Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Today’s sermon is about Rocky. No, it’s not about the boxer portrayed by Sylvester Stallone. It’s about the apostle Peter. Peter isn’t his given name though. You might remember, when Jesus called him, his name was Simon. But Jesus gave him a nickname. In Aramaic, the nickname was Cephas. In Greek, it was Πετρος. And if you’ve spent any time studying for the SAT’s, you can guess what it means. Petros, as in petroglyph or petrified, means: rock. So, in English: Rocky.
Now, the passage we have for this morning has that famous phrase from Jesus to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan.” Quite a memorable moment. But how do we go from Jesus calling Peter, “the Rock,” the foundation, the stable one, to Jesus calling Peter “Satan”? To figure that out, we’ve got to rewind a bit. And we’ve got to rewind a little farther than the beginning of today’s passage back to Matthew 16:13.
You might have it in worship last week. Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying that he is. And they report back what they’ve heard. Some people are saying that you’re John the Baptist. Other people are saying that you’re Elijah, returned from heaven. Other people are saying that you’re Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.
Well that’s a little strange, isn’t it? Why would people think that Jesus was John the Baptist, especially since they were both around at the same time. John baptized Jesus, didn’t he? And why would they think that he was one of the Old Testament prophets? Israel doesn’t really have a tradition of reincarnation. What would they mean by saying that Jesus is Jeremiah?
The only suggestion of theirs that makes any sense is the suggestion that Jesus might be Elijah. You might remember the story of Elijah and the chariot of fire. According to the bible, Elijah doesn’t die. Instead, at the end of his life on earth, he is swooped up into heaven in a fiery chariot. Because of this, a lot of people thought that Elijah might return some day. But how could Jesus, at 30-years-old be mistaken for the now ancient prophet Elijah? It’s not entirely clear.
Whatever else they might be saying about Jesus, though, the crowds are clear that Jesus is something really special. He is not just some everyday traveling preacher. When they think of Jesus, they think of events on a cosmic scale. They think of long-dead prophets reappearing, of Elijah returning, as if it were the apocalyptic end of the age.
So Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. Rocky, Peter, is the one who speaks up for everyone. He say’s, “You are the Christ, Son of the living God.” Now, at the time, those word probably meant something a bit different than what they mean to us today. Christ, and it’s Aramaic equivalent, Messiah, both mean anointed. So that means that Peter thinks Jesus is either a prophet or a king or both. Prophets and kings were both anointed as a sign of their office. It doesn’t mean that Jesus is God, and Jesus would not have been the only person who was considered to be a christ.
Peter also says that Jesus is the Son of the living God. As counterintuitive as it seems to us, he still might not have meant that Jesus was God. Son of God was a common title for the kings of Israel. It could also be used to refer to any extraordinary prophet, philosopher, warrior, or ruler. Son of God also happened to be one of the official titles of the Roman Emperor, printed on virtually every Roman coin, which is probably part of the reason that Jesus ends up getting crucified. When the Romans hear words like “anointed” and “Son of God,” they immediately think emperor or king—a political rival to the authority of Rome.
Whatever the case, though, Jesus seems very happy with Peter’s answer. In Matthew, and only in Matthew, Jesus showers praise on Peter, saying that he is the rock, and on this rock I will build my church; you have the keys of the kingdom, etc. etc. If you’ve ever read a Dan Brown novel, you probably know that these words became very important to later Roman Catholics, who regard Peter as the first pope. They use this text to argue that all future popes also have a special place as holders of the keys of the kingdom.
So, Jesus is very happy with Peter’s answer. He’s happy that Peter has recognized who he really is: God’s anointed, God’s son. Right after he finishes praising Peter for how rock-like and foundational he is, Jesus has a quick line telling the disciples not to tell anyone else that he is the Messiah. I’m not going to deal with that today, but next year, when we read the Gospel of Mark, we’ll get into it.
So there is Jesus with his disciples. Peter has just been congratulated for saying that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. What are the disciples expecting?… They are expecting that Jesus is going to do what virtually everyone at the time thought the next messiah was going to do: kick out the Romans. That was priority number one for any new messiah. Raise an army, defeat the Romans, and reestablish the kingdom of Israel. It would have gone without saying. Everyone would have expected a messiah to lead a military rebellion.
But what does Jesus do? It’s at the beginning of today’s passage. Jesus starts talking about how he is going to, and I quote, “Go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day.”
Now, for us Christians twenty centuries later, that all sounds like exactly what Jesus, the Christ, was meant to do. But for pretty much anyone at the time, Jesus was talking nonsense. The Messiah does not go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. The Messiah goes to Jerusalem to be enthroned, to establish a Kingdom, to end the Roman military occupation.
And so, we should not be surprised by how Peter reacts. Peter says, essentially, “Um, Jesus… didn’t you just hear what I was saying? You’re the Christ. You’re the Son of God. Suffering and dying isn’t really on the agenda. Would you like us to start rounding up some swords? We could do that. I’m all for going to Jerusalem, but everyone knows you’re not going there to die.” I really like how the Common English Bible puts it: Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him.” If Jesus is alright with being called the Messiah, then he’s probably just a little confused about who the Messiah is, and Peter is there to correct him. You can be sure that all the other disciples were glad that Peter was doing it.
And Jesus turns on a dime. He goes straight from happy praise of Peter to angry rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan.” Wow.. It’s hard to imagine anything Jesus could have said that would have been harsher. And Jesus continues, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me.” He had just been going on and on about how Peter was a foundation rock on which he would build the church. Now, he’s still calling Peter a rock, but he’s no longer a foundation stone. Now he’s a rock that Jesus is afraid of tripping over.
The problem is that Jesus and Peter have fundamentally different ideas of who Jesus is. They can agree on the words. Jesus is the Christ. He’s the Son of God. But when Peter says, Christ, Son of God, it means something very different than when Jesus says Christ, Son of God.
And that’s not a problem that we have overcome in the intervening two millennia. We have an awful lot of churchy words that most Christians know and throw around, but we don’t necessarily agree on what they mean. It’s not just Christ and Son of God. We have plenty of words to build misunderstanding around. Salvation, atonement, justification, righteousness, justice, peace, Kingdom, belief, faith, disciple, heaven, hell, even Christian. All of these words are crucial to understanding and describing who we are and what we believe. And yet, it would be very difficult for all of the Christians in Forest Grove to agree to common definitions of these key words, let alone to get all the Christians in the world to do so.
And there’s another word in our passage for today that can be equally problematic. That word is ‘cross.’ Now, at first glance, it wouldn’t seem like such a controversial word. A cross is a fairly recognizable physical object. I can make one with my arms. I can trace the sign of the cross across my body. I can look up on the wall and see a cross. Many of you are probably wearing crosses around your necks. What’s to misunderstand?
Today, a cross seems like a fairly obvious symbol for Christ, for Christians, and for Christianity. It’s a bit like a brand marker. If you see a cross on something, you know that that thing is supposed to be Christian. A building with a cross is probably a church. A book with a cross might be a bible. A person with a cross is a Christian. It functions in the same way as the McDonald’s arches or the Nike swoosh.
The first few centuries of Christians didn’t use the cross like we do, though. They, unlike us, still had first hand knowledge of what crosses were used for. And what crosses were used for were torture and execution. Imagine if instead of a cross up here on the back wall of the sanctuary, we hung an electric chair, or a gas chamber, or a noose, or a collection of lethal injection drugs. It is only because crosses are no longer used for execution that we can avoid the horror of the image of the cross.
And so when Jesus says, “All who want to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me,” those are much more radical words than we usually admit. We are usually prepared to admit that following Jesus might be difficult at times, that it’s not always easy to be a Christian. Jesus suggests something far more revolutionary. Jesus says that anyone who wants to be a disciple should be prepared to die. Jesus seems to suggest that being a Christian means doing things that would be so radical that it would get them killed.
There are still some Christians in our age who live their faith loud enough to be killed for it. Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero come to mind. And there are others.
But most of us are more like Peter in the story. When things get dicy, we are ready to get out. When there is conflict or struggle or disorder or controversy, we are so quick to say, “God forbid it, Lord! This must not happen!” But Jesus invites us to look struggle in the face, to look hostility in the face, to look inertia in the face and to keep walking.
Whoever would be my disciple must deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow me, Jesus says. When we encounter opposition to the progress of God’s Kingdom, when the going of our faith gets tough, we should not be fooled into thinking that the Christian thing to do is to not make any waves, to be quiet and polite. If we are really followers of Jesus of Nazareth, then we should expect to do quite the opposite. If we follow Jesus, then when we encounter opposition, we must keep walking. We must even be willing to take up our own cross as we move ahead for the Kingdom of God.