September 3, 2017

Preached by Rev. George Yando on September 3, 2017.

Exodus 3: 1-15
Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45b
Romans 12: 9-21
Matthew 16: 21-28

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Thinking Things Human and Divine

 [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “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.”

            — Matthew 16:23

We’ve all heard those good news / bad news kinds of stories.  Last week’s Gospel lesson was of the good news variety.  Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say I am?  Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied that Peter had divined the correct answer, one which could only have been revealed to him by God.  That was the good news.

This week’s lesson begins with the bad news, the downside of last week’s good news.  This morning’s Gospel reading makes it clear that while Peter knew the right answer to a pivotal question put to him by Jesus, he didn’t fully understand what it meant.  Jesus went on to explain that as Messiah, he would suffer many things and finally be killed.   Peter took Jesus aside and began to castigate him and scold him, rail against him and plead with him.  Whatever else he might have said to Jesus that Scripture does not record, the language was evidently strong; Peter’s rebuke was the same expression described elsewhere in the Gospels when Jesus’ rebuked the demons.  Peter was arguing quite simply that, “There has to be another way, Lord, a better way.  You’re supposed to liberate our people, not die, leaving that unaccomplished, those hopes unrealized and dreams dashed.” That’s when Jesus responded with what have become memorable words: “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.”

Peter had presumed to rebuke Jesus for speaking of his imminent death right after Peter had acknowledged him to be the Messiah. “God forbid it, Lord!” he said, “This must never happen to you.”

It was natural enough, a very human response that Peter should think it just plain wrong that the great leader and liberator whom he had now identified, should die at the hands of his own people. Yet here he was speaking of dying.  The Messiah was expected to lead the nation, to renew a glorious kingdom. If Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem would bring him face to face with such opposition that the outcome could very well be his death, the solution was obvious: don’t let it happen.  The typical human reaction to life threatening danger is what’s known as the “fight or flight response.”  Jesus was proposing a third way: that of suffering servant, one whose Passion, death and resurrection would pave the way for God’s salvation of humanity.

Matthew tells us that, “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.” (Mt. 16:21). Beginning with Peter, and no doubt, drawing in the other disciples, they struggled with what they expected of a great leader. Had they not been waiting a long time for him to appear? How could their hopes be so quickly disappointed? And as for being raised on the third day, what could that possibly mean? People of faith were able later to see that their liberation depended not on Jesus’ earthly success, but on his death, and that his victory over death was a greater victory than the greatest triumphs of their greatest kings in the past. Peter’s faith however, just could not see that far at that time.

Several aspects of this exchange between Peter and Jesus stand out. First, Jesus called Peter, “Satan.” Just as Satan had tempted Jesus in the wilderness, now Peter tempts Jesus by trying to turn him away from the hard road ahead. Second, Jesus’ order to Peter, “Get behind me” isn’t a dismissal, Jesus saying to Peter, “Get lost!” Rather it’s an invitation, a call to Peter to assume his proper place as a disciple; Jesus wants Peter to “have his back,” so to speak, to get behind him and support him come what may. Third, Jesus calls Peter a “stumbling block,” a “hindrance,” an “obstacle in the path Jesus is determined to take. Peter’s calling Jesus away from the road to the cross sets before Jesus the scandalous possibility of NOT suffering, dying and being raised – the very acts Jesus says will bring salvation to humanity.  As I read this passage, it strikes me that the possibility of disobedience to God’s will seems real for Jesus, even as he rejects the temptation of Peter’s proposal.  It is a temptation that will linger, worm its way into his resolve, even as late as the night before his death when he would pray in the garden, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”  But here and now, the temptation presented by Peter is resisted and set aside. Fourth, having called Peter, “Satan,” having called him back into line, and having refused the scandalous option of disobeying God’s will, Jesus tells Peter that his mind is set on human things, not the divine. Jesus lived obediently and served selflessly; but, in contrast, Peter seems to have his heart set on the easy road and the good times, basking in the adulation of the crowds as Jesus performed signs and wonders and delighting in the aura surrounding their master and teacher.

In Peter’s declaration of Jesus as Messiah, he got the right answer to Jesus’ question, but didn’t fully understand what it meant. Peter, though recognizing Jesus, didn’t comprehend the call to discipleship as a call to service; rather, he framed it as a call to privilege and power.   And Jesus labels such thinking as typically human and not divine.

The serving and suffering nature of his divinity was set against his human nature and the temptation to take Peter’s suggestion to avoid the cross, perhaps even to rally the masses and liberate them from the bondage of Rome by force. That struggle, as I mentioned, continued even up to night before his was given over to death. Nevertheless, it was a road he resolutely chose to take, in humility and obedience and service to God and on behalf of the whole of humanity.

And so he went, not lightly or with superior detachment but humanly, in struggle and despair to drink to the bitter dregs from the cup that was his to drink. That is what it meant for him to be fully human and divine. The disciples had difficulty holding those two qualities together — the human and the divine. They saw his greatness in human terms, as people still are inclined to do: setting their minds not on divine things but on human things. So, in lacking the divine vision, the disciple becomes an “adversary:” Satan. It is more significant than a lack of vision in human terms, as in the corny old saying I learned long ago:

“Two men looked through prison bars,
one saw mud and one saw stars.”

We do need to look up and see heavenly things, but there is more to it than that, in a strangely contradictory way. In one way it was the very greatness, even divinity, of Jesus, which caused the disciples in their limited understanding of the nature of God, to think in human terms.

What they did not understand about the greatness of God was that he was prepared in Jesus to be humbled. See what Jesus said next to the disciples after he told Peter to get behind him and think of divine things:

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ (v.25) ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’” — Matthew 16:24-25

To understand the nature of his divine sacrifice they needed to see him as the servant leader: how the great and holy one was to fulfill his mission of service to others and to enter into glory through humility: by emptying himself of his glory.  That realization would, in the early tradition of the church, become framed as an affirmation of faith, one we read in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi, where he quotes what must have been one of the earliest Christian hymns with which they confessed their belief.  Paul wrote:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, …. who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” — Philippians 2:5-11

What does it mean for us? What then do we do? Looking up and seeing things divine yet human in Jesus Christ we are called to follow this humble servant leader, leaving ourselves behind, taking up our cross and following him. We should not be deceived about how difficult that is, especially today for people who have had some success in life and are reasonably comfortable. To lose one’s self flies in the face of popular wisdom and teaching today when there is so much emphasis on self-fulfillment. Jesus wasn’t saying merely, “Leave selfishness behind” but “leave yourself” or “leave your life behind.” The Greek word translated “self” or “life” here is “psyche,” which also means “soul.” So we could say instead of “for those who would save their life will lose it”, “those who would save their soul would lose it”.

Make no mistake, popular wisdom is all against this fundamental Christian teaching. Anyone who does not seek their own fulfillment is likely to be regarded with scorn and treated with contempt. When the values of the marketplace dominate all fields of human endeavour, talk of sacrificial service is likely to be greeted with deep suspicion as if it is only another way of seeking your own ends by devious means; cries of “Hypocrite!” resound because of the reigning assumption that “everyone must be self serving no matter what they might appear to be doing or what they say.” Have you noticed the cynicism of commentators when they say that it is necessary for politicians to lie and break promises, while they attack church people for saying it could be different, and how they are very quick to point out hypocrisy in church leaders as though it is characteristic of us all? As atheism and, more likely, pagan religions grow more common we can expect more of that kind of aggression against the disciples of Christ, because he really does challenge false values in a most fundamental way:

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

If you are not prepared to go that strange way, to see things in divine rather than human terms, you will be an “adversary,” you will be Satan like Peter; you will be blocking the path in front of Jesus, rather than being his follower. But if you are able to forget yourself and follow the servant leader, you will see those forces of evil overcome and in the end you will share in the rewards. As Matthew records these lofty words:

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” Mt. 16:27. The kingdom will be established, contrary to – and in spite of – Peter’s limited vision.

The way of humble service, through struggle, disappointment, despair and death, through Jerusalem to Gethsemane and on to Calvary, leads ultimately to the day of resurrection, the gift of new life in the Spirit, the submission of evil to the goodness of God and the transformation of world in the Kingdom of God. It is in the Kingdom, both in this world and beyond, that the true nature of the Messiah is revealed.

Are we thinking human things rather than divine things? Will we continue to do so? Are we adversaries of Jesus or advocates for him? Are we stumbling blocks, or followers? Are we “in the way” or “on the way?”   It is an important question, a question upon which our life, our death, and our rebirth into eternal life hangs.  It is a choice we are called to make, not just once in a lifetime, but literally every day of our lives.  Each day as we make choices, we are asked to choose between life and death, between death to self and life eternal.  May God help us to make the right ones each day, to the honour and glory of His Son Jesus Christ. Amen.