Proper 17, A
This week’s lesson follows on the heels of last week’s lesson. Remember that last week we heard Jesus ask his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
As Sam so precisely put it, Peter blurts out his response, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And as Sam pointed out, Jesus blesses Peter, not because he got the answer right, but because he answered from his heart.
An old version of Webster’s defines blurt as to “utter suddenly and unadvisedly or impulsively.” That’s Peter, for sure, isn’t it? And we see it again in today’s lesson.
As soon as Jesus is done blessing Peter and giving him the power to bind or loose on earth, he orders his disciples not to tell anyone he is the Messiah. Then he goes on to tell them that he must go to Jerusalem, where he will suffer at the hands of the chief priests and scribes, he will be killed and on the third day be raised.
Peter again responds from his heart, from his emotions, taking Jesus aside to rebuke him, telling him that he must not say such things. In other words Peter responds to what Jesus has said out of fear and denial.
He can’t bear the thought of Jesus dying without fulfilling the disciples dreams of what he could accomplish in the years ahead: a whole lifetime of miracles, healings, preaching and teaching; he has the power to save Israel from Rome. Why is he talking about dying?
Now Jesus chastises Peter for not understanding, that is, for not using his head. Why doesn’t Peter respond to that bit about rising? “Hey, Jesus, what do you mean you’re going to be raised?” Peter doesn’t even seem to hear that part. He is too deeply reacting emotionally to the possibility of Jesus dying.
Here we see the dark side of reacting from the heart without any process through the brain. It should remind us that reacting from the heart alone is just as unbalanced as reacting from the head alone. We need to engage both of them to maintain balance, to see clearly, to both feel and understand what is going on around us.
Jesus responds sharply to Peter’s rebuke. “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Peter is playing devil’s advocate without intending to by tempting Jesus NOT to go to Jerusalem, NOT to put himself in danger, NOT to defy the authorities so openly. And let’s face it. Jesus could have lived out his days preaching in Galilee, and he might have done a lot of good, but it’s not hard to figure out that his movement would not have lasted.
What gave the movement real momentum were the events of Easter through Pentecost. The empty tomb did not really convince anyone of anything. It was the appearances of Jesus to his followers post-Easter and the work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that sent them out into the world proclaiming the Gospel.
The heart of today’s Gospel comes in what Jesus says to his disciples after he has rebuked Peter. “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 will find it.”
What does it mean to deny ourselves? I think it’s learning to deny our own selfish needs and self-interest in order to put other people’s needs first. If a man asks for your cloak, give him also your shirt. If your enemy reviles you, love your enemy in return. Do not seek vengeance. Turn the other cheek. And so on –you can fill in many more.
Then follows another paradox that turns the world around, as Jesus so often does: anyone who wants to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will find it. So – by trying to avoid the consequences of being a Christian, that is by trying to save my life, by trying to avoid death or change, or by trying to keep it comfortable, just as it is, I will in fact lose it. I think that means that I will fail to live up to my potential, fail to enter into partnership with God to move this world towards love, peace, justice and non-violence.
And what might it mean to “lose your life for Jesus’ sake?”
It might mean to die literally as Jesus and so many others have done – to be a martyr for the cause of God’s dream for the world, to be hung on a cross, eaten by lions, tortured on the rack or the wheel, burned at the stake, investigated by the FBI, crucified in the press, or thrown in jail. Not many of us are called to this extreme of sacrifice.
At the personal level it may mean to die to your old life, to let loose of old ways and take up new ones. These would affect all areas of life, including politics, life style, personality, and religious practice. All of us are called to this path of personal transformation.
This may not sound so hard compared to physical death, but it is still very hard work. For one thing, any time you try to change your ways, you have to put up with backsliding and disappointment in yourself. This is not pleasant!
When we change our lives, we often experience the displeasure of friends or family, who don’t want us to change. They can become like Peter to us, encouraging us not to proceed, but to avoid the pain of change. What must Peter’s wife have felt when he gave up fishing and went off to follow Jesus? Can you imagine that she didn’t try to change his mind?
The earliest name for Christians was “followers of the way.” They understood that they were to follow the way of Jesus, meaning to follow his example, to follow his teachings, but also to follow him in the journey to Jerusalem and through death to resurrection.
I’ve mentioned this before but will do so again. As Marcus Borg puts it, this journey to Jerusalem is a metaphor for the inner journey of transformation that is at the heart of the Christian life. We must die to our old ways of selfish self-interest and rise into new life of service to others.
Borg also suggests that we shouldn’t get discouraged by the size of the problems. Instead, think of the whole world as a patch-work quilt. All we have to do is make our own patch better. We can give our time and energy to improving our piece of the planet in any number of ways. If we are blessed with more than we need we can give money, time, or goods to help others work toward economic justice and peace. And we can all vote for candidates who most closely reflect our desire for a better neighborhood, and we can speak up for what that means: a place where everyone has enough, and everyone is respected as a child of God.
God won’t create this kind of world for us, and we can’t do it without God, but working together we can make our patch shine. To quote Sam again, “Go forth into the world and change it!” AMEN