Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 31 August 2014
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
Last week, if we hadn’t been honouring St Bartholomew, we would have heard the passage directly before today’s gospel, when Peter publicly recognises and acknowledges Jesus as ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’, and Jesus responds by commending this faith – ‘You are Peter (‘Rocky’, perhaps), and on this rock I will build my church.’ We’re rather used to hearing that gospel but, because we usually remember the good bits, we don’t always read this less complimentary next paragraph.
So it is at least mildly surprising when we read on to Matthew 16.23 and find our hero, buoyed up by giving the right answer in class and getting the gold star, suddenly and literally demonized by the very Son of God he’s just correctly identified. In a way that makes it worse: name-calling by a Rabbi probably isn’t a Jewish boy’s favourite experience; but Rabbis are just human beings. When you’ve just realized and publicly affirmed that you are talking to someone uniquely connected to the Almighty and he calls you ‘Satan’ you might be a little disappointed.
In the logic of the story there’s a clear reference back to the temptation of Jesus in chapter 4. You’ll remember how that goes:
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
‘The tempter’. And then, the crucial punch line for what we heard this morning – 4.10
Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
So the name-calling, ‘get behind me Satan’ is easy to understand in the logic of this story. Jesus is not calling Peter ‘the devil’. Jesus is saying to Peter, ‘you’re tempting me as I was tempted at the beginning’, tempting me to give the whole thing up and preach magic and easy answers: I say now as I said then ‘Get behind me, Satan’. He’s saying to Peter, No: don’t make my proclamation domestic and cosy and smooth, don’t remove the rough edges of reality.
We all do that with our faith: we take diamonds and somehow turn them into paste; offered something beautiful and challenging we remove the edge so that we can live with it; we replace it with a cheaper substitute.
Worse yet, all too often, there seems to be a further temptation to then add a new edge of challenge, a new setting for the fake gem, which always conveniently scratches someone else, someone less pious than I: the other, whether in terms of religion, race, sexual morality, culpability, or whatever it may be.
As he always does, Jesus reminds us, as he reminds Peter here: ‘look to yourself’. The challenge is to you, to me, or it is to no one. Don’t make a burden for someone else; take up your own cross, he says, and follow. Then glory awaits.
Jesus doesn’t pretend, in speech or prayer. He prays to be spared the cross. On the cross he cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He also speaks plainly to Peter. One moment he calls Peter ‘Rocky’; the next he calls him ‘Satan’. Peter, he says, is doing what that ‘old enemy’ has always done, suggesting that there are ways of doing what God wants without anyone getting hurt. Least of all me.
Peter has publicly recognized Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, but he doesn’t understand that this sovereignty will be exercised through suffering. He’s after a celebrity Messiah, not a loser.
That is arguably even more counter-cultural today than it was 2000 years ago. We really don’t expect any transaction to cost us very dearly, unless we’re buying a house in London. Pretty well everything else in our world is cheap, compared even with our parents’ experience; certainly compared with most of the rest of the world.
Perhaps we can understand Peter’s failure of imagination in that way. He is looking for Easter without Good Friday, let alone Lent. We not only want instant gratification, but probably take it for granted. But everything about the biblical narrative should warn us to take a longer view, of what will endure, and of what has value.
‘Get behind me, Satan’. Jesus’ justification for the name-calling is very simple. Peter does not ‘think the things of God’. His mind-set, as we would say, is all wrong.
The key-word here is ‘stumbling-block’. Jesus tells Peter that he is a ‘stumbling-block’ to him. It is an interesting and important word that occurs quite often in the Gospels. A ‘stumbling-block’ is anything you fall over – like the cat – on the way from A to B; something, we might say, that diverts or tempts you, from the straightforward journey. What Peter has said is a stumbling-block for Jesus, because it is a trip-wire across his path to the cross, and, distressingly, a trip-wire he’s encountered from the beginning and thought he’d put behind him. Now it turns up in the mouth of the person he’s just entrusted the future of his project, the building of God’s kingdom.
God is anti-celebrity. That means God is for commitment and engagement, for the hard slog of building relationships rather than merely feeling good (he doesn’t have anything against us feeling good; he just wants us to learn how to make it last, life with the quality of eternity). Jesus reminds Peter of the principle of the incarnation and the core of the gospel, that only relationships are worth it in the end.