THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
Who do people say that I am?
How difficult must it have been for the disciples to hear Jesus talk about His suffering and death?
According to the Gospel we have just heard, it was difficult enough for Peter, Jesus’ most beloved disciple to go against Jesus.
Though it may be shocking to hear Jesus’ words “Get Behind Me Satan” being directed at Peter, we learn that when it comes to the challenge of the Gospel, it is better to be rebuked strongly than it is to end up with a Gospel that is watered down and weak.
Indeed, the Gospel is especially difficult because it seems that there is always one more layer of self-preservation, one more insistence on the ways of this world, that makes us confuse the Gospel we would prefer to follow for the real thing.
We are actually blessed that in such a text as this one, we have a lifeline that keeps us connected to the Gospel, rebukes and all and that is, of course, Peter:
You see, Peter is our entry into the story.
Peter is us because Peter is human. Peter stands as a benchmark between where we are and where God is and how far that distance can be in times when we would prefer to simplify the Gospel and make it into what we want.
In his reaction to Peter, Jesus said “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
If all it takes to have Jesus call his beloved disciple “Satan” is to set one’s mind on human rather than divine things, it seems that this is bad news for the whole church!
For how often do we, in the church, set our sights on human things?
A human sense of right and wrong?
A human sense of justice?
A human set of priorities?
The charge Jesus gives to both Peter and the church is difficult:
It’s difficult to trade our human things for divine things.
It’s difficult to truly trust God that what matters is not human success or human stability but rather Divine Grace.
It’s difficult to get past the limitations that keep us from the Gospel, for there is always one more pitfall, one more distraction, one more clever bit of human reasoning in the way that causes us to stumble and deny the self-denying way of the Gospel.
A few years ago I gave a sermon at another church on the same topic of “self-denial” and the need to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. That day in the pulpit, I felt like I did my best to make an impassioned and Gospel-centred plea: for all of us to give up what we are and our earthly dreams of what we might be and to put it all into lives lived for the Gospel. To deny ourselves, to give what we have for the sake of others, to take up our cross, to lay our whole lives at the feet of the cross, and receive the greatest hope that because we are free to follow Christ, we are also free to receive His promise of life to come.
Now I have to admit…on that day…from that pulpit…in that Presbyterian church…I felt like I had really done my best work as a preacher… I felt as connected to my sense of Call in ministry as I had ever felt up to that point.
As the service ended, and the choir rang out the last note of the “Amen,” I made my way down the aisle between the pews and eventually down to the Fellowship Hall where I was sure that the congregation would feel just as confident and connected as I thought they would…
Well you can probably guess what happened…the same thing that happens anytime someone confuses their own sense of accomplishment for the Gospel…
During the coffee hour I was all smiles and “Good Mornings” until I happened to catch a very stern-looking face barrelling toward me from across the hall…
The face belonged to a woman I had come to know well (at least in reputation) in my short time at that church. She was a prominent figure in the church and the community; one of the matriarchs of that particular church; and someone who commanded a great deal of respect in the Fellowship Hall.
As she approached and as my rebuking got closer with each step I noticed that this woman was, as usual, dressed more finely and more tastefully than anyone in the church. She wore an elegant and understated designer dress, accessorized with fine leather gloves, brilliant gold earrings, and a fur shawl (real, to be certain).
This woman walked up to me as I was stirring my coffee and as her stern expression and her grand appearance finally came within talking distance I was sure that I was in for the rebuking of a lifetime! (What had I done wrong! What had I said! Would someone please have the kindness to mop me up after she makes a puddle out of me!?)
This woman, this matriarch of the church did speak to me, she did rebuke me, but very quickly, so quickly I don’t think she even stopped…
“God doesn’t want us to be poor, you know.”
That brief interaction during that after-worship coffee has always stuck with me.
What had happened that day?
Though I might have liked to pretend that there was a shaken quality to her voice, though I might have liked to pretend that this woman, that this matriarch of the church was challenged by the Gospel and my pitch for it that day, this was not the case.
Her confidence was not shaken.
She was not rocked onto her heels by a Gospel of self-giving and self-emptying. She did not immediately trade her fine clothes for sack-clothe and her fine car for a walking stick and go out into the world in repentance.
And nor should she have…
I had made the error of preaching a watered-down Gospel of austerity. Of presenting the Gospel as something that calls us to give up possessions for righteousness and to think this was enough.
The Gospel is not merely economic, the Gospel is not merely political. The Gospel may be a revolutionary text but it does not pick sides as quickly as we do. The Gospel is not about a human redistribution of wealth. The Gospel is not about a human anything but rather a whole new way of seeing the world and God.
Looking back over the sermon I had given I realized that I had simplified the Gospel into something it was not. I had made it all about economics, all about personal giving. I had made it seem that all God requires of us is to turn away from luxury and make ourselves poor for the Gospel.
But she was right.
God does not want us to be poor.
God does not want us to be poor any more than God wants us to be rich.
God doesn’t want us to be anything but faithful followers of Christ.
My mistake and my simplified Gospel and my pride in my preaching were, of course, not unique or original.
The Gospel has unfortunately been turned into something physical, something economic, something human countless times. And what I realized that day is that a Gospel of negative economics is still not the real Gospel.
We might be more comfortable criticizing a Gospel of “prosperity,” one where followers are invited to pray for success in business and for the luxurious life they want so they can meet Jesus in style when he returns.
A Gospel of “austerity,” can be just as distracting. Through the years many have used a Gospel of “austerity” to separate people from their money, to believe that being poor for Christ is the same as being righteous.
In both cases, we should not be surprised if, when Jesus does return, he has a few choice Get Behind Me Satans for these and other diluted Gospels.
In this morning’s text, Jesus makes it clear that the Gospel is not about our human measures of success; our human measures of pride; our human ways of knowing what is right and wrong.
The text says that as Jesus taught the disciples, He said that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed.
Peter received his famous dressing-down from Christ because he made the error of trying to tell Jesus that this was not the case.
Peter received Jesus’ sternness and Jesus’ rebuke because he refused to let the Gospel have authority over the idea of justice he preferred.
This ability of Peter, of all people, of the church, to deny Jesus’ Gospel and focus on our own definitions of justice is what makes this text so crucially important for us.
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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Friends, there was a time, not very long ago at all, when the church had the whole world.
That is to say, that the Western World and the Western Church were very difficult to distinguish from each other.
From birth until death, we were wrapped in the assurance of Christendom. Born in hospitals named for saints, babies grew into children who went to schools and said prayers, these children went to Church and Sunday School, they grew into adults who communicated in the language of the church. Gospel stories became idioms: there were “prodigal sons” and “doubting Thomases” in every neighborhood; it was a time (Fox News would be quick to remind us) when people still said “Merry Christmas” out in public.
Today we call this era of history “Christendom,” a time when the church was culture and culture was the church. And it is over.
Christendom was a time when the church had gained the whole world. At least this part of it.
Sadly, so much of what we do as a church in 2018 is focused on what we have lost. Focused either on mourning or trying to regain the whole world that we used to have.
In this way, the church very often acts like Peter.
We complain against culture, we rebuke it and ourselves, we demand that it is not true that we must practice the self-denial of letting the privileges and ways of the past go.
In our least faithful moments we act as Peter did…taking Christ aside and rebuking him for how the world has changed.
We set our minds not on divine things but on human things.
We refuse to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
We become distracted by a watered-down Gospel that sees the materiality of the church as what is important: whether it is as good as “the old days”, whether it is sparkling new or in need of repair, whether it is poor or rich…
Reducing the Gospel to something about human economic justice makes it easy.
If our church is rich, it’s easy to defend the luxury we enjoy and proclaim a watered-down Gospel of prosperity.
Likewise, if our church is poor, it’s easy to be self-righteous and to claim that because we are humble and austere, we must be righteous.
But being poor is not the same as being righteous.
God does not want us to be rich or poor, God wants us to be faithful followers of Christ.
Friends, if we can be sure of anything in this era of transition from what the church was to what the church is becoming, it is that Christ is doing a new thing with His church.
We are not going to be the same church we were 50 years ago just as we will not be the same church were 150 or 500 years ago.
Like Peter, we find it difficult to believe that Christ or Christ’s Church must undergo suffering and rejection in order to be resurrected on the third day.
Like Peter, we prefer to believe that Jesus is mistaken in His teaching that suffering and rejection, that taking up the cross and dying upon it, are necessary parts of God’s mission of redemption for the world.
It is always easier to leave our cross on the ground and to find justice in ourselves.
It is always easier to see our richness or our poverty as evidence of our blessing or righteousness…but this is not the way of Christ or of the cross…
Jesus calls us into a new way of being, a new way of justice, a new way of understanding who God is and what God requires.
Like Peter we struggle through this calling… we struggle to understand and to die to our past selves… we struggle to believe that our God is a suffering one, no matter how many times we are told… But in the end God shows incredible Grace… that even though we do not understand fully, even though we do struggle to take up the cross and follow Jesus… God is Graceful enough to show us the truth even in our limitations…
Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”