Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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“The Real Jesus”

Matthew 16:21-28

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The battle between the forces of Hell and the armies of Heaven goes on, but the question is not which side will win-the victory is written forever on the hands and feet and side of the Son of Man, who from joyful necessity went into Jerusalem, suffered many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, was killed, and on the third day was raised.  No, the only question is whether you are on the winning side.  Peter seemed clearly on the side of victory, firmly on the side of Jesus.  The faith that brought to Peter’s tongue confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, is the faith upon which Christ has built His Church.  The Father in heaven revealed to Peter his blessed confession, but Peter spoke of things too wonderful and too terrible for him to understand.  With good intentions, Peter tried to prevent Jesus from going to the cross.  And those good intentions would have literally paved the way to Hell for sinners.  Satan’s lie creeps in behind Peter’s truth: “You are the Christ,” says Peter; and Satan whispers, “You shall not surely die.”  But Peter’s words are exposed by Jesus for what they really are: the words of one who is on Satan’s side, rather than God’s.  Jesus uses nearly the same words against Peter here as He does in Matthew 4 when He tells Satan to be gone, because the same thing is happening here: Satan is tempting Jesus to forsake the saving will of His Father for something more successful, where the chosen are not few; something easier than the cross; something that doesn’t include the suffering of many things.  And that is the Christ that Peter wants.  He wants a Christ for whom the cross is not necessary.  He wants a Christ for whom suffering is not unavoidable.  He does not want everyone to look at him, Peter the rock, and say that he was a follower of a failure, that he was a disciple to a disappointment.  Satan always attacks the faith that confesses Christ, and he does so here by trying to make Jesus look, from the world’s perspective, “better” than He is.  Indeed, the “faith” that Satan has inspired in Peter is a demonic perversion of true faith.  In Peter’s rebuke of Jesus “lived…so firm a conviction of Jesus’ Christhood, so warm a love for Jesus, so strong a loyalty to Him, that one is startled at the savage bluntness of Jesus’ reply: ‘Get behind Me, Satan'” (Franzmann, Follow Me, 139-140).  Peter is not trying to stop Jesus from being the Christ; he is trying to get Him to be a better Christ-which really means a different Christ.  And in wanting that different Christ, Peter shows himself to be taking Satan’s side against the Father and His Son.

Let us have no nonsense that we would have acted differently than Peter.  We have our own “nice” ideas and sentiments about Jesus which need to be destroyed because they are satanic.  Perhaps we are startled by Jesus’ response because, like Peter, we would rather have a different Jesus, one who is not so tied up in life and death, in cross and resurrection.  One we could follow without actually carrying His cross, without it becoming ours.  One we might more easily share with our friends-see: Satan will even use evangelism as a cover for his schemes.  Because the real Jesus is not culturally respectable; His bloody wounds are too visible, His means of salvation too physical.  Everyone likes Jesus, but very few like this Jesus.  So there are all sorts of other jesuses out there from which to choose: who doesn’t like the jesus who teaches you how to save yourself?  You just follow these steps, which jesus “embodied” most fully, and you’re in.  That’s the Oprah jesus, who makes you a better person, who sets ablaze the divine spark of goodness within you; the Christian Jesus only brings division among those who disagree about Him.  And who doesn’t like the Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer jesus, who only wants you to have the best in life?  If you believe strongly enough that jesus wants you to have a nice car (pick your favorite high-end automobile), or a more fulfilling life, or less suffering, or a job that brings you complete satisfaction-I mean, who would do something silly like die for that jesus?  Who doesn’t like him-except perhaps the poor and the struggling and the weak and the suffering-but of course they wouldn’t.  And we’re all familiar with the “I-know-you’re-busy” jesus who only wants you to think about him for a few minutes on Sunday.  And even then, he won’t come too close because he knows you’re uncomfortable with too much talk about your sin and the forgiveness that you don’t deserve.  What sinner wants the Jesus who demands your whole life?  That would mean giving up your self-and you and I have worked very hard to establish our independent sense of self.  The Jesus who says that He is the vine and we are the branches might actually mean it; which is to say, you have literally no life apart from Him.  You have to come to Him and receive His life when and where He chooses to give it to you.  So: do you rejoice in the gifts of God that Jesus has chosen to give you here?  Do you hold His Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it, as the Third Commandment requires?  Or maybe it just takes up too much of your time hearing Jesus when He speaks and being forgiven by eating His Body and drinking His Blood.  Don’t get me wrong; my flesh is as weak and full of sin as yours: [Trinity: I’m inexcusably content to go three weeks without serving you the Lord’s Supper because then I don’t have to prepare communion, and drag my vestments back and forth from Euclid, and stand for so long; and church is shorter.]  Sometimes I don’t want to do what Jesus has called me to do.  Sometimes I don’t rejoice in giving His gifts to you because my lazy flesh says it’s just too much work.  Perhaps I could find a better sermon somewhere on the internet and use that, instead of doing the necessary work to prepare my own.  I could push my vocation off on you and find readers and liturgists and guest preachers, rather than doing what God has put me here to do and encouraging you in what God has given you to do.

But Jesus-the real, Son-of-God, Word-made-flesh Jesus-will have none of it, not from Peter and not from us.  He says, “Get behind me, Satan, back where you belong!  You have in mind the things of man, not the things of God.  You’re backing the devil’s cause, not Mine.”  You shall have no other gods, no other jesuses, before Me.  There is only one Jesus who saves you and it is not the jesus who teaches you how to be a better person, or how to believe more wealth into your hands, or who stays out of your life unless and until you call on him.  The Jesus who saves is the one who lived in a real Palestine, and who suffered many things from the Jewish elders, chief priests, and scribes.  He was whipped by real Roman soldiers, who drove real nails through His body into a real cross of wood.  The Jesus who saves really stopped breathing, was closed inside a real tomb, and was really raised from the dead, perfect and glorified-and that same Jesus is really here with us now.  He has chosen to save you who trust His baptismal promise: you really have been crucified with Him, buried with Him, and raised with Him to new life.  He continues to sustain that life by feeding you with His actual, crucified and resurrected Body and Blood-a Body and Blood that is not consumed like a cannibal would consume flesh, but that consumes you, that makes you what you eat.  So you are the Body of Christ, and I say that without any hint of irony.  We’re not playing make-believe.  You really are the Body of Christ; you have been joined to Jesus, and what becomes of Him will become of you.  His way on earth led through the cross to resurrection and glory-but not without the cross.  The one who throws off the cross of Christ, who would rather have success as this world defines success, who would rather have a “better” Jesus than the crucified one, will lose everything.  That everything includes especially the body and the soul, which are the only things that last beyond death.  But if yours is a faith that confesses a crucified and risen Jesus, then you don’t have to worry about taking up your cross; you already have it since you are following the crucified Jesus.  To carry your cross means to take it from one place to another-from your baptism to your death.  Until you die and are raised in a glorified body like His, you will face the attacks and temptations of Satan, who always attacks the faith that confesses Christ.  That is the cross that is laid upon the Church, and upon each Christian.  But do not despair under that cross, because the Jesus who took the cross before you really will come again and He really will judge the living and the dead, and He really will finish what He has started.  And you will finally be as He is: perfect and glorified, deathless and cross-less.  Then you will rejoice fully in His gifts and see face to face the Jesus who died to make followers of Satan like Peter and you and me into followers of Him.  Until then, tell those other, false jesuses to go back to Hell, and rejoice in the Jesus who meets you here: the real, Son-of-God, Word-made-flesh Jesus, who lives to forgive the weakness of your flesh and to feed you His own new life.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/26/08

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