Our Gospel reading for this morning comes immediately after the great confession of Peter that was at the core of last week’s reading. And so, in a matter of a few verses, we go directly from Jesus saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church... and I will give you the keys of the Kingdom” to His saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, you are a stumbling block to me.” From “rock” to “stumbling block” is quite a fall. And if we find it shocking 2,000 years later, just imagine how this radical shift was heard by Peter and the other disciples!
Here, as often, it’s “context to the rescue.” If we think Peter has done something to damage permanently his relationship to Jesus, we find out otherwise in the next chapter when Peter is one of the three disciples Jesus takes with Him to the Mount of the Transfiguration. Peter, thinking only that he’s protesting the unthinkable fate Jesus has just predicted for Himself, was essentially declaring his own loyalty to Jesus and his incredulity that any such things could happen to the very Person he had just confessed to be “the Messiah and the Son of the living God.” How could this Person Who had fed 5,000, walked on water, calmed the sea, healed the sick, cast out demons and powerfully taught the multitudes end up suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes and be put to death? What Peter wanted for Jesus was victory, acclaim and glory. Instead he was hearing about suffering and murder. How could it be?
The very words that Peter said, at least in Greek, have a distinctly different flavor from that of any standard English translation, which is usually some variant on “God forbid” or, as in the KJV, “be it far from You, Lord.” But Peter’s actual words were compassionate: “May there be mercy on You, O Lord!” Then he added, “Not ever will this happen to you!”
Remember that this is Peter speaking. It’s the same Peter who, at the Mount of Olives, told Jesus, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” It’s the Peter who at the arrest in the Garden will draw his sword and slice off the ear of the high priest’s servant, yet at the trial will deny three times that he even knew Jesus. No wonder Jesus had to tell Peter that he should forgive his brother not just up to 7 times, but 77 times (or 490 times, if you follow the KJV; see Matthew 18:22). Peter was one who often needed forgiveness himself!
And so it was in today’s Gospel that Jesus, hearing Peter’s words and knowing Peter’s heart, nonetheless did indeed say to him, “Get behind me, Satan.” There’s no way to soften the words themselves through some other translation. But what did Jesus really mean? Was he really addressing Peter as Satan, seemingly negating all the glowing things He had so recently spoken to this stalwart disciple who was to be a great leader of the Church? “Stumbling block” is bad enough, but “Satan?” Really? What did Jesus mean?
Some persons have tried to soften the blow by suggesting that Jesus was not addressing Peter with these words, but was actually addressing Satan himself, who was using Peter in an attempt to block the path of Jesus to the Cross, that is, to prevent the very work of redemption that Jesus had come to accomplish through His substitutionary sacrifice: to prevent the victory of Jesus over sin and death, and thereby to prevent His victory over the power of Satan. Had that been allowed to happen, then the last statement in our Gospel reading would have been negated: “There are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
No matter how harsh the words of Jesus may have been and no matter how they would have been heard by Peter, Jesus explains His meaning in the next phrase: “for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” Peter could not have understood the full significance of this statement at the time. But he certainly would have understood it later.
God’s interests sprang out of His loving heart for humankind, a heart that loved us so that He gave us His only Son, lifting Him up on the Cross so that all who look on Him in faith should not perish but have everlasting life. Satan, whom Jesus Himself called “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44), was determined to stand in the way of God’s purposes. Both Luke and John tell us that Satan entered into the heart of Judas when he betrayed His Lord and Savior in what Satan must have thought was yet another way to thwart God’s plan. But Jesus, when He received the report of the disciples whom He had sent out to proclaim His Kingdom with power to heal and cast out demons, said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Jesus saw that the power of Satan already had been broken. Yet in his first letter 30 years later, Peter wrote, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). In spite of that present reality, we share the assurance of Martin Luther who, in the text of our opening hymn this morning, wrote:
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure,
for lo! His doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.
And on this basis Luther went on to add:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever!
That’s what God has done and is yet to do. That’s what was accomplished on the Cross through the atoning sacrifice of His Son. That’s the work of the One Whom Peter recognized as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That’s how God’s interests are defined, in contrast to the interests of men and the designs of Satan. God’s interests have to do with the establishment of His Kingdom forever. It’s that for which we pray daily when we say, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” And it’s what we profess in the Nicene Creed when we say, “His Kingdom will have no end.”
But that’s not the end of today’s gospel. It may be the end for many who consider themselves to be Christians, having grown up in the Church and under the influence of good Biblical teaching. It’s good information to believe. But it stops short of a person’s becoming a follower of Jesus, a disciple of His. There’s a next step without which Jesus says no one can be His disciple. It’s all embedded in these few but potent words:
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
What’s really involved here? It’s rather explicit; this definitely was not one of those occasions on which Jesus wished to be ambiguous. To be a Christian, here’s what’s required:
- following Jesus, and
- losing one’s life for Jesus’ sake
You’ve probably heard the adage that we’re not here only “to comfort the afflicted,” but also “to afflict the comfortable!” Do you know who authored that adage in the first place? It wasn’t a preacher. It was a Chicago newspaperman who wrote in 1902, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (Finley Peter Dunne, “Mr. Dooley,”1902). It was another Chicagoan, the theologian Martin Marty, who commandeered the adage for the mission of the Church 30 years ago (1987), and it’s been heard from many pulpits ever since.
Perhaps there’s no better way to afflict the comfortable than to demand self-denial, cross-bearing, following Jesus and losing one’s life for His sake. Instead of planting ourselves as Christians at the intersection of happy and healthy, we need to find ourselves at the intersection of grace and mercy, where Ace is not the place, but where “the place” is at the foot of the Cross.
If Christians consciously positioned themselves beneath the Cross of Jesus, they would live different lives. They would see His wounds and His blood and be reminded of the cost of our redemption. They would have a completely different perspective on what we’re doing at this table and what’s being done here for us. They would come to see that whatever passes in their lives as “self-sacrifice” grows dim in the light of the greatest sacrifice of all time. They would “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.”
Then, from this perspective, they would hear differently the words of Jesus, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” And they would hear differently these questions of Jesus as though they were coming from the lips of Christ on the Cross: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
How will you answer these questions of Jesus this morning? Will you even allow yourself to hear the questions? Last Sunday Jesus asked you, “Who do you say that I am?” Now He comes again asking in essence, “If you say with Peter that I am the Messiah, the Son of the living God, then are you prepared to deny yourself, to take up your cross, to follow Me and to lose your life for My sake?”
This is precisely how the Christian faith is meant to play out in our lives! The Church absolutely is not a place to come to get comfortable. While it’s not a place to be miserable, it’s definitely not a place not to be cost-cutting, but to be cost-counting.
What should being a Christian require of you? It’s far more than Sunday morning attendance with a passing nod to the offering basket. It’s a commitment of your entire life to the One Who died for you. The Church is not a social club where you simply can enjoy fellowship with people who think the way you think. It’s not simply a place where a beautiful building, beautiful music and beautiful liturgy will soothe your soul. It is instead a launching pad for mission, a place where service begins when the service ends, a place where the longsuffering of God is translated into our own compassion for all those who are in any sort of need, spiritually first of all but also materially and emotionally. It’s a place where prayer leads to action.
Yes, it definitely is a place where we hear not only these words of Jesus: “You shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:29); but where we also hear these words: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Those words were spoken immediately after Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).
Those who claim to follow Jesus yet ignore the cost of discipleship are mocking Jesus’ words. Those who actually do follow Him will find that there is a cost. Stewardship is not just a matter of paying tithes to the Church. It is that, but it also is stewardship of one’s entire life, a re-ordering of one’s life priorities, a determination to hear His voice, to follow His leading and to walk in His ways.
The Way of the Cross is not an easy way. Nowhere are we told that it will be. We can be grateful that for most of us it will not be nearly as costly as it was for Jesus. But the Way of the Cross should not be perceived as drifting downstream with the current. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s fighting one’s way upstream, against our culture, against our inclinations, against our natural passions, against our innate spiritual apathy and against a set of standards that never has been acceptable to God. What is acceptable to God is that we “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to Him, which is our spiritual service of worship” (Romans 12:1).
What does it mean to you to be a “living sacrifice?” What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to deny yourself? What does it mean to be a cross-bearer? What does it mean to lose your life for His sake? According to Jesus, these are crucial questions that each one of us is responsible to ask and answer. Ask them this morning. Ask them this week. Ask them on your knees before God’s throne of grace. But whatever you do, do not postpone the exercise.
The author of Hebrews wrote, “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14). Then he quotes these words from Psalm 95: “Today if you would hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95:7b, 8a).
We have today. Don’t let it go by without listening to Jesus all over again. Hear His voice. He says, “Take up your cross, and follow Me.” Answer Him in the words of an old gospel hymn: “Follow, I will follow Thee, my Lord, follow every passing day. My tomorrows are all known to Thee, Thou wilt lead me all the way.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen