August 31, 2008 XVI Pentecost (RCL Proper 17A) Romans 12: 9-21, Matthew 16: 21-28
Peter was the hero last Sunday, in that great moment on the road near Caesarea Philippi, as he first put into words the reality of the breathtaking truth about his Lord that had been forming in the hearts and minds of all the disciples, “Thou art the Christ, Son of the Living God.” The truth of this supernatural and spiritual identity and power, his presence with them. And then Jesus responded in kind: “You are Peter,” in Greek, petros, the solid rock and foundation, on whom will be built the holy Church of God.
But then this morning, just a few steps further down the road, Peter gets it wrong, and judging by the reaction he gets from Jesus, wrong big-time. “Get behind me, Satan!” Not a mild response, especially when talking to the man who was just made the first Pope! Then Jesus uses this other word, in Greek skandalon, not petros, not the solid rock of a foundation stone, but a “stumbling block.” The thing you trip over as you climb toward your objective. For Peter, a mighty role-reversal.
It becomes apparent immediately that while Peter got the answer right at Caesarea Philippi, he didn’t actually understand what that answer meant. Which makes this a moment of important teaching for Peter and the disciples about the nature of Messiahship, about what the work is that Jesus is accomplishing.
Of course it was natural that Peter and the others would first view this new insight about Jesus through the lens of the world as they knew it, and in the traditions and expectations of faith in which they had been raised--to see the Messiah’s kingship as something that would involve some sort of tangible success, real victory, here and now. Something to be played out in the midst of social, political, religious institutions. The liberation of Israel.
But Jesus says this morning, so long as we keep looking at things from man’s point of view, we’re lost. But to catch even a glimpse, even a glimpse, from God’s point of view, that will be to find our way home, and home to heaven.
And then he turns us to the mystery of the Cross. His Cross, on that hill outside Jerusalem at the end of this journey, and as his Cross becomes our cross, the shadow and the door, the end that is also a beginning, the death that is gateway to light and life. It’s going to take Peter and his friends a while to get this figured out, and they’re going to have to see more, experience more, before they get it right. And for us as well. There’s more of this story to tell, to Holy Week and Good Friday, before Easter comes.
This as background, for what I would want to highlight as well in our readings, what actually struck me most in the readings for this Sunday, from the 12th chapter of Romans, a meditation by Paul that actually runs on into the 13th chapter. I would offer not an extensive commentary, but at least an appreciation. To lift it up for our reflection. An amazing passage of course from this Letter from Paul which is such a foundational text in Christian life. Ethics, morality. Not so much a conclusive list of rules, but a recipe for the spirit of who we are, of the kind of people we would aspire to become. The words give way to music.
We remember the Ten Commandments that God reveals to the people at Mt. Sinai, but in Romans 12, beginning at the 9th verse, and continuing on through the 10th verse of chapter 13, a bit beyond the passage there are, as I count them, 33 imperatives, 33 commandments, which I find to be rich and wonderful and exceptionally challenging, and which seem to me to be a fleshing-out of what Jesus says in Matthew 16 about the way of the cross. What that actually might look like.
I don’t know if it strikes you as it does me, but here as we swing into a more intense phase of this apparently endless presidential election season, with television and radio and just about every possible public venue overwhelmed by conflict and polarization and an increasingly urgent negativity. And then even Mother Church seems to get into the act with an enthusiasm for mean-spiritedness that sometimes puts even the Democrats and the Republicans to shame on their side of the court.
In the midst of all that, the storminess of our day to day lives. Let love be genuine. Outdo one another in showing honor. Be patient in suffering. Bless those who persecute you. Do not be haughty. Do not claim to be wiser than you are. Never avenge yourselves. If your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
Again, not so much the words, but the music. The list goes on and on, through chapter 12 and into 13, this profound and radical vision of a way of life that is tender, and gentle, modest, marked by restraint, hospitality, humility. How unrealistic. How counter-intuitive. You go first. The practice of stepping back, stepping down. This is the way that “taking up of our cross” happens.
It’s a long learning curve for the disciples, and certainly for us. Learning how not to be stumbling blocks on the road to God’s kingdom. But to open ourselves to the deep spirit behind these words as we break the bread and share the cup this morning. Three steps forward, two back; or two steps forward sometimes, and then three back.
But the invitation Jesus has for his disciples along that road two thousand years ago and the invitation he has for us today is one that he offers again and again with a generous heart—not leaving us in our brokenness, but remaining nearby, with healing for us, and a renewal of life, refreshment, grace and comfort, and the promise of the fullness of life in the life we will share with him.