9/3/17: From That Time On, Matthew 16:21-28
From That Time On
Fourth in the Series: Ordinary Good News
First Lesson: Jeremiah 15:15-21
Second Lesson: Matthew 16:21-28
Rev. Scott Dickison
Well, how has your week been?
It’s been an eventful one up here at the Top of Poplar. Usually most of the calls to the office are church members asking what’s for supper on Wednesday night. Not folks from God knows where calling to us where we can go. I want to give a lot of credit to Pam Pilcher and Connie Pursiful, who answer our phones, for the grace and with which they have received these things. And yet, while this sort of vitriol is new to us, unfortunately it’s something the LGBT community knows well, which has confirmed for me how important it is for churches like ours to make clear our welcome as we did last week.
And I also need to say that we’ve had several folks from around the community and beyond reach out to us in very kind and supportive ways, for which we’re grateful. But from speaking with many of you, it sounds like we’ve all been carrying around a weight this week, in a lot of different ways. It was uncomfortable for this conversation to be played out publicly in the newspaper and online, and I want you to know it was uncomfortable for me too, and not something that we initiated or sought in any way. I want name this load we’ve bee carrying, but I also hope that in this hour we’ve been able to let some of it go.
I was so proud to be your pastor last Sunday; before the vote, knowing that the past month has been demanding of us. And I was proud after the vote, knowing that it was taken with integrity and love, and that the decision we've made is a good one, even as it’s a hard one. And I’ve been proud to be your pastor this past week, seeing the grace you’ve shown each other, and all the other voices that have surrounded us. I’ve told folks this week that the internal conversations I’ve had and have heard about this week have been good and healing. You’ve truly been church for each other, for our community, and for so many others who have learned not only of the decision we’ve made, but the care in which we made it. I’m so grateful for you.
So having said all of that, it’s with some trepidation that I turn our attention to this passage from Matthew, because while this has been a harder week than most, I want to caution us not to read our situation here over the past week too far onto this story. Yes, we've received some nasty calls, and had some unkind things written about us. And it hasn’t been fun, and I’d rather it hadn’t happened, but this moment, for us, will pass. The news cycle will turn over, as news cycles do, and in many ways it already has. The cross Jesus is talking about here is something far different, and it’s carried over the long haul.
We pick up the story where we left it last week: Jesus and the disciples are on the road when he asks them who people say that he is. They tell him John the Baptist or one of the prophets. And then he turns the question to them: Who do you say that I am? Peter responds correctly, saying that he is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” and Jesus blessed him because of it, saying, Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah. You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church. The disciples, we said, have gotten it right, and as we said last week, we need to celebrate that, because it doesn’t happen often. And sure enough, it didn’t take long for them to come back to reality. Now, as Mark and Luke tell this story, this all happened over the course of one conversation, but Matthew tells it slightly different. Did you notice how he says, “From this time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and on the third day be raised.”
From this time on, he began to show them.
As Matthew tells it, this would be an ongoing conversation about what would happen to him, and then of course, what would happen to them; what he was asking of them. Jesus seems to know what we all know which is that these lessons about suffering are not easy. They take a while to soak in and for the disciples and for us to really hear them. In a lot of ways we still haven’t. Fleming Rutledge, the Episcopal priest and author, describes waiting at a jewelry counter behind a woman who was shopping for a cross necklace. The clerk pulled out a case and sat it on the counter and asked, “Now do you want a plain one? Or do you want one with the little man on it?”
Quite a question.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out that the church has always taken offense at the suffering of Christ, ever since the beginning here with Peter. It’s why so many of us even today gravitate toward images of victory and power and why self-righteousness remains a uniquely Christian sin.
Or if we haven't taken offense at Christ’s suffering, we’ve focused on it or identified with it too much, either taking on a messiah-complex for ourselves, or more often, using Christ's suffering to justify the suffering of others. How many abused women and marginalized people through the years have been told to stay in their place because their suffering is for Christ? We have to walk a careful line here, talking about suffering. As it’s been pointed out, Jesus didn't seek suffering and didn’t ask his followers to seek it either. And he always, always stands with the abused, not the abuser. It’s just that when you live a life like Jesus, a life committed to the way of loving service to others, suffering has a way of finding you.
But Peter wasn’t ready to hear this. Matthew tells us he pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him. He pulled him aside and rebuked him—do you know the only other rebuking that happens in the gospels is when Jesus rebukes demons and rebukes the wind and the waves on the Sea of Galilee. Now Peter would rebuke Jesus and tell him, God forbid it Lord, let this never happen to you! And Jesus comes back at him with equal force—Get behind me Satan! You’re a stumbling block to me. You’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things! You may remember that Satan has shown up once before the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was out in the wilderness following his baptism, and Satan came and tested him—telling him to just make stone from bread to sate his hunger, or throw himself off the cliff to prove that the angels would catch him. Each of his tests designed to get Jesus to skip to take the glory without any of the costs, to put the focus on him and not on the world he came to save—to fast-forward to the Easter Sunday without passing through Good Friday.
It’s interesting, too, how a few verses before Jesus calls Peter, Simon son of “Jonah,” a name he’s given nowhere else. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus again speaks of Jonah—the only mention of Jonah in any of the gospels. Could it be Jesus is alluding back to the story of the prophet Jonah, who also had his mind set not on divine things but on human things? Told by God to go and preach of the good news of God’s love to the people of Nineveh—sworn enemies of Israel, he refuses and turns and travels in the complete opposite direction. And you know how the story goes from here: There’s a storm and Jonah is cast overboard; God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah up and spit him out onto the land in safety. Jonah relents and goes to Nineveh and preaches this good news and the people repent—the most effective sermon in the history of sermons. They all immediately stop their wicked ways and receive God’s love that is freely given to them—which really sends Jonah through the roof. He screams at God—you might even say he rebukes God—I knew this would happen! This is why I ran away in the first place. I knew that you’re a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. This mercy was too much for him. After some back and forth God responds to Jonah: Shouldn’t I be concerned for these people? All these poor people who don’t know what they’re doing? And that’s how the story ends. It’s the only book in the Bible to end with a question; God asking his prophet: Isn’t it right for me to go to great lengths to show my people, the work of my hands, how much I love them?
Jonah couldn’t quite turn from his own understanding of how he thinks God should move in the world, to see how God was actually moving in the world, and how he was being called to fit into it. Neither could Peter, and most days, neither do we.
By human standards, the way of God revealed throughout the Bible and most completely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, makes no sense at all. In our human way of viewing things, the way of the cross is the way of weakness, the way of shame—it’s the way of losers or irrelevancy. It’s embarrassing. When we’re being honest, it’s not the way we would choose for our children. We want them to succeed and to thrive and reach their potential and live abundant, long lives, and yet here we’re told that those who want to save their lives will lose it, and only those who lose it for Christ’s sake will find it—what sense does that make? And yet…
I remember a pastor I used to serve under during baby dedications would bless the child as he held them and say, “May you have a good life—not an easy life—but a good life; a life lived in the way of Christ.” Not an easy life—a life of avoiding pain and suffering and hardship for oneself, but also avoiding the pain and suffering of others. This is not the life of Christ. The life of self-protected fear, or willful ignorance to the suffering of others, as someone put it, “is a life already lost.”
But a good life. A life that’s good in the Biblical sense. Good as in God looking over creation, with all its beauty but also its brokenness, its joy but also its sorrow, its love but also its indifference—good as in God looking out over all this and saying, This…this is good. Good as in a life lived in the presence of God. Good as in a life lived with and for others—a life of laughing with those who laugh and weeping with those who weep as Paul would put it. A life that realizes there’s no such thing as other people’s children. A life of giving generously, of living simply, of “loving and serving courageously,” as I’ve heard it said. A life of risking something big for something good. A life of erring on grace and mercy. A life of throwing wide the doors and saying whosoever would come in. This kind of life is not easy. But it is good. It’s good as in “good news.” This kind of life is worth finding. It’s a cross worth taking up.
And it’s carried over the long haul.
The cross Jesus would have us take up is not the cross of momentary resistance or nasty emails or phone calls or smug editorials in the paper. No, the extent to which we as a church take up our cross will have less to do with what’s happened over this past week and more to do with who we are from this time on.
Will we continue to stand with the vulnerable? Will we keep tending the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked? Will we use all that we’ve been given for those who have less? Will we choose mercy over judgement and forgiveness over retaliation? Will we not keep enemies, so as not to become one ourselves? Will we do what we must to do what’s right—even in those times when we disagree on just what that is? And will we continue to be the church for each other and for our community? I pray that we will. I pray that we will carry this cross. And that we’ll carry it together.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster John Knox, 189-189
 Found in Anna Case Winters, Matthew, from the Belief series, 210
 Ibid, 211
 Barbara Brown Taylor, as found in Anna Case-Winters