Matthew 16:21-28

Sep 9, 2014 | Conversations | 0 comments

The Church of St. Barnabas, Labor Day Reflection, Irvington, New York, August 31,2014

 Matthew 16:21-28

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 be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “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.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”[1]

Good morning. Thank you for being here.

When I was thinking about today’s passage, it reminded me of an origami sculpture because it’s difficult to see the intricate folds it took to create, so it’s not easy to deconstruct. There are clues, though, and one of the important ones comes from our reading from last week, in a conversation between Peter and Jesus that took place just before today’s passage. It’s valuable because it puts today’s reading into context.

Last week in response to Jesus’ question, “…who do you say I am?”[2] Simon Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”[3] Jesus then blessed Simon Peter, told him that upon this rock Jesus would build his church, and he went on to give Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”[4] That is quite a gift.

In today’s passage Jesus continues the conversation, saying that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.” Peter is understandably distressed. “God forbid it, Lord!” he says. “This must never happen to you.”

It’s disconcerting, then, when Jesus responds not, “thank you for your concern,” but “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on divine things but on human things.”

At this moment, not only is Jesus breaking open this notion of what it means to be the Messiah, but he’s raising an essential dichotomy between earthly and divine things.

According to Peter, to be the Messiah means to be protected from harm. “This must never happen to you.” In Jesus’ world view, though, which is God’s world, to be a leader, a savior, means not that he will be protected from harm, but that he will, in fact, undergo grave suffering.

Right here we realize we are in new territory, entering a world where value might be assigned differently from what we are accustomed to.

What is it, then, that Peter Simon has suggested that makes Jesus cry out, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Well, we know that Satan is all about sin, and sin is that which draws us away from God.

We also know that Jesus is taking concepts and terms from our earthly world, such as kingdom and Messiah, and radically redefining them in a new world order, a world that we will arrive at, but not without significant growing pains. And because we are still far from this world, the lessons that Peter tried to learn are just as relevant to us today.

I don’t think it’s accidental that this passage comes after Jesus has just bestowed upon Peter a monumental gift, the keys to the kingdom, a gift that can be understood in earthly terms as one leading to riches, fame, prestige, adulation, comfort and security, which are all things that we ourselves could easily covet in our celebrity culture where silicon valley multi-millionaires appear seemingly overnight and our news feeds are filled with one extravagant display after another, or when our neighbor might simply have a bigger house than we do.

Peter does not understand this kingdom that Jesus is talking about. How can he? He’s never seen it. It is radically new and based on principles that are hard even for us to wrap our minds around. It will involve suffering. Not suffering for suffering’s sake, but a denial of what society then, and today, works very hard to convince us is what defines value, success, and worth.

In 2013 in the United States, the average family’s health insurance cost $16,000 per family, with a quarter of that being paid for by the individual, and the rest being paid for by employers or the government. Approximately 15% of Americans are uninsured.

In 2012 the US spent $682 billion dollars on defense, which is more than the countries with the next ten highest budgets combined. That’s more than the combined defense budgets of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil.

I am not making a political statement, here, and I, for one, am very glad to have health insurance. I’m also not attempting to make a veiled comment about the United States’ military in our very violent world.

My point is simply that we put a lot of resources into preserving ourselves and keeping ourselves safe. I know that this is something I think about a lot. So when 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,” this is a fundamental redefinition of what it means to be whole, to be safe and to be fully alive.

So what are these new values? Is Jesus saying that everyone literally needs to give away everything and follow him like the fishermen? Again, I think there’s a clue in one of last week’s readings from Romans 12:1-8:

“…we have many members, and not all the members have the same function…We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” Etc.

We each have different gifts, but as Christians we try to align them with the principles embodied by Jesus’ example. And there is no getting away from the fact that this path can be, will be difficult. It requires sacrifice, which is not a word anyone particularly likes. The sacrifice might be financial, or it might take courage to talk about our faith and risk judgment or rejection by family or friends. Our careers might be affected. We might be put in compromising situations where one path would lead to greater material gain, or a promotion, but would require us to compromise our integrity or ideals or to step on someone else, whereas another path might result in less prestige or status but bring us closer to a true connection with our fellow humans. It’s also possible that we won’t be faced with these choices, but might have others instead.

Last weekend my husband and I dropped our children off to college, and for the first time in twenty-one years I am without children at home. I vividly remember being pregnant with my son. I had terrible morning sickness, and I was outraged. When you get a stomach virus you’re sick for twenty-four, forty-eight hours, and I’d been throwing up for three months. This is a very small anecdote of the way in which raising children, for example, is not without sacrifice. But to do so is also one of the most challenging, rewarding, greatest gifts imaginable. I’m sure we can each think of times in our lives when sacrifice has led to blessings that open us up to worlds we would otherwise know nothing about.

By modeling himself the ultimate sacrifice, and then expressing to his disciples that they, also, would suffer, Jesus forges the path for us to give us courage to follow him in our fight for justice and compassion in a world fraught with greed, violence, extremism and evil.

And although the path might not be easy, Jesus, in his redefinition of what it means to be saved, makes it clear that the reward is not just a compensatory truckload of material riches when we die. The reward is now. The reward is finding true meaning in our lives today, of being part of the solution and belonging to God.

When Jesus asks, “what will they give in return for their life?” this is not a rhetorical question, and people have answered it in different ways, from missionaries to teachers, to mothers and fathers and nursing home aides and doctors and lawyers and politicians and artists.

It would be easy to discount this passage as confusing and too extreme, but in fact it’s a challenge to see if we can break open our own hearts and lives a little bit, and take actionable steps to move closer to the path that Jesus has forged for us.

I know that I do this imperfectly, and I don’t think it’s helpful to guilt myself into a confused and paralyzed place by being perfectionistic. But neither is it okay to do nothing. Spiritual growth takes place slowly. It is a journey that takes a lifetime, and I’m sure that even when I reach the end of that path, my understanding will be far from perfect. The question, however, still demands an answer one hour, one day at a time. “What will they give in return for their life?”


[1] Matt. 16:21-28 (New Revised Standard Version)

[2] Matt. 16:16

[3] Matt. 16:17

[4] Matt 16:20

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