14 Pentecost, Proper 17 – September 3, 2023
Matthew 16:21-28

Last Sunday we heard Jesus saying to Peter, you’re “the rock on which I will build my church” and this Sunday he’s calling Peter “a stumbling block.” That’s not just great word play – from cornerstone to stumbling block – but such a reversal of relational fortune that it had to be incredibly painful for Peter. Can you imagine?

And perhaps that’s the difficulty. Peter couldn’t imagine. He couldn’t imagine that Jesus had come not just to comfort people but to free them. You see, comforting isn’t really that hard – just give them a little more of what they already had and tell them it will be alright. But freedom is different. Freedom requires that you see that what you have isn’t really life-giving in the first place.  Let me say that again – freedom requires that we see that what we have isn’t really life-giving in the first place.

The common assumption is that when Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, he had in mind a warrior-king like David, one who would drive out the Romans and liberate the Israelites. When you stop to think about it, that’s a pretty understandable, even reasonable hope. The Romans were foreign occupiers, not only imposing Roman law but taxing the people to support their occupation and backing up their occupation, order, and taxation by violence. The problem with Peter’s expectation is not that it’s unreasonable, but that it doesn’t change anything. Rome is there in force and by violence. Jesus, as a warrior-king, would use greater force and violence to drive them out. Who’s in charge may change, but the wheel of force and violence keeps revolving.

And Jesus knows this. He knows that by introducing a different logic – one that runs by forgiveness, mercy, and love rather than retribution, violence, and hate – he is challenging the powers that be. And Jesus knows that the wheel of force and violence will not tolerate his obstruction but will run him over. And this Peter just couldn’t imagine.

Like Peter, what we most often want is a little more of what the world already offers – be it power or security or wealth or status or popularity or whatever. But Jesus didn’t come to comfort us with a little more, but instead to free us. And freedom first means realizing that we’ve settled for something that isn’t life giving, so that we can hear God’s promise of not just more of the same but something different. A promise that means something only after what we’d previously accepted as life, dies.

That’s what Jesus tells us – that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…”  Jesus came to free us.  Before the cross became equated with salvation and a symbol for a religion, it denoted something too often overlooked. It marked a moment when the paths of life were not fixed, when the direction for how to be in the world was less than certain, when God seemed to be rerouting the future. We have forgotten how wonderfully unstable the cross first was. Before the cross was something in which to believe, it was a moment in time, a moment in the life of the first disciples, when they learned how to believe.

The exchange between Peter and Jesus follows Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Caesarea Philippi is a critical moment for the disciples, for Peter, for discipleship in general. Before the cross was the symbol it came to be, it was a reminder of this very moment. A Kairos moment. Deep Time.

The moment when you catch a glimpse of what life calling yourself a Christian really means — and makes you hesitate. The moment when you are told that the life you thought you wanted, planned for, prayed for, was not the life God had in mind for you. The moment when you might have to choose whether or not you are willing to have something else, or someone else, have more control over your life than you do.

This narrative draws us to wonder whether we are willing to align our beliefs and the path upon which we walk and live. It’s a reminder that speaking the words “Jesus is the Messiah” requires not only the exertion of the mind but living those words as a gift of God. Embodying hope in the Messiah is an act of God’s love.

Edward Stone Gleason tells this story about a man named Sam. [In Carl P. Daw, Jr., ed., “Breaking the Word: Essays on the Liturgical Dimensions of Preaching” (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994), pp. 142-43.]

It seems that for more than a decade Sam had operated a successful counseling business in a mid-sized industrial city in the southeast. His contracts were with major corporations which had brought growth and progress to the area. The counseling center offered a variety of services, but most clients wanted help with a drinking problem. The center’s contract with each corporation enabled employees to seek help with a guarantee of remaining anonymous. Each employee’s problems and progress were treated as completely confidential, and it was well known that client files were for the eyes of the counseling staff only.

One day the executive vice president of the largest firm under contract made an appointment to meet with Sam. To Sam’s shock and amazement, this executive demanded to see the files for his employees. Sam told him politely but firmly that this was impossible. The files were completely confidential. The vice president’s face became red, and he spoke loudly and harshly to Sam as he repeatedly insisted that the files about his employees be delivered to him immediately. Sam continued to refuse.

Finally, the vice president stood up and moved toward the door. As he touched the doorknob, he turned around, paused, and stared at Sam. “Very well. Since you insist, tomorrow our legal department will contact you to terminate our contract with you immediately. How many of our employees do you suppose have availed themselves of your services?  More than a hundred?”

Sam again reminded him that this was confidential information.

“No matter. You won’t be seeing them anymore, unless you give me their files right now, and I mean right now.”

Sam had a vision of his counseling practice collapsing like a building demolished by explosives. He pictured his own personal finances also reduced to rubble. Then he addressed the executive in as measured a voice as he could muster.

“Richard, how many times do I have to tell you? It can’t be done. It just can’t be done. My center’s work with your employees is completely confidential. Cancel the contract if you must, but you’ll never get those files. Never!”

The vice president walked back and took his seat again. “Okay,” he said, in a subdued voice. “If that’s the way it is, then I guess it’s safe to tell you why I came. I have a drinking problem, and I need your help.”

When he uttered his final refusal of the vice president’s demand, Sam stepped into a kind of death. It was a death freely chosen, one that followed from all that he was as a professional, a counselor, a Christian, a human being. When he uttered that final refusal, he gave up his life as he knew it, trusting that somehow God would be there on the other side.

Sam had no idea what those next minutes held for him. In the language of today’s Gospel, he simply took up his cross, and by his own choice walked behind Jesus down the road to Calvary. All he could see ahead of him was death.

Sam held out against the insistent demands as a matter of professional and personal integrity. Yet putting it that way makes his decision sound too abstract. He held out, at the cost of his life, because he could not forget the faces of clients who had trusted him and his agency, people in whom he had recognized the face of Christ. He could not fail to do for Jesus what Jesus had done for him.

There are different ways to phrase it:— Pick up your cross and follow me. — Give up your life for my sake. — Surrender the whole world.  There is the road of our culture that says, “Get more. Be more. Build a bigger enterprise. Be more successful.” And there is the road of Christ that says, “Deny yourself, take up a cross, and follow me.”

So, back to the question “Can you imagine?”  Can you imagine a different way of being in the world? Can you imagine that God is at work in and through your life for the good of the world? Can you imagine that this congregation has something of value to offer our community? Can you imagine that when you befriend the lonely or encourage the frightened, heaven rejoices? Can you imagine that, even though afraid, when you stand up to those who spew hate, God is with you? Can you imagine that even small acts of love and generosity challenge the world order and introduce a different reality? Can you imagine that God wants for us not just comfort but freedom? Can you imagine that love is more powerful than hate? Can you imagine that God raised Jesus from the dead?  Amen.