and then leaping to his defence in much the same way that he did in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter has as a brawny physicality about him – a robustness that life as a fisherman would have nurtured – no doubt he would have sought to defend Jesus physically if he saw a threat.
But Jesus is pointing out that Peter’s got the wrong end of the stick. Rather than protecting Jesus by trying to prevent him from going through suffering, Peter is actually standing in the way of Jesus and his mission. He’s hindering the journey towards redemptive freedom that will ultimately come through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus goes on to talk about what he expects of his followers on that journey. That they would walk with him in embracing the hand-in-hand contradiction of suffering and freedom. If Jesus had that path before him, then that same path lays before his followers too. Jesus says, ‘if anyone wants to become my followers let them deny themselves take up their cross and follow me.’
Whilst some religious and philosophical movements say the way to freedom is the elimination of suffering, Jesus’ way embraces suffering. It’s the mechanism through which he is able to fulfil the salvation of the world. Think about it – it’s actually incredibly bizarre! How can it be that suffering and death is the key that unlocks life?
Well, I think we can see a micro-version of that dynamic in our day-to-day lives. We form expectations about what is ‘ideal’ – whether it’s work, home, looks, self-expression – and we are prepared to make sacrifices to achieve those ideals. For example: a mum sacrifices staying at home to go out to work because she grew up in poverty and she doesn’t want her kids to go through the same. A young woman quits her secure well-paid job to pursue a dream of being an artist. I’m sure you can think of similar examples, perhaps even from your own lives.
So we’re familiar with the concept of delayed gratification – there is something in us that says that it’s OK to make sacrifices in order to achieve a longer-term or higher goal. That familiar principle plays out on a cosmic and divine stage in what Jesus is outlining to his disciples.
Following Jesus will involve sacrifice. It will involve us encountering suffering, it will involve us opting for forgiveness and reconciliation instead of grudges or revenge when we’ve hurt others or been hurt by them, it will involve holding faith when we wrestle with God-questions and yucky bible passages that we’d prefer didn’t exist, and it will involve persevering in love and kindness and grace for others who are ‘not like us’. All because we are called to be people who follow Jesus on a spiritual journey from suffering and loss to one of resurrection and life.
In the Lord of the Rings films, Frodo the hobbit is in possession of a ring which gives its wearer vast power. The evil Sauron wants to get his hands on it – no good can come of that – and it’s Frodo’s mission to carry the ring to the Fires of Mordor to destroy it. He endures huge suffering on the journey – both physically and mentally as he is tormented by the power of the ring affecting his mind and emotions. Climbing up the desolate, parched Mount Doom with his faithful companion Sam, they collapse in exhaustion. Frodo is unable to go on, but Sam gathers his last strength, and with tears streaming down his cheeks scoops Frodo up saying, ‘Come on Mr Frodo. I can’t carry the ring for you, but I can carry you!’ You can watch the scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqJGPzAwyV8
Now, we might not be climbing up Mount Doom, but we have been – and are – going through some tough times. Whilst some have been able to take the pandemic and lockdown in their stride, for many it has been like enduring suffering. Financial and housing insecurity, social isolation, limited access to health care, and anxiety about whatever and whenever our new ‘normal’ will become, have compounded pre-existing issues like domestic abuse, poverty, mental and physical ill-health. Aside from that, in the wider world, we hear stories about political upheaval and oppression, injustice and conflict, devastating weather systems and species extinction and so much more that speaks of a world enduring many aches and pains. And I’m sure there are those among us who feel like they are enduring rather than enjoying life.
We are, indeed, walking a road of suffering, as Jesus did.
But we do not walk it alone – we are carried by each other and by Christ. Our reading from Romans, urges us as a body to follow Christ’s example of mutual love together, to endure together, to nurture patience and perseverance together.
Despite Peter’s protests and misunderstanding, the message is that suffering didn’t have the last word for Jesus; resurrection did. And suffering doesn’t have the last word for us either.
In the Lord of the Rings book, the same scene tells of how Sam, when he collapsed on the mountainside, looked up at the sky – it reads:
‘There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.’
Much like that twinkling star that bolstered Sam’s hope, I too am encouraged to hope, in Christ, that the ‘shadows’ we are now in, are a ‘small and passing thing.’ That beyond the shadow of our present sufferings, there is light and high beauty for ever.
I’ll end with a prayer from Samuel Well’s book, Incarnational Ministry: I pray that: ‘Through the Holy Spirit, Christ, who releases us from the prison of the past through forgiveness, and from the fear of the future through everlasting life, may enable us to dwell in the present in faith and hope and love.’ Amen.