Grace Presbyterian Church
August 30, 2020, Pentecost 13A (livestream)
Psalm 26; Matthew 16:21-26
Don’t You Dare, Jesus!
It is very likely, even as a humble fisherman turned follower of itinerant rabbi, that Peter was at least somewhat familiar with the text we know today as Psalm 26.
Whether in the course of being in the synagogue on even a semi-regular basis, or as part of the education he received as a young Jewish boy, somewhere along the way Simon (as he would have been named) had likely encountered this text, one of pleading for understanding evidently in a time of struggle of some sort, whether of illness or oppression we cannot say for certain.
Psalm 26 as it is preserved for us, though, presents a challenge to read or hear with that theme in mind. On the surface, it looks, frankly, like a great big ol’ bragging session.
“Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering…“Look at me, God, see how good I’ve been? That’s not how it works, but you can see pretty quickly how it could be read that way, and you can darn sure bet that there are many who have read it exactly that way.
There’s no way, of course, to know if this psalm was somehow sneaking into the mind of Peter (as he was know known, as of a few verses ago) as he heard Jesus speaking to the disciples of his ultimate fate. Verse 21 opens with a significant shift in tone in Matthew’s gospel; the very words “From that time on” make clear that something is changing in the way that Jesus addresses and teaches his disciples (and by extension, we who read Matthew’s gospel); this man who Peter (again, only a few verses ago) had named as Messiah was to “undergo great suffering” and “be killed.”
This flew in the face of what Peter and his contemporaries had likely been taught to believe. Particularly under the occupation of the Roman Empire, understanding of the Messiah as read in prophetic literature had come to stress the belief that this promised one would be a forceful deliverer who would toss the Romans out and restore the throne of King David. It was a belief that was at least as much nationalist as it was religious, once that particular interpretation took root, but it was held no less passionately for that.
So when Peter hears Jesus teaching of his own suffering and tying (somehow it seems he didn’t pick up on the part where he would “on the third day be raised“), it flew in the face of everything he had known or been taught. And he reacted accordingly.
And for that, Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!“
We should pause for a moment and remember that for Jesus to say this was no abstract insult. We need only to go back to the fourth chapter of this very gospel to hear Jesus use a very similar phrase – “Away with you, Satan!” in the face of a very similar temptation: the temptation to wield unchecked power, the exact kind of power to be expected of a messiah who was to throw out the hated Romans. Peter does what the tempter had done to Jesus? Peter gets called out the same way the tempter did.
Jesus follows up the epithet with a challenging set of instruction, beginning with the charge for those who would follow Jesus to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus is not a mascot to be used to fulfill our wishes, whether they be for political freedom or revenge or for holding on to our own privileged status in the world; those desires are inimical to taking up your cross and following Jesus, and Jesus won’t have it from Peter. Jesus has a work to do on earth; you can either get on board with it, or you can step off.
The next sentence intensifies and clarifies this claim Jesus demands of Peter. In the end your very life is the definition of your following. No doubt there have been countless souls over the centuries for whom the phrase “lose their life for my sake” has in the end been literal; the numbering of the names of the martyrs of the faith would be boundless. This is not, however, the only way such a charge can or should be read. Indeed, any conduct of one’s life that is based on “setting your mind on … human things” rather than “divine things” can be a way of “saving” one’s own life. Anything that pulls towards our own passions or prejudices or cravings, and away from the work to which Jesus calls us and leads us, can be a way of “saving” one’s life, only to lose it in the ultimate – to be cut off from and starved of life in Christ.
In the end, what Peter did, and what innumerable supposed followers of Christ have done since, is to hear Jesus’s call to take up your cross and deny yourself, to take up the lordship of a Jesus who submitted to suffering at the hands of those who despised him and death at the hands of those who feared him; to see and hear all that and to say, “don’t you dare!“
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to throw off the enemies who oppress us.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to give me back what once was mine.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to hate the same people we hate.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to hold the same prejudices we hold.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to give us power over our enemies.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to exalt us and tear *them* down.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to give me whatever I want, riches or fame or love or power or … anything but being a suffering and dying Messiah. Not that.
And Jesus’s answer to every such act of rebellion, as it always has been, is the answer he gave to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!“
To every clinging to power, to every clinging to hate, to every clinging to the things of the world, the answer returns: “Get behind me, Satan!“
It’s a temptation Jesus rejected long ago, and there’s no changing that. If we have not in some way foresworn those things in our claim to follow, our claim is hollow.
Particularly in a time given to the exaltation of greed and hate and power to abuse and destroy, there’s simply no room for anything but denying yourself and taking up your cross and following Jesus into whatever may come. And that’s the only way to find your life – to find a life worth the trouble and the struggle. The life we cling to is no life at all; the life found in Jesus is all life. The life “lost” for the sake of Jesus and the work of Jesus is the life that endures in fulfillment and truth and love and even joy, as strange a concept as that may seem. Anything else is but a pale, false shadow.
And so, in the end, the prescription it this: for Jesus’s sake, quit clinging to your old claims about what you want Jesus to do or be. For Jesus’s sake, don’t you dare become a stumbling block to the gospel. For Jesus’s sake, set your mind on divine things and leave those death-dealing human things behind.
For Jesus’s sake, lose your life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #612, We Praise Thee, O God; #720, Jesus Calls Us