09/03/17 “Getting Behind Jesus”

Matthew 16:21-29

What do you see in the picture to the right?

This is what is called a perceptual illusion.  When we look at a picture like this, our brains start to interpret it, using our previous experiences to help us.  What we see will match what we expect to see.  So, some of us saw the duck, and some of us saw the rabbit. But when we change our perspective, we are able to see something else—something we never saw before.  It is impossible for our brains to see both images at the same time.  But, once we have seen from a new perspective, we can intentionally decide which perspective we want to look from and how we will interpret the picture.

I found something like this happening as I studied our Gospel passage for this week.  At first, I understood it the way I always have—as a scolding of Peter that always makes my heart sink.  But then, I found my perspective changing, and I began to see a different picture.  Where before I saw only scolding and condemnation, I began to see compassion and invitation as well.

Our story for today follows immediately after last week’s story.  Jesus had asked a question of his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”  And Peter had answered: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.”  Jesus goes on to say that he will build his church on Peter, whose words have shown that he truly understands who Jesus is.

What a high Peter must have been on!  You know what it feels like, I hope, to have one of those spiritual “aha” moments, when you comprehend or experience something you know could only have come from God; Peter must have been feeling such a sense of awe and excitement.  And then, to have Jesus affirm him and his place in Jesus’ mission for the world!  Wow!

But, his excitement may have been short-lived.  For it was Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ identity that opened the door for Jesus to speak openly of his passion, death, and resurrection.  Jesus’ words must have caused confusion and consternation among his disciples, perhaps especially for Peter.  Suffering and death didn’t have any place in their idea of messiahship.  Resurrection, maybe, since the Jews did look forward to a general resurrection.  But not all that other stuff—not suffering at the hands of other people and then being killed.  From their perspective, Jesus’ words didn’t match up with their understanding of what a Messiah was to be.

Plus, these words were coming from someone they knew and loved.  If you’ve ever had someone you love tell you that they are sick and will soon undergo painful treatment, you can imagine how Peter felt as he listened to Jesus’ words—how he must have had that sinking feeling in his stomach every time Jesus spoke of what lay ahead.  But where illness isn’t a choice we make, from Peter’s perspective, the suffering Jesus spoke of surely wasn’t something that the Messiah would have to endure.

So, Peter, maybe feeling that he had earned a place as a special advisor to Jesus (having received God’s revelation and being the foundation of Jesus’ church and all), felt he had a duty to set Jesus straight.  And so he takes Jesus aside and begins to “rebuke” him. That word “rebuke” is a strong one.  This is no gentle correction or mild raising of the eyebrows.  It expresses strong disapproval. It is a warning, designed to prevent some event from happening or bring one already in progress to an end.

Talking this way to one’s rabbi—one’s teacher—was no more acceptable in the 1st century than it is now.  Matthew’s readers probably gasped in shock to hear of it.  Even though Peter has taken Jesus aside to speak his words of rebuke privately, and had begun his rebuke with a prayer that God will forbid these things from happening, his action would have been unthinkable.  For Peter to “rebuke” Jesus tells us that something seems badly wrong to Peter.

Perhaps they were still walking side by side, away from the others, when Jesus turned to Peter and said the words that have always given me that sinking feeling, “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.”

Can you imagine Peter standing there, maybe dumb-founded and speechless at Jesus’ words?  What a nosedive his feelings must have taken, from that mountaintop high to feeling devastated.  He thought he was being faithful!  He thought he being loving! He thought he was being practical! But, instead, he has gone from being the Jesus’ foundational rock to a stumbling stone, from Peter to Satan.  He has disappointed Jesus in the most profound way. What a punch in his spiritual and emotional gut from this man he loved so much that he left his family and work behind to follow.

That’s the perspective I’ve always had on this passage. Maybe it’s because it matches what I expected from myself and from Jesus.  I have those moments when I think I’ve got this faithfulness thing figured out, and I try to live it out, and then I do something stupid that shows I’m not as on it as I thought.  I find myself thinking less than pastoral thoughts about the person who’s poking along in the passing lane.  I have a hard time forgiving the person who has hurt me.  I am all-too-willing to pass judgment on those I disagree with.  And, I imagine standing in Peter’s sandals and Jesus telling me that I, too, am a stumbling block to him—Satan personified.  And that hurts. A lot.

But then, my perspective began to change.  I started seeing something else in this passage and in Jesus’ words.  It started with the word “Satan.”  Poor Peter—to have Jesus call him that must have broken his heart. But, maybe Jesus wasn’t so much saying that Peter had become Satan, as recognizing Satan the adversary’s presence and that he was trying to capitalize on Peter’s limited understanding and his love for Jesus.

It seems to me that Satan works harder when someone is experiencing growth in their faith.  So no sooner than Peter has this great truth about Jesus revealed to him, Satan rushes to derail him. Just as Satan had tried to tempt Jesus in the desert, now he tries again through Peter.  In the desert, Satan tempted Jesus with power and riches and human adoration—earthly things that would prevent him from carrying out his divine mission.

He tries the same tactics again through Peter, setting Peter’s mind on human things rather than divine things—the political power and military might of the traditional Messiah, and safety and security for his friend rather than the power of self-giving love. The Gospel of Luke concludes the desert temptation story with these chilling words: the devil “departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.”  Maybe this is one of those opportune times. Just as Jesus marks Peter as the rock on which Jesus will build the church, Satan turns Peter into a stumbling block designed to trip Jesus up.

And what does Jesus tell Peter to do?  He doesn’t tell him to get lost.  He doesn’t banish him from his circle of disciples.  He tells Peter to get behind him.  The idea of being behind Jesus would have carried a special meaning in that time and place. Jesus is a rabbi.  Peter is a disciple.  The traditional place for disciples was literally walking behind their rabbi.  In fact, there is a saying about faithful disciples: that they are covered in their rabbi’s dust.  It comes from an old Jewish saying from the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish writings from 200 BC to 200 AD and still in use today. The image suggests that disciples follow their teacher so closely, that they are literally covered in the dust that rises from each footstep.

But it also means that they are figuratively covered in their master’s dust—that they are always in the sphere of his influence, always listening to his teachings, going where the rabbi goes, doing what the rabbi does.  So, when Jesus tells Peter to get behind him, perhaps what Jesus is telling him to do is to return to the place where he can again focus on the things that Jesus is teaching him, where he can change his perspective and set his mind on divine things rather than human things.  Being told to go behind Jesus is an invitation to be covered in the dust of the Messiah—to follow Jesus as Jesus had invited him to do when Peter was first called along the Sea of Galilee.

This makes sense because immediately Jesus begins to teach the disciples what it means to be covered in his dust.  It means denying themselves and taking up a cross.  It means claiming a new vision of life, and being willing to give anything for it.  It means living the life that this humble Messiah lives and teaches.  This is the dust Peter and the disciples will be covered in, when they get behind Jesus.

When are those times when you become a stumbling block to Jesus?  Perhaps it is in those moments when we judge those who live differently, love differently, or believe differently as being outside God’s grace.  Perhaps it is in those moments when we are offered a choice between serving others and serving ourselves, and we choose ourselves.  Perhaps it’s in all those moments we use for everything under the sun except for spending time in prayer and reading the Word. Maybe we become a stumbling block to Jesus when we become a stumbling block to others, acting or speaking in such a way that others, knowing we claim the name Christian, can’t see a Christ they want to know.

Satan may try to influence us as a community as well.  He can set our minds on human things—on the state of our bank account or what kind of shape the building is in.  He can make us envious of what other churches have, and blind us to what we have.  He can keep us sorrowful over what used to be, instead of excited over what may come to be.  He can make us forget that God has always looked to the small and powerless to do great things.  Satan makes us forget that, in the words of Paul, “God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful.”  Satan loves to fix our minds on human things and distract us from God’s divine workings.

Jesus knows this can happen.  Jesus knows from personal experience what temptation is like. He can see when Satan is working to change us from being living stones into stumbling blocks.  And when Jesus sees this happening, he calls it out. And then he invites us back.  He invites us back to a life of faithfulness and service and cross-bearing in his name.  He invites us to get behind him and allow his dust to cover us once again.

Just as our perspective determines what we saw in the picture, our perspective determines how we read this story.  Our perspective determines whether we see the story as being about Peter being labelled as Satan, or one about Jesus’ deep understanding of how Satan tries to undermine God’s mission in the world by focusing our minds on human things rather than divine things. Our perspective determines whether we read this as a story of Jesus’ disappointment in one disciple or a story of his teaching all his followers what true discipleship demands.  Our perspective determines whether we read this as a story of rejection or a story of invitation—an invitation from Jesus to take our place behind him and follow him.

It all depends on how we look at the story.  It all depends on how we look at our story.  It all depends on the perspective we have when we get behind Jesus and follow him as his disciples. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young