Download or listen to the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: “Follow the Christ” (Matthew 16:21-28)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You know that saying, “It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt”? Apparently, St. Peter does not know it. He has just finished giving the good confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and he should have stopped with that and kept his mouth shut, and everything would have been fine. But then Jesus starts explaining what it means that He is the Christ whom Peter confesses. From that time, Jesus began to show, to demonstrate, to explain to His disciples that it was necessary for Him to go up to Jerusalem, to suffer many things from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, to be put to death, and, on the third day, to be raised. And Peter can’t keep his mouth closed. Perhaps it’s an inflated sense of himself, because Jesus has called him blessed, or because Jesus has called him “Peter,” and on the rock of his confession He is going to build His church, or because Jesus will entrust Peter and the apostles with the keys of the reign of God. But whatever the reason, Peter feels that he can take a certain license with Jesus. You can almost see him put his arm around Jesus’ shoulder: c’mon Jesus, let me tell you a thing or two about who the Christ is. God be merciful to you, Lord! This shall never be; this shall never happen to You! Whatever Peter thinks the Christ will do, whether storm the gates of Jerusalem, or overthrow Rome, or usher in the last day when God will punish His enemies and set everything right, it doesn’t include this: this suffering, dying, and rising again (if Peter even heard that third part). You are the Christ, the Son of God! It shall never be that you go up to Jerusalem, the City of God, where the Temple of God is, and suffer and die at the hands of the leaders of Israel, God’s own people! God be merciful, it shall never be! It’s not that Peter has a low view of Jesus, or that he’s denying his confession. He’s simply explaining to Jesus that this Christ stuff has nothing to do with suffering and dying. He’s trying to protect Jesus from looking bad and from being unsuccessful in His mission. And Jesus literally turns on Peter: “Go behind Me, satan! You are a scandal; that is, something put in My path to make Me stumble and fall. Something to keep Me from doing what I came to do. You are not thinking the things of God, but the things of men.” In that moment when Peter opens his mouth, it’s much worse than that he looks like a fool. It’s that he’s set himself up in opposition to Jesus. He has become an adversary, an accuser, a tempter. Peter here does the same thing that the devil did in chapter four.
In chapter four, the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, to provide for Himself instead of trusting His faithful Father to provide; the devil tempts Jesus to leap off the highest point of the temple, to put God to the test and see if He would actually do what He said He would do; the devil tempts Jesus to worship him, and by that worship, the devil would give Him all the kingdoms of the world. To all of that, Jesus says, “Go, satan! You shall worship Yahweh your God and Him only shall you serve.” Peter and the devil are doing the same thing: trying to get Jesus to be Christ in a different way, in a way outside the will of the Father; to get everything by avoiding the cross. And so Jesus uses the same word with both of them: “Go, satan!” “Go behind Me, satan!” But notice the difference. With the devil it is simply, “Go, depart.” With Peter, Jesus is merciful: “Go behind Me, where you belong. Stop being My adversary and follow after Me.” And Jesus was merciful to Peter, and Peter followed Jesus all the way to the cross: tradition has it that Peter refused to be crucified in the same way as his Lord, so he was crucified upside-down.
But back here in Matthew 16, he is presenting an alternate way of being the Christ. Jesus and Peter have two different definitions, and they cannot both be correct. Either one follows the christ whom Peter is proposing, one without the cross and the resurrection; or one follows Jesus, the Christ, as He goes about His divine necessity. They are contradictory, and Jesus explains to Peter, to the other apostles, and to us, where each way leads: to follow Peter’s christ means no cross, no suffering. It means not a denial of self, but an affirmation and a fulfillment of self. It means trying to get as much as you can in this life. And, at very particular times, I know which one I’d like to choose. There is a song that speaks of being 33 and says, “it’s time for the cross or the Bodhi tree,” that is, the tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment. So if you’re going to choose a tree, who wouldn’t choose the search for self-enlightenment over crucifixion? This is how the thoughts of men go, and we do whatever we can to hold on to our own self, to “find” our selves, to keep up the ever-elusive search for lasting happiness.
And then there’s Jesus as the Christ. Those who follow Him give up any claim on their selves at all. To follow Jesus means the cross, denial of self, and giving up any claim on the things of this earth and this life, because of the things of the new creation which is coming. It is either Jesus or self, and you cannot have both in this world. Our selves are naturally adversaries of God, and even when we want to defend God or keep Him from looking bad, we are thinking of how the world views success and greatness and the good life. Jesus calls us, without any qualification or condition to follow after Him and to deny ourselves. At the same time, we hear the voice of the adversary saying that there must be another way of being the Christ; in other words, there must be another way of following Christ that does not involve weakness and foolishness and loss of our selfish ambitions and desires.
To that voice in our ears, the flesh that clings to us, the world in our hearts, Jesus says, “Go behind Me, satan! Follow Me. I denied Myself, I took up My cross, I followed the will of My Father completely. I did not follow the way of the Tempter, to gain the kingdoms of the earth by the force of Divine power, because that would mean losing you. So I lost Myself in death in order to gain you. You could not give anything in exchange for your soul, so I gave everything. And to follow this Jesus means to deny yourself. Not to adjust a thing here or there, but to kill your old self. That is why He identified you with His own death in baptism. He intends that you have a new self that is identified only with Him. And for that He uses the cross. He lays the cross upon you, and it is not comfortable or nice or pain-free. There’s no anesthetic, but this surgery’s guaranteed. For now, we see the Church only under the cross, looking a lot like her Savior: poor, forsaken, misunderstood, unable to gain as many hearers and believers as she would like. To all the world, she looks completely unsuccessful. But when this world has finally grown old enough, we will see the Church as Christ has made her: looking like her Lord, with new, glorious bodies; new selves, identified completely with Him. And then, you will find that everything you lost on this earth, that old self that you denied under the cross is yours, but completely renewed. The thing for which you could not give any payment is granted free for Jesus’ sake. This present cross is preparing for us a weight of glory beyond all comparison, in that bright day of the Resurrection.
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). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/27/11