March 10, 2024

"Peter Stumbles"

Psalm 107:1-3; Matthew 16:21-16

We continue our character study on Peter, the disciple of Jesus. In last week's story, Peter was on top of his faith! He proclaimed Jesus "the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Peter Rocked! In fact, Jesus proclaimed him to be THE Rock. THE ROCK, on which the entire church would be built. An excellent illustration of the rock lies just outside the sanctuary doors- the original cornerstone of this church's first sanctuary, built in the late 1800s.That cornerstone was one of the rocks upon which our first sanctuary was built. Peter was that guy for Jesus- the rock on whom the church would be built. Heady days for this disciple, to be sure. What a robust and faithful guy! Everyone should be like Peter!

Fast Forward just a little, a day? Perhaps two? It is difficult to know, but verse 21 begins, "From then on, Jesus emphasized with the disciples he would go to Jerusalem, suffer many things at the hands of the leaders of faith, that he would be killed and on the third day, be raised to life."

Finally, Peter has had enough. This morning's passage tells us Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus- an extreme action by Peter. He grabs Jesus, takes him aside, and then chastises him. I am reminded of some not-so-great moments as a parent when one of our children was melting down in a store, and I grabbed them near me and said, "No! Stop this right now." Peter states in Greek, "God forbid it, Kurion." Notice that he calls him Sir, not the respectable title, Messiah. "This must never happen to you." The Rock knows better. Peter knows Jesus will be the Messiah, enthroned in power, ruling over the Roman occupiers. He will rule the world in strength! No more talk of suffering and death. Yet Jesus knows this temptation all too well- from his time of trial, tempted by Satan in the wilderness.

The devil dared Jesus to save his life (by turning stones into bread so that he could eat), lose his life (to cast himself down off the highest point of the Temple mount and God's angels would save him), and gain the world while forfeiting his life (to acquire all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping Satan). But after his temptation, Jesus made it clear to Satan his mission. He chose love over power, service to others over self-service, feeding those unable to turn stones into bread, and the way of suffering and death over preserving his own life and being seated on the iron throne.

And so Jesus responded to Peter, saying, "Get behind me, Satan, for you are a stumbling block to me! You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of humanity!" For Jesus, it must still have been tempting to consider the alternatives to the cross. As he drew nearer to Jerusalem, the last thing he needed to hear was someone else echoing Satan's tempting offers of human power and domination over the world.

As for Peter, in a brief amount of time, he has gone from Rock to stumbling block, from a shining example of faith to a perfect example of Evil- Just like that.

We have those moments in faith when we go from superstar to super poor example. First, we have a moment when we show compassion and care for someone struggling. We get a gold star for being shining examples of Jesus. Then just a bit later, perhaps a day, maybe two, we end up being the opposite of an example of faith, and like Peter, we stumble as we yell at a friend, tailgate a slow driver, or lose all hope in humanity when we see the world around us. From rock to stumbling block, just like that.

Yet there is Good news for us. God chose Peter to be that rock. He didn't take it back after Peter's chastising or his denial that he even knew Jesus when he needed Peter the most. Theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, "Never once did Jesus scan the room for the best example of  holy living and send that person out to tell others about him. He always sent stumblers and sinners. I find that comforting." ― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People.

Peter is us,  and that is good news for us, imperfect followers of  Christ. We can always find a place of grace, a place of forgiveness, a place of hope, and renewal through Christ. Then, like Peter, we can follow, knowing that the place of renewal is waiting for those days we are stumbling blocks, not rocks.

Perhaps we are like Peter in more ways than one.

Consider Peter had his mind set on power. He wanted a powerful Messiah to lay waste to the bad guys, rule in power, and cut Peter in on the action. However, he was not alone in his desire for power. Just a couple of chapters later, fellow disciples James and John want Jesus to do as they ask- to be seated in glory on Jesus's left and right sides of the throne. (Mark 10:35-45; Matthew 20:20-24) The rest of the disciples hear their request and are angry. Very possibly, they were mumbling, "Why didn't We think of that first"?

Then consider Judas' actions later (Matthew 26:14-16), where the zealous one, who also imagined a Messiah conquering through revolution and upheaval, had had enough, hearing of Jesus' pending suffering and death. He betrayed Jesus and turned him over to the authorities. Peter was not alone in his desire for power. He rejected the idea of an atoning sacrifice by Jesus, and the other disciples were likely in support.

Jesus' difficult path ahead- suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection seems incongruent with Peter's vision of a triumphant kingdom, a powerful Messiah who sits on an iron throne in the established earthly kingdom.

Many modern-day disciples also struggle with a suffering Messiah, that what lies ahead is not a throne but a cross. For many, the idea of atonement- that God would allow Jesus to die upon the cross, is just too much. How would a God of love permit such a thing? How does an instrument of death and violence have anything to do with a loving God? Jesus should have been seated on the throne and laid waste to the corrupt system of the day, ruling in justice and authority, not suffering in agony for our sins. "No, Jesus. This is not the way you died. It must not be so!"

Again, theologian Nadia Bolz Weber has some to say about the atonement. She doesn't see Christ on the cross but rather God. For her, the example of how God comes into this world, in a cradle and upon a cross, says much about the nature and love of our Creator. She writes further on the cross that "Good Friday is not about us trying to "get right with God." It is about us entering the difference between God and humanity and just touching it for a moment. Touching the shimmering sadness of humanity's insistence that we can be our own gods, that we can be pure and all-powerful."― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. This idea of a suffering God isn't one we want to contemplate. It isn't what we want to hear or accept, much like the original disciples.

For me, the cross is complicated and complex. It represents my own agonies, my own sufferings and losses, and parts of life not going the way I wanted or expected. I have Christ as my Sin therapist if you will. I go to him on those days I have been a stumbling block and not a rock. I believe Jesus can and does forgive me, and in my understanding, he can do so because of this sacrifice that I neither like nor am comfortable with. Yet I have grown in my faith to incorporate those parts of faith I proclaim as mystery, and try to remember this idea of atonement, although not used or understood in today's world, was a common way to honor God and restore a relationship through sacrifice of animals at the temple in Jerusalem, as well as pagan temples throughout Rome.

There is more, however. I see the cross and Christ upon it when I see people worldwide suffering as well. Immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border are escaping violence. Immigrants from the war in Ukraine ended up all the way to Ashland—people suffering and dying by the thousands in Gaza, etc. For me, the cross is uncomfortable and difficult, yet present in my faith because, in part, it represents the suffering all around me. I bought this crucifix on a mission trip to Nicaragua to build a school in a tiny village in 2008. For me, it is more than just a beautiful piece of art. It proclaims the world's suffering and that I am called to do something about it.

Finally, I am reminded that Jesus didn't stay on the cross. He brought me more than just forgiveness, more than just the knowledge of suffering. I remember spending time with some of my high school youth in my church youth group many years ago. I went to their school and came and ate lunch with them. This particular school was Catholic, but I was surprised to see a large mural on the gym with an image of Christ rising above the cross. The words, "We are a resurrection people!" were above the image. The resurrected Christ brings hope, and I stood in that hope yesterday during Wendy Ray's service, proclaiming hope in life eternal, given to us through a resurrected Christ.

One more area to ponder about the cross, and it has to do with the marriage of Christianity with white nationalism. This idea that Jesus is about power over others- that Christ wants America to be a white, Christian nation, fits Peter to a tee in his moment of being a stumbling block. In looking at this passage, Peter almost certainly harbors some nationalistic hopes for the Jesus movement, which is very similar to what is happening in America today. Some Christians in the USA don't want a suffering Messiah, either. They want a Jesus who takes back the White House. Sometimes, people of faith fall prey to equating nationalism- power and political preferences with Jesus' kingdom. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let's finish today's passage. After Jesus confronts Peter, he teaches, saying, "Whoever wants to follow must deny self, take up their crosses and follow, for those who want to save their life will lose it. Those who lose their life for my sake will find it." What does Jesus mean, and how does it apply to us modern-day followers of Christ?

What does self-denial mean? The text from Matthew is vague. Left as an abstraction, it becomes wide open to misinterpretation. What it certainly does not mean is to remain in an abusive situation and valorize it as one's "cross to bear." It does not mean hiding from life's joys, blessings, and responsibilities, enclosing oneself in self-righteousness, and calling that "self-sacrifice." It does not mean becoming one of life's doormats and playing some victim card.

We can find some clues as to the meaning of self-denial in Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 9-21. Paul offers a long list of virtues that characterize denial and cross-bearing in the best sense of the terms. The list is punctuated with actions and attitudes that make life meaningful: a genuine love for others, tenacious goodness, perseverance even as evil encroaches, patience in suffering, blessing even those who persecute, cultivating empathy and rejecting opportunities for retribution, and so much more. The list bubbles over with divine energy.

Cross-bearing does mean for some what it meant for Jesus in some parts of the world: the price is paid for in blood. History's road continues to pass by scenes of martyrdom in Jesus' name. For most of us, though, especially here, cross-bearing means serving others with compassion. All cross-bearers are God's allies; they often set aside their agendas for personal advancement to meet human needs. They hold, by their witness, keys to a kindom, though not one of human design nor power.

In summation:

  • Some days we are rocks. Some days we are stumbling blocks. We are Peter. Peter is us.
  • The cross is a place of renewal, suffering, and hope.
  • We are called to follow Jesus in genuine love for others and serve others with compassion. Amen.