In last week’s text, we read of Peter’s great confession that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That passage, along with this week’s continuation in Matthew, represents a turning point in Jesus’ ministry and in his relationship with the disciples. Listen again to this morning’s gospel.
<Read Matthew 16:21-26>
How quickly the tables have turned for Peter. One moment he is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and blessed by Jesus himself, because Peter finally got the right answer. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” answered Peter, to which Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!”
However, just a few verses later Peter the rock and key master of the kingdom of heaven is put in his place and is given a much harsher name than “rock”. “Get behind me, Satan, you adversary! You are a trap and stumbling block to me.”
What happened to cause this reaction from Jesus? Why is the rock now a stumbling block?
After, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus began to tell his disciples about how he must go to Jerusalem, their central place of worship, suffer terrible pain and be killed at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes. “Killed” as in “dead”. That’s something that we often gloss over; something we essentially have become calloused to because of our familiarity with the gospels, but it was shocking and distressing news for the disciples. Now, Jesus also told them that he would be raised again on the third day, but Peter apparently didn’t hear that part of the equation or more likely, he didn’t understand it.
So Peter, being the new best disciple of the group, decided to take Jesus aside from the rest of the group and rebuked or chided Jesus, saying, “God forbid it” or “Mercy Lord! This must never happen to you! After all, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God! You, yourself just confirmed it! You are the one the prophets spoke of, the one sent to bring a new and everlasting rule of peace and prosperity to the land just like our great king David. This is your destiny! You cannot be killed. You don’t know what you are saying.” Peter had his mind on the here and now, the things present and right in front of him. He had in mind earthly things and an earthly kingdom which is exactly what got him into trouble.
Jesus, of course, didn’t take too kindly to Peter’s words. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are a setting your mind not on the things of God, but on human things.” Peter simply didn’t understand Christ’s mission and though he meant well, he ended up actually causing temptation for Jesus.
So even though Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, he had no idea what that actually meant. Peter’s mind was set towards his understanding of what a messiah would be. His limited human understanding included political revolution and a new world order, the restoration of his beloved nation of Israel. His vision was for an earthly uprising and an earthly reign. The problem with his vision is that even if it were God’s plan, it would still have left the world in a state of fallenness, in a state of shame before a Holy and Perfect ruler.
This tempted Jesus perhaps not because of what Peter’s vision for the messiah entailed, but more likely because it was a path that wouldn’t include the cross. He was tempted because he was fully human. However, he was also fully divine which is why he understood exactly what his mission on earth was. And because he knew that he must go to Jerusalem, that his purpose was to suffer persecution, die a horrible death on the cross, and then be raised, he rebuked Peter and put him in his place. “Get behind me, Satan, you adversary! You in your depraved and limited mind can only think of things in human terms and in human aspirations. We are not equals. You don’t walk in front of me, you don’t walk beside me; you get behind me.”
Our Program Director, Luke Berntson, tells the story of a young man who while attending a Bible study confessed that he struggled with swearing and didn’t feel that he could change. Because of this he felt shame. The Bible study leader told the young man that if he wanted to stop swearing he had to start praying every time he wanted to swear and eventually he would stop. But even something that can seem so trivial to some of us was a burden that, looking at this young man, Luke knew he wouldn’t be able to bear. The Bible study leader, though meaning well was actually setting the young man up for failure and subsequently even more shame and guilt. Even if he could succeed, the lesson learned would have been to treat all sins the same way, as though our depravity could somehow be healed through our own personal refinement.
I doubt the Bible study leader meant this, but it was as though he were telling the boy that he could walk as an equal with Jesus. That he could lead a holy life just as Jesus did. This view reduces Jesus to just an example to aspire to.
So Luke decided to talk privately with the young preteen and told him in language understandable to a preteen, that there ultimately was nothing that he could do about his swearing and in fact there was nothing he could do about any of his sin. He told him that there was nothing he could do to make himself holy. Instead, he told him that Christ has paid for his sin and that because of Christ God has forgiven his sin and has declared him to be holy for Christ’s sake.
After Jesus rebuked Peter, he turned to the rest of his disciples and told them, “If any want to become my followers,” or more literally, “if anyone wants to come after me, 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 want to save their life for my sake will find it.”
When Jesus told his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him he first told them the same thing he told Peter; to come after him. In the Greek, it is the same thing. To Peter he said, “get behind or get after me,” to the disciples he said, “come behind or come after me.” Essentially, he says that if anyone wishes to follow Christ, deny their self, take up their cross and follow him one must first get behind him and through the gift of faith, repent and confess that they are not equals with Christ. We cannot walk in front of him or beside him. We cannot take care of our sin on our own nor can we fix the world by any merit of our own. We can only follow behind Christ in the faith he has given us; carrying our cross, our sinful and fleshy desires, as he paves the way to the cross where all of our stuff is taken care off.
That young man could not do anything about his sin on his own. Any attempt to do so would backfire and bring only deeper shame and guilt and a sense of failure. But through the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s calling upon his life, he can now recognize his sin for what it is and take it up, disown it, and carry it as he follows Christ. If he tried to save his own life, it would never work. He would lose it. But through Christ he is able to lose and loose his sin upon the cross, where he would find his life.
Like Peter we often try to walk with Christ as equals. Our inclination as fallen human beings is to try and do something about our fallen selves and the world around us, but find that it is never enough.
But brothers and sisters in Christ, God in his mercy has called you to get behind him. He has shown our sin for what it is. Christ has paved the way to the cross, the place where we in faith can lay down the burden of our sin and stop trying to live as equals with Jesus; we are able to experience life as people free of shame and guilt and obligation when it comes to our salvation.
And so also, our works and good deeds are no longer done out of a sense of obligation towards our salvation, but rather they are done because we are called to care for others and this world as a testimony to the love and grace of God in the hope that our deeds may glorify Christ and therefore bring others to faith in him.