I have admired Peter – in a strange way. He has what I lack – the gift for speaking up, giving an answer, without regard for whether he’s right or wrong – usually wrong until after Pentecost. Given all his bone-headed comments Peter finally gets one right. “But who do you say I am?” Peter steps up: “You are the Messiah, Son of God.” “Great, Peter, blessed are you. You nailed it!” Peter must be feeling right proud of himself. When we connect, knock one out of the park, the ooh’s and ah’s – a Nobel Prize winning comment for sure – well, that is Peter, the day he nails Jesus’ identity. He gets the words right, but that’s all.
Jesus adjusts Peter’s Messiah radar settings, which is pretty painful for old Rock. You see, Peter never figured on hearing “suffer, die a humiliating death, and Messiah” in the same breath. “God forbid, Jesus! This can never happen to you. Did you not read the job description? You’re to overthrow Rome, restore King David’s glory.” Stunned, Peter misses Jesus say, “And in three days I’ll be raised.” And for his efforts Peter gets Jesus’ rebuke. I learned in Pastoral Care 101 you don’t call people names, like, “Satan,” or “stumbling block,” for getting it wrong. That’s not very uplifting and pastoral. But then Jesus didn’t have to go to seminary. I did. He must have this right.
And that’s what makes this passage so difficult. The church traditionally has trouble taking Jesus seriously. We know the savior we want – one who’ll be on our wavelength: to save, heal and fix us, and then leave us alone; straighten out annoying relatives and church members; grant us peace and tranquility; smite our enemies; and lead our parish into a robust future. We worship him, yet we resist following him. We still do church top down – the powerful and successful rule – suffering and dying are hardly appealing. We prefer our religion to assure us God rewards those who do the right things, believe the right things, and keep the rules.
People need to read the Bible more closely. They’d find God never works that way. God chooses misfits, the least likely, an old man and a barren old woman to be the headwaters of a mighty nation – and by golly, shortly after they get the news, they have a baby. God chooses dysfunctional families, bratty brothers, deceitful mothers and even Gentiles. God frees slaves to create a nation. The expected Messiah gets born in the backwaters of an occupied land to illiterate parents – not at all what people thought would happen. And if Jesus represents God, well, he’s got God wrong – that’s what the theologians of the day decide. Jesus says losers, not winners are blessed; the least are greatest; sinners are welcomed and those who think they have no sin – “stand outside.” Saying that sort of stuff out-loud can get you killed. To follow Jesus entails denying a lot of what the world has been telling us. Lose your life to have life. Do it God’s way, not yours. That’s crazy, so counter-intuitive – a roadmap to disaster. “God forbid. Choose a safer, more successful way. Use some of that power from on high.” “Get behind me, Satan.” Yes, Peter, your intent is good. The rest is wrong.
If your family looks more dysfunctional than cozy; or with Facebook, you don’t post that you fail and suffer more than you want people to know; if you’ve had major disappointments; you’re afraid to be wrong; you want others to think you know everything, then pay attention. Jesus is on our side. Jesus seems best in our brokenness – in the pain and suffering of our lives and world – not to save us out the messes, but to be with us. That’s reality – and yes, it can feel pretty hopeless, especially if we relinquish our fears and security operations, and reach for God. Someone once said that religion is for people who fear they’ll go to hell. Faith is for people who have gone through hell, and find God’s been there with them.
It’s so counter-intuitive. Lose that life that keeps you from accepting the truth God already favors you. You are already God’s beloved, even if you don’t act like it sometimes. We are a peculiar people who’ll follow Jesus, not because we like pain and suffering, but for the wisdom they can teach us. God is in those places, awakening us and getting our attention. In the end the only powers capable of transforming us, freeing us from the abyss of fear, suffering and death are the powers of divine love and forgiveness. That’s what the cross Jesus carries for us means. That’s the larger reality into which we are invited. But we can’t know that ahead of time. That’s why trusting Jesus is so risky.
Maybe Peter didn’t get it until Jesus calls him a stumbling block, a Satan. Coming from Jesus, that’ll get your attention. Pain and truth can send us down far enough for God to overwhelm our egos and self-saving delusions. Admitting how and who we sometimes are, as painful as that can be, opens our hearts to God’s forgiveness, grace, and divine love. Let go of the life you’re trying to create, and take the one God is giving. We may miraculously see the difference between the God we want and the God we need – and make the good choice.
Peter, you are so right – so terribly right. It may have taken him awhile, as I think maturing in Christ does for all of us. It’s not what we do that saves us. It’s what Jesus does – to be with us, be like us, love us, and save us – often from ourselves. It’s all about God, my friends – what God has done, not us. Never, never forget that. It’s so terribly counter-intuitive – living in God’s real world, not the one we think is real, and we are in charge of. As someone once said, the difference between God and us – God doesn’t act like he’s us.