God of the Cross (13th Pentecost - Proper 17A)
Matthew 16:13-28 (Common English Bible)
13Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Human One is?"
14They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets."
15He said, "And what about you? Who do you say that I am?"
16Simon Peter said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
17Then Jesus replied, "Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. 18 I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. 19 I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven." 20Then he ordered the disciples not to tell anybody that he was the Christ.
21From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day. 22Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: "God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you." 23But he turned to Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts."
24Then Jesus said to his disciples, "All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? 27 For the Human One is about to come with the majesty of his Father with his angels. And then he will repay each one for what that person has done. 28 I assure you that some standing here won’t die before they see the Human One coming in his kingdom."
“God of the Cross”
XIII Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17A)
Jesus said something curious at the end of last week’s Gospel reading. You remember that Jesus asks the apostles who other people say he is and then asks them who they say he is. Peter gives the powerful proclamation: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” This is a moment of triumph for the disciples, even if they fail to understand the implications of this truth.
Jesus congratulates Peter for his powerful faith. He says that only God the Father could have revealed this to Peter; God’s light has shined on Jesus’ band of followers. They will receive the keys to the kingdom and be endowed with authority to speak things into existence in heaven.
It is a remarkable, joyful turn of events. The disciples finally understand. They get it. Jesus’ teachings have gotten through their thick skulls and they are now ready to proclaim the Gospel of salvation to the whole world!
… Except that isn't what Jesus says or does. The story ends surprisingly and anticlimactically. “Then [Jesus] ordered the disciples not to tell anybody that he was the Christ” (Matthew 16:20, CEB).
Jesus, who we acknowledge today as our Lord and Savior, who we praise as the Word of God become human flesh, God from God, Light from Light -- this same Jesus had followers who knew he was the Christ, but ordered them not to tell anyone! Why would he ask them to hide their lamp under a bushel? Why make them act like salt without saltiness? Why would Jesus ever ask us to keep our mouths shut, instead of publishing glad tidings?
Well, our Gospel lesson today, which begins at the very next verse, is here to answer those questions.
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day. Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: "God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you." But he turned to Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts." (Matthew 16:21-23, CEB)
The disciples weren't allowed to tell others that Jesus was the Messiah because they didn't know what it meant to be the Messiah. They were stuck in what Martin Luther called “the theology of glory.” Remember that Christ and Messiah mean the same thing. They are the Greek and Hebrew versions of the word “anointed one”. The only people in that culture who were anointed were kings, like David. So to call Jesus the Christ and the Messiah is to call him King.
In the minds of the disciples, and most Jews, to be the Messiah, the Christ, was to save Israel both spiritually and politically. The Messiah was supposed to point people back to the Law, to reform and restore right worship in the temple, and to ensure that God’s prophetic word and judgments were heeded throughout the land. And to make this happen, the Messiah needed to release Israel from its bondage to foreign rulers.
The Messiah needed to be a second Moses who not only gave the Law, but also rejected and resisted Pharaoh, and led the Israelites out of slavery and out of Egypt. In Jesus’ day, Jews weren't lost in a foreign land. They had their ancestral homeland, but they didn't have freedom. So a Messiah should be a warrior-king, who unites the tribes and leads the faithful into battle against the Gentile overlords. “Kick out the Greeks and the Romans and let’s take our country back!”
To follow a Messiah like this meant glory. You would either die in glory in battle or live to see the glory of a Jewish king like David. Either way you were picking a winner because the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel was behind this guy.
But as we know, that isn't how the story ends. Even though God does love Israel and all oppressed peoples, Jesus did not overthrow Caesar. That's not the kind of Messiah that God chose to use.
Despite the expectations of God’s people, God’s Messiah did not come preaching a theology of glory. Instead, he preached a theology of the cross!
He had to undergo great sufferings and be killed and be raised on the third day. The Cross and Resurrection are at the center of the Gospel. We can't preach the Good News of Jesus without them. Without them, it seems like following Jesus is happy go lucky and pie in the sky. It's easy to believe that God is only on our side and only fighting for us. It's easy to believe that God is like a genie in a bottle who gives Christians anything they want so they can live their best lives now.
But the Cross forces us to reimagine everything we thought we knew about who God is. When we build our vision of God, the Cross must be at the center.
For without the Cross of Jesus Christ, we can forget that God loves the whole world and doesn't pick favorites. We can forget that our color, kin, and kind, and even our flag, aren't the center of the universe. We can forget that even our church has a much greater purpose than simply serving itself and making itself famous.
Jesus said, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24, CEB).
God’s Chosen Messiah suffered and died for the sake of the world. God’s love is sacrificial. It loves even when it hurts. It endures and it hopes and it knows that there is nothing to fear because God’s love and life conquer even death. That is the same love that God wants us to have.
Because with Jesus, we actually are on the winning team. It’s just that dying on a Cross looks like losing to the world. But in the resurrection, God assures us that death and violence cannot have the final word. So we are willing to give of ourselves for the sake of strangers in Houston who we’ve never met. We are willing to humble and embarrass ourselves if it helps another receive life. We are willing to lay down our swords and our guns because no one, not even the Romans, are beyond the reach of God’s love.
Jesus Messiah didn't resist the Cross. We did. We are so often like Peter, ignoring the writing on the wall and pretending we can have our spiritual cake and eat it too. But the truth is that God’s love rubs against the grain of sin and death. It can make the world angry in its rejection of the world’s sinful way of doing things. Following this Messiah means always placing the Cross front and center. May we never forget. Amen.