By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
August 31, 2008
Read: Matthew 16:21-28
Here’s Peter again. Last week we recall that Peter had the right answer. He said that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of the Living God. And Jesus pronounced Peter blessed, the rock upon which the church would be built.
But today. Well, today Jesus rebukes Peter…calling him a stumbling block, likening his actions to Satan. Jesus says to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things.”
And then Jesus goes on to tell us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. These are not easy, comfortable words today.
Can you relate to Peter? I think most of us can. Peter loved Jesus and here was this man, this man who he knew as the Son of God, telling him that he would undergo great suffering and be killed. Wouldn’t we all want to stop that? Why walk into a trap when you can turn and walk away? Why take a risk if you don’t have to?
Have you ever known someone who was headed that way? The newspaper occasionally runs stories about them: the man who rushes into the burning building to see if anyone has been left inside; the woman who dives into the hole in the frozen lake to rescue a child who has fallen through. Those are the dramatic stories, but there are quiet ones too: the doctor who spends several nights a week in a rundown part of town, giving free medical care to homeless men; the student who spends Saturday afternoons rocking babies with AIDS; the teacher who quits her job and spends all her savings to go teach Nicaraguan peasants how to read.
It is only human to admire people like this, but there is an equally human part of us that is taken aback by them and afraid for them. We listen to the dangerous things they do or are planning to do and part of us, like Peter, wants to protest. “God, forbid!” comes a voice from deep down inside us somewhere. “Isn’t there an easier way for you to do what you want to do? Do you have to take such risks? What if you get hurt? What if you get killed? God forbid that something like that should happen to you!
That is what Peter is saying. And Jesus explodes, “Get behind me Satan”…you are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God but of me.” What a shock that must have been to hear..both for Peter and for the disciples. What did he do wrong? All he did was protest that Jesus would suffer and die. All he did was say out loud that there had to be another way.
But as far as Jesus was concerned, it was Satan talking. Satan, the ancient tempter, from the beginning of time has offered humankind alternatives to the will of God—easier alternatives, safer alternatives, flashier alternatives—all of them temptations for us to do and be something other than what God has called us to do and be.
But Jesus is saying we need to take up our cross and follow him. Does that mean that life needs to be full of suffering? I don’t think so. I think the deep meaning of Jesus’ harsh words to us in this passage is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not really living at all. God is concerned with the quality of our life. The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to have abundant life is not to save it, but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and saved any more than a bird can be put into a shoebox and stored on a closet shelf.
Better yet, life cannot be shut up and saved any more than fresh spring water can be put in a mason jar and kept in a kitchen cupboard. It will remain water, and if you ever open it up you can probably still drink it, but it will have lost its essence, its life, which is to be poured out, to be moving, living water, rushing downstream to share its wealth without ever looking back.
Peter wanted to prevent Jesus from doing that. He did not want Jesus’ life to be spilled, to be wasted. He wanted to save it, to preserve it, to find a safer, more comfortable way for Jesus to be Lord. What he forgot, apparently, was that Jesus’ supply of life was never-ending, that what poured out of him poured out of an underground source so fine, so strong, that the more of himself he gave, the more he had—a veritable geyser of living water sent to drench a dry, dry world.
Peter missed that part of what Jesus said. Listen again to what Matthew says: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priest and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And on the third day be raised. Peter missed that part and usually, so do we. We get stuck on the suffering and death part. We get that far and say, God forbid it Lord!. This shall never happen to you!” without finishing the sentence, without noticing that after the suffering and death part there is life again, abundant life, life for Jesus and for all of us that can never be cut off.
We just never get that far if we let suffering and death throw us off track. If we let our fear of those things keep us from sticking our neck out, from taking the risks that make life worth living. You can try to save your own life. You can try to stockpile it, being very, very careful about you say yes to; being very, very cautious about whom you let in your life; frisking everyone at the door and letting only the most harmless people inside and being very, very wary about going outside yourself, venturing forth only under very heavy guard and ready to retreat at the first sign of trouble.
We can live that way, but don’t expect to enjoy it very much, or to accomplish very much. This is not about being a daredevil or doing dangerous things for the thrill of it. It’s about living a life that matters—a life for Christ’s sake—and about refusing to put our own comfort and safety ahead of living a life like that, a life that pours itself out of others as a matter of course, a life that spends without counting the cost, knowing that there is always more life where our own life comes from, and that even when our own lives run out God will have more life in store for us, because our God is a God who never runs out of life.
To be where God is—to follow Jesus—means going beyond the limits of our own comfort and safety. It means receiving our lives as gifts instead of guarding them as our own possessions. It means sharing the life we have been given instead of bottling it up for our own consumption. It means giving up the notion that we can build dams to contain the bright streams of our lives and letting them go instead, letting them swell their banks and spill their wealth until they carry us down to where they run, full and growing fuller, into the wide and glittering sea.
(Sermon based heavily on one by Barbara Brown Taylor from The Seeds of Heaven)
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