Happy Labor Day weekend! Today’s sermon for St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa, is about one of my favorite Bible characters, Peter. Two sources to credit this week for inspiration: First, the God Pause devotional from September 1, by Rev. Angela Denker, and second, my own sermon on this same passage from internship 3 years ago.
The Gospel text for this thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A is Matthew 16:21-28.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s gospel reading begins “from that time on” so to figure out what’s going on, we need to back up a little bit. Right before this, as we heard last week, Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him, who they said he was. The consensus was people were looking at him as John the Baptist, or Elijah, or another prophet. Then Jesus asked them the more important question: “Who do you say I am?”
Peter responded with the right answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That’s who Jesus is, God’s son, our Lord, God living among us, the Savior, the Messiah. Peter gets it. It’s this great moment for him, maybe the proudest moment of his life. Ever have one of those moments where you just feel so connected with God, where you feel God at work in you?
The Holy Spirit is on his side, flowing through him, giving him the right answers. Peter is the perfect disciple, the rock. The church will be built on his declaration of faith.
And then we get to today’s reading, and we realize Peter didn’t actually quite get what’s going on. At all.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a little overwhelmed this week watching what’s going on in the world. Did you know over 1,200 people have been killed in flooding in Bangladesh and India this summer? 41 million people have been affected.
Over 500 died two weeks ago in a mudslide in Sierra Leone. I’m still processing the idea of white supremacists marching in streets in our country and how we as a country and as church respond to that. There are 40 active wildfires in Montana right now. Just this morning, I read the news while I was eating breakfast and saw North Korea tested another nuclear bomb today.
And of course, there’s all the stories out of Houston. I think we here in Greene have a better perspective on what flooding can do than most, but the flooding there is so many orders of magnitude greater.
There’s heartbreaking stories about a three year old rescued clinging to her mother’s body, police sergeant Steve Perez drowning while trying to get to work, a family drowning trapped inside their van where only the driver got out.
Apart from flooding, there plenty of suffering to go around, from good people dying of cancer, to addiction, to unemployment, disease, racism, bullying, and so much more junk going on. It’s overwhelming.
I think Peter’s experience is similar. He knows there’s suffering in the world. He knows people who have died, I suspect he’s experienced or heard stories of natural disasters, he’s living as part of a conquered nation under an oppressive empire.
But he’s been following Jesus for a while now, and he’s seen Jesus do some pretty awesome, incredible stuff. Jesus has healed people, he’s taught and fed huge crowds, walked on water, cast out demons.
Peter sees Jesus’ power; he sees the hope he’s giving the people, and Peter starts realizing this is God’s Son. This is the Messiah, the Savior they’ve been awaiting for centuries. Jesus has come to show God’s love to the people, to set them free, to end the suffering and pain.
Peter is on board. He publicly declares, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” He’s all in. He believes. He’s ready for Jesus to change the world.
And then, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
You can see Peter saying, “Hold on, what now? Not ok, Jesus. You’re supposed to be fixing everything, ending the suffering and pain, not suffering yourself!”
That doesn’t sound like a victorious hero. Peter was excited about everything getting better, not more suffering. It’s a lot easier to follow a leader who makes everything work out the way we want it to, isn’t it? Ever felt like God doesn’t live up to your expectations?
Peter pulls him aside and says, “Hold on now, Jesus. You, uh, you missed something. You’re the Son of the living God. Remember? You’re the Messiah. You don’t have to suffer; you can make everything better. You’re the hero in this story!”
Now, to be clear, questioning God is ok. The Bible is full of stories of great heroes of faith questioning, even directly challenging God. God can handle it.
In this story, though, Jesus responds to Peter’s rebuke pretty strongly, and it’s not how I usually think of Jesus talking. When I was about 8 years old, I remember having an argument with my little sister, and I told my mom I was so annoyed by her I wanted to quote Jesus and tell her to “Get behind me, Satan!” My mom telling me it was not ok for me to say that, even if Jesus said it.
Calling Peter, Satan, though, isn’t really Jesus’ point. Peter is still going to be the rock the church is built on. His heart’s in the right place. Jesus’ point is what he says next. “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.”
We’re not that different from Peter, are we? We focus on the immediate human things all the time. Don’t we want God to come save us from the floods, save us from the sickness, save us from broken relationships, from all the junk in our lives?
Sometimes Christians get this idea that if you give your life to Christ all your troubles will end. Sometimes people even try to blame others for things like floods. People say idiotic, harmful garbage like God sent an earthquake to Haiti to punish people for voodoo, or God sent a hurricane to New Orleans because the people there were too sinful. That’s not the way God works. That’s not how faith works.
Being a good, faithful Christian doesn’t protect you from things going wrong in your life. You can come to worship every single week and give more offering than anyone else here, and that won’t stop the water from reaching your house if the river floods.
Jesus did not come to make everything better in this life, which is good, because as we’ve established, everything is not all better. If following Jesus is supposed to make everything perfect, then none of this is working and we might as well go home.
In fact, following Jesus does the opposite of protect you. Jesus continues, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
We’re so used to phrases like “take up your cross” that we forget what it means. The Romans forced condemned criminals to carry their crosses to their execution. To take up your cross means to pick up and carry what’s going to kill you. It’s not a pleasant thing.
Following Jesus is not something to do lightly. Following Jesus won’t make you rich, it won’t protect you from floods, or from cancer, or from the other junk life throws at you. Take up your cross and follow me.
So if being a Christian doesn’t fix all the problems, if following Jesus doesn’t make everything better, then what are we doing here? Why bother?
We’re here because Peter was right the first time. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus is the hero of the story. Jesus wins. But not in the way Peter thought.
Instead, the victory Peter is so eager for comes through the very thing he’s so concerned Jesus avoid. Peter gets so distressed when Jesus says he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed that he starts arguing and misses the key part: “And on the third day be raised.”
We’re here to celebrate the good news that Jesus’ suffering and death is not the end of the story. The suffering and the pain and the floods and the sickness and the brokenness don’t get the last word.
Taking up your cross and following Jesus doesn’t guarantee happiness, but it does guarantee hope. It doesn’t always make life easier, but it gives life purpose.
Jesus continues, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Losing your life for Jesus’ sake means being set free from the power of all the junk in this world. It means finding hope that God will act the way we need, even if it’s not the way we want.
Jesus does end suffering, by taking it on to himself and defeating it, putting to death all the suffering and death, then rising again. In Jesus, God comes to experience the worst the world can give.
Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. He doesn’t send us out ahead; we are called to follow where he is going, where he has gone. The victory is already won. We are sent to offer ourselves for the sake of our suffering world.
If you feel overwhelmed by everything going on in our world right now, take heart. Trust that God is not done with you. Give God a chance to work in unexpected ways. Come to the table to be fed with the bread of life and the cup of salvation, hope coming on the very night of Jesus’ betrayal.
Take up your cross and follow where your Savior leads.