a sermon on Matthew 16:13-28
Poor Peter. He just can’t figure out what Jesus is up to. One minute Jesus was celebrating him for being the first disciple to acknowledge that he was the Messiah, then the next he’s getting called Satan.
Peter had always been one of Jesus’ favorites, among the first disciples that Jesus called out from his daily work as a fisherman. I have this image of Peter listening intently to every word that Jesus spoke, waiting to soak up the latest morsel of new knowledge and instruction that Jesus would offer.
But the teacher’s message didn’t always get through to him very well. Peter was the one who decided it would be a good thing to look down when he started trying to walk on water. Peter was the one at the transfiguration of Jesus who suggested that they build houses on the mountain so everyone could stick around for a while. When Jesus told them that the way to the kingdom of heaven was leave behind all their worldly wealth, Peter was the first to remind him of everything that the disciples had left behind. And Peter was ultimately the one who denied even knowing Jesus after he had been arrested and as he was facing his death.
And then there is today’s story about Peter. Jesus started out by querying his disciples about what they had been hearing from other people about him: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” It’s not immediately clear why Jesus was asking this question. Was he using the disciples as informants of some sort, trying to get information from them about what others were saying and thinking so that he could adjust his words and actions accordingly? Was he trying to figure out if his time had come, if people had really begun to understand what he was up to? Or was he quizzing the disciples to see if they themselves had shaped their own opinions of him based only on what they had heard from others?
All the responses that they shared were pretty timid. According to the disciples, the people were seeing Jesus as a messenger following after John the Baptist or a prophet in the line of Elijah or Jeremiah. It was clear from the disciples’ reports that the people were understanding a portion of Jesus’ message but were ultimately missing the bigger point.
But maybe in asking this question Jesus was just trying to set up his next question, for he then turned to the disciples and made it personal: “But who do you say that I am?”
Like the good teacher’s pet that he was, Peter immediately piped up with a response: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This was a monumental moment. It is the first time in the Matthew’s gospel that any particular person beyond the narrator uses the word “Messiah” to describe Jesus.
Jesus was clearly excited by Peter’s confession. He offered accolades to Peter for his willingness to receive and share this truth. He made it very clear that this was not Peter’s own doing but God’s. And he promised that Peter would be the foundation of things to come.
But Peter must have let all this praise get to his head. It didn’t take long for him to show that he just didn’t understand anything at all about what this meant. After Peter’s confession, Jesus began to teach the disciples about what it meant for him to be the Messiah, about how he would need to face great suffering, about how he would ultimately die and be raised because of all that he said and did.
But Peter would have nothing of it. If his friend and teacher was the Messiah, then he should not have to suffer in any way. The honor and status of such a figure should never have to face such humiliation. He pulled Jesus aside and told him that this should not, even could not, happen. But then Jesus turned to Peter, the teacher’s pet who had sat at his feet listening intently from the very beginning, the disciple who had seemed to understand it best, the very one who had offered the first confession of Jesus as Messiah, and condemned him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus proceeded to make the implications of being the Messiah clear. It had nothing to do with status or position, and in fact it had everything to do with giving up those very things. The Messiah’s way to exaltation was not through recognition of kingship as the world knew it—it came instead through giving up everything, through suffering and death, through the foolishness and humiliation of the cross. Anyone who wanted to find this kind of glory in and through the Messiah would need to find this kind of suffering, too. A profession of mere words such as Peter’s would not be enough—such a confession required similar steps in actions to show a denial of self-interest and a taking-up of the interests of others, actions that set aside personal gain for the well-being of the world, actions that offered even the fullness of life itself so that others might live.
While we might say that Peter’s actions from confession to correction here are wholly unlike our own, I think they are probably more familiar to us than we care to admit. Following Jesus has two parts, belief and action, and Peter had gotten the belief part right but missed how that belief necessarily changes our actions. We are probably more like Peter than we can even begin to realize. How often do we set our minds on human things and ignore God’s new and different way? How often do we try to define what God says or thinks about others because we feel the need to defend God or make sure that God’s honor isn’t put at risk, as if God didn’t have enough power to do it? And how often do we offer a word of confession of what we believe about God and then leave it behind quickly when it doesn’t fit quite so well into our lives?
It is not easy to live out the full and real consequences of what we say we believe in this world. So many interpretations of Christianity have twisted Jesus’ message for purposes that have absolutely nothing to do with what he said he was about. So many people have claimed that Jesus is the Messiah while using that very declaration as the basis for condemning others. And so many times we make faithfulness as simple as wearing a cross around our neck, showing up at church on Sunday, or following a traditional moral code and miss that there might be more.
Claiming that Jesus is the Messiah and so taking up the cross in our world has real consequences. It means more than having to give up a relaxing Sunday morning drinking coffee in bed with the newspaper, more than claiming protection for ourselves and those we love amidst the perceived threats to our privileged lives, more than preparing to enjoy eternal life in a heaven where the streets are paved with gold and we are reunited with beloved spouses, friends, and pets. As nothing other than our Presbyterian Book of Order puts it, “We are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.” (F-3.0104)
So what is the connection between your faith and practice? What is the consequence of confessing Jesus as the Messiah in these days? How are we called to live differently because we must take up our cross and follow Jesus? Over the next month, as we prepare to receive the Peacemaking Offering on the first Sunday in October, we’ll be thinking more about these very things.
In the meantime, though, I encourage you to examine your lives and our life together. Where can we make these things more real? Who around us is walking the way of the cross—not so much those who are subjecting themselves to difficulty but more those who face suffering each and every day at the hands of systems and structures that oppress? How can we walk this way in our lives—not so much so that we can be enjoy the glory that may come at the end but more that we can join God in making a new way for all creation?
So may God guide us as we offer our confession, as we acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, as we make the connection between this confession and our daily lives, and as we take up the crosses of our lives and walk with Jesus on the pathway of new life. Thanks be to God! Amen.