Do we ever get Jesus right? (a sermon on Matthew 16:13-23)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” …

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”” (Matthew 16:13-17, 21-23)

You’ll have to forgive me today for attempting to deal with such a long passage from Matthew chapter 16 in one session. In church it is read over two weeks. Matthew 16:13-20 is read the first week and is followed by verses 21-28 of the same chapter the next week.

The first week’s reading focuses on Peter’s proclamation that Jesus as ‘the Christ, the son of the living God’. It is an account of a climactic insight by Peter, making explicit the hitherto ambiguous identity of Jesus, and the response from Jesus is a blessing – ““Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:20)

The second reading, by contrast, begins with Jesus unfolding what it means for Him to be ‘the Christ’ – defining His mission in terms of suffering – to which Peter makes a strenuous objection. The response from Jesus to Peter in this instance is a curse – “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23)

I can understand why those who designed the church’s lectionary broke this scene in half, giving us the happy part one week and the distressing part the next. The reality is though that this combination of blessing and cursing is all a part of the same conversation!

I find this a little unnerving, as it resembles what psychologist R.D. Laing called a ‘double-bind’. A double-bind is where you get confusing contradictory statements or signals from the same person.

A boy goes up and hugs his mother and she stiffens coldly.  The boy pulls away and the mother says ‘what’s wrong son?  Don’t you love me?’  The boy finds himself in a double-bind – both drawn to his mother and repelled at the same time. It was Laing’s belief that such situations could be precursors to schizophrenia.

I suspect that Peter in this scene must have found himself similarly both drawn to Jesus and repelled at the same time! Perhaps the whole scene left him exasperated and confused, and he may have wondered if he was going mad.

We who have the advantage of seeing the big picture know though that the problem here was not Jesus, but Peter and his team. It wasn’t so much that Jesus was full of contradictions, but that his closest followers had radically misunderstood Him. Indeed, they had managed to get Jesus completely right at one level, and yet completely wrong at the same time. This too is unnerving.

This bizarre ability to get Jesus both completely right and completely wrong is something we, the church, have never lost.  Indeed, this was forcibly brought home to me again this week!

Those who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will know that this week I made mention again of an article I published seven years ago, entitled Why every Christian should support same-sex marriage. Well … it was originally entitled Why every Christian should support gay marriage, as the terminology was by no means fixed at the time. Either way, it should be clear what the article is about.

Perhaps it was unwise of me to draw attention to the article again in the current climate. In truth though, I’d had a number of persons asking me for my thoughts on this subject, so I thought it timely to broadcast the article again.

The result, at any rate, was that I started a bit of a fire-storm in my Twitter account, and an even bigger one on my Facebook page, where the article link received 152 ‘likes’ (or other such responses) and so many comments that were they all to be printed off, I think we’d have enough material for a short book!

It’s been interesting, reading through these comments, many of which are both lengthy and impassioned. Some of them I found very encouraging and others I found rather disturbing.

The most disturbing comment, I felt, was the one that referred to me as ‘a traitor’. For me, that was a clear indication that I was dealing with tribalism rather than theology. The idea that by taking a stand in favour of same-sex marriage I was betraying the team is concerning. Is that really how we want to define our team – the Christian team? If so, do I really want to be a part of that team, and do I have a choice?

People get very passionate about tribal issues. Treason is one of those crimes that has always been punishable by death, as betrayal of the team tends to be seen as something that threatens every member of the team!

As I say, there were also a large number of very positive comments on my Facebook page. Indeed, the positives and the negatives were pretty evenly balanced in terms of volume. What really surprised me though, when I did a bit of research, was that I discovered that of the 152 like-and-dislike responses I’d had to the post, only 4 of those were actually negative!

Forgive me if that doesn’t make immediate sense. You have to have some understanding of how Facebook works to grasp the significance of this. When you make a post in Facebook, readers can respond with a ‘like’ (which is a thumbs-up icon) or with ‘love’ (which is a heart icon) or with tears, shock or anger (each with their own appropriate icons). In the case of this post, those last three icons (the negative ones) only accounted for 4 of the 153 responses. By contrast, at time of writing, there were 128 likes (thumbs-up) and 21 expressions of love!

Why this fascinated me was because the amount of dialogue that filled out the comments was, as I mentioned, about equal on both sides, meaning that the 4 unhappy people were making just as much noise as the other 149 happy people!

Whether that balance is what we are seeing mirrored in the broader debate across the community, I don’t venture to guess, but it did make me wonder. What was unambiguous to me though was that the persons on both sides of the debate were mainly orthodox Christians, meaning that we all, surely, had Jesus right (in a sense) while at the same time, some of us evidently have got Him really wrong!

I’m not going to devote time today to discussing which side of that debate is right and which is wrong. Given the title of my article, you already know where I stand. Same-sex marriage though was not the issue under discussion in our Gospel reading, which is what I am focusing on today. The issue at the centre of Matthew chapter 16 though is also a divisive and contentious subject – namely, Jesus’ teaching that the Christian life is all about suffering!

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:21)

And just in case you thought this was just about Jesus and not about us, this is followed by:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

This is not a teaching that the first disciples found easy to come to terms with, and I don’t think it is something we have ever really come to terms with. The idea that following Jesus means choosing a life of torture makes it all sound very unreligious, most especially in contemporary Australian society, where religion is generally seen (at best) as a path to self-improvement.

I’m not suggesting that people in this country only follow Jesus because He promises them a bigger bank balance and a better sex-life, though there are some preachers out there who preach along those lines. I do think though that whenever we, the church, proclaim the Gospel, we inevitably want to tell people about all the positive outcomes associated with following Jesus. Instead of promising more money and sex, we probably focus on eternal rewards. Either way though, the teaching of the church has always been that following Jesus is a good deal.

Jesus does speak this way Himself, of course, and even here He promises that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Even so, it’s not really clear what He means. Is Jesus saying that dying for Him will earn you a better life on the other side of death, or is He saying something more psycho-spiritual – that you will find your true self when you sacrifice yourself for others.

In truth, I think our religious yearnings tend to be shaped by the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

If you go to church in Syria at the moment, what do you think they are praying for? They are praying for an end to the violence that surrounds them. Of course they are.

When we look at the New Testament, what were the disciples of Jesus praying for? They were praying for an end of the Roman occupation and all the violence and oppression associated with that occupation. Of course they were, and their expectations of Jesus were shaped accordingly.

In our own context, what are we praying for, and what is it that we are expecting Jesus to deliver? Life after death perhaps? We may feel that we have everything else covered. We may have very few other worries in this life, such that all of our religious yearnings are focused on that one area.

What comes through to me from this scene in Matthew 16 is the extent to which Jesus fails to accommodate our spiritual yearnings and expectations!

I’m not suggesting that Jesus will not give us all eternal life (in the literal life-after-death sense of the word), just as I’m not suggesting that Jesus isn’t involved in bringing peace to Syria, just as I’m not suggesting that Jesus wasn’t concerned about ending the Roman occupation in first century Judea. What I do think this passage reminds us of though is that Jesus agenda and our religious hopes and yearnings are never a precise fit.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mathew 16:24-25)

Instead of Jesus meeting all our expectations, it seems to me that what we are being asked to do here is to sacrifice our expectations and our agendas for the sake of Jesus’ agenda.

Discipleship, I’d suggest, is a lot like soldiering. Soldiering is something that we should know a lot about in this parish. You only have to look at the remembrance boards at the back of the church building to know that this church has generated a lot of soldiers in its time, and indeed we still have soldiers in our ranks.

What is the goal of soldiering? Is it to be courageous? Is it to become a great warrior and win lots of medals? Not really, is it? The goal of soldiering is to win the war. It’s not really about us and our performance at all. It’s about something far greater than ourselves, and to be a good soldier you have to be willing to sacrifice all the hopes you might have for yourself for that greater cause.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

All of this is rather unnerving, of course, just as the fact that Jesus can both bless Peter for his insight and then call him ‘Satan’ on account of his ignorance is likewise unnerving, and yet there is good news in this passage.

If the bad news is that Jesus calls the one he blesses ‘Satan’, the good news is that the one he calls Satan is also the one He blesses.

Now I know that the cursing of Peter comes after the blessing, but this is not the end of the story. Indeed, Matthew chapter 16 is not even anywhere near the end of the Gospel of Matthew!

Peter and the other disciples get Jesus completely wrong – here and at multiple other times and places – and this is by no means the only time that Jesus gets upset with them. The good news is that Jesus sticks with them anyway!

Those who fail Jesus, and who indeed ultimately abandon and betray Jesus, remain His beloved disciples. They make some progress, though by the time we leave them they still seem far from perfect. Even so, the one who Jesus denounces as Satan is nonetheless retained as the rock upon which He builds His church!

This is good news, and the good news is that it’s not about us because it doesn’t depend on us. We just need to keep trying to take up the cross and follow. Jesus will do the rest.

We will continue to get things wrong. We will stumble and fall, and most likely will never really get our act together. Even so, we can have every confidence that Jesus will stick with us and will see us through to the end. For this is ultimately Jesus’ fight. For His is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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