Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, September 3, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 14

Pentecost 14, 2023
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I really wish we could have had last week’s gospel and this week’s gospel together, on the same Sunday.  Instead, if you missed last week or this week, you’re only getting half the story.  Like, it’s one story that got broken up into two movies, like the final Harry Potter book.  And you need both of these two readings together in order to see the distinction between listening to God and listening to the world.  Last week, Peter was receiving a revelation from God.  But today, Peter . . . oh, poor, poor Peter.

There he goes again, thinking he’s doing the right thing, when he’s doing exactly the wrong thing.  It’s kind of predictable in some ways, that whatever Peter’s answer is, you should assume the opposite is true.  Like when I’m trying to remember someone’s name, it’s a safe bet that my first guess is going to be the one name that is NOT that person’s name.  Some people are just not good at certain things, and Peter ought to have learned to think before speaking by the 16th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.

Ah, but then there was last week, the first part of our bifurcated story.  Remember last week?  The Confession of Peter?  That’s when Jesus asked, “But what about you?” Who do you say I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”  In that case, just a few verses ago, Simon got it so right he even got his new name, “Peter” out of the deal.  In that case, against all odds, Peter had the exact right answer, surprising though that might be.  Flying high in verse 17.  Trampled under foot in verse 23.  

A couple weeks before that—in Peter’s “hold my beer” moment—he was walking on the water with Jesus, only to sink into the sea moments later.  And if we flash forward in the story, to Holy Week, you’ll recall that Peter is the one who says he will never deny Jesus, and then a few hours later denies him three times.  

There is one reliable thing you can say about Peter: he is unreliable.  In the world of employment and human resources, that is one solid reason for letting someone go.  Unreliability.  If you can’t count on a person, you probably need to fire them.  Better to have someone who is constantly mediocre than someone who alternately excels and fails, week to week.

Peter, in short, is a risk.  And Jesus ought to dismiss him.  And this week, he does, right?  Back of the line.  Goes so far as to call him Satan, so that Peter knows he means business.  “Empty out your desk, turn in your keys, and get back to the mailroom Peter.  Or should I say, ‘Simon’?”

And some commentators want to connect this rebuke of Peter to Jesus’ rebuke of Satan back in the early chapters of Matthew.  Remember that?  Satan is dragging Jesus around town, showing him rocks and cliffs and the Temple and all that.  And, when Satan tells Jesus he will give him all the kingdoms of the world if he will but bow down and worship him, Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan!”  And the Devil departs from him.  Sounds a lot like what he said to Peter, right?  Go away.  Get behind me, Satan?

But here’s a funny thing about the words Matthew chooses in these two scenarios.  And this is where you all say to yourselves, “Oh no—here comes the Greek again.”  But it’s just two words we need to look at.  Promise.  Back at the Temptation of Jesus, the word Jesus uses is hupage, which means “go away.”  He says to the devil, “Go away, Satan.”  And Satan does.

The word Jesus uses when he calls Simon Peter Satan is, opiso.  Which means, “after me.”  Jesus says to Peter, “Follow after me, Satan,” which is very different from saying “Go away,” I think you’ll agree.  And, in case you’re not sure about that, in the next verse in today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  That word there, “follow,” is the same word Jesus uses to tell Simon Peter Satan to get behind him: opiso.

Follow me, Satan.  And if anyone else wants to follow me alongside Peter, you also must take up your cross.  Jesus is NOT sending Peter away.  It’s not even a criticism of Peter himself.  It’s the words of Peter that are wrong, just as last week it was the words of Peter that were right.  Jesus does not want Peter to go away, like he wanted the devil to go away after the temptation in the wilderness.  No, Jesus is telling Peter to stay, right behind him, where all the other disciples are supposed to be.

In fact, this same word, opiso, is the word Jesus uses when he first calls Simon and Andrew away from the fishing nets.  He says to them, opiso, or “Follow me.”  And they drop their nets, and follow him.  It is not a condemnation; it is an invitation.  Get behind me.  Follow me.  Walk with me.  

So, why does Jesus call Simon Peter Satan?  Good question.  Here’s my guess:  Jesus has just announced to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to be killed and then raised again to new life.  He has laid out the plan, painful as it is to hear.  Since the disciples instinctively carry the Jewish notion of the Messiah (one who takes names and kicks . . . Romans), this dying thing is not part of the plan, see?  The Messiah is supposed to come riding in on a white horse brandishing a sword, with the religious leaders cheering him on against Rome; the Messiah is not supposed to be put to death by the Romans, with the religious leaders cheering them on. 

Jesus apparently has the wrong script, and so Peter says to him, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”  Which puts Peter on the opposite side of God’s plan.  And, lest we forget, the one on the opposite side of God’s plan is Satan—the one who tempted Jesus in the wilderness when this whole Gospel of Matthew was just getting started.  Satan wants to divert Jesus from his path toward saving people.  He wants Jesus to turn his back on people.  To send them away when they mess up, and to give up on them and choose what is easy, rather than what is good.  In short, Peter is trying to tempt Jesus into giving up and saving his own life.  Just like Satan did!

Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  Get behind me, Satan.  Follow me, Peter.  Take up your cross and come with me to find life.  It’s an invitation, not a condemnation.

And you, people of St. Timothy’s, you are invited, just as Peter was invited.  We all have our reasons why we think God’s plan will not work.  We all have our inner dialog of doubts as to whether God can really save us, really forgive us, really bring life out of death.  We all have our protestations that Jesus cannot save us, all these objections that Jesus might call “Satan.”  

But here’s the thing: Jesus does not tell you to first banish those thoughts and then follow him.  Jesus did not tell Peter to get his doctrine straight before following him.  No, Jesus says, “follow me, Peter, and bring your Satan with you.”  Get behind me with all your doubts and fears and misunderstandings, and I will lead you to eternal life.  You do not have to understand how Jesus meets you, you just have to trust that he does.  And on the days when you can’t do even that, you are still welcome by God at this altar.  Follow Jesus . . . to the table, and be fed with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.


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