Sermon by the Rev. Andrew S. Rollins
Sunday, August 31 (Proper 17A)
Text: Matthew 16:21 - 27
Title: “Peter’s Mistake”
I’d like to first approach this reading just as it stands in Matthew’s gospel. Then, I’d like us to consider this story as a congregation awaiting the arrival of a hurricane and (maybe) fearing what the weeks ahead could hold.
Two Strands of Prophecy
This gospel reading is the second half of an episode that is usually titled “The Confession at Caesarea Philippi.” In this scene, Jesus is teaching his disciples who he is. He’s revealing his true identity. And he chooses to explain that identity in terms of two strands of Old Testament prophecy. Over and over again in the gospels, we hear Jesus explain who he is and what he is doing in terms of the Old Testament.
The first strand is the prophecy that God would send a
Messiah to lead
But the second strand of prophecy, which Jesus brings out
into the open in today’s reading, is more problematic: From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to
Already in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been identified with
the Suffering Servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah (8:17): He is despised and rejected of men; a man
of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from
him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not (53:3). As promised, God was
going to bring victory to
That’s what Jesus was teaching his disciples at Caesarea
Phillipi: “God has sent a Messiah, as promised. I am that Messiah, that Lord,
that King. But instead of coming like Caesar, I’ve come as a Suffering Servant who
must go to
Peter Helps Jesus
Now, watch carefully Peter’s mistake. Peter is going to help.
When Peter heard these words, he took Jesus by the elbow and began to rebuke him: God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you. Peter was so forceful in his objection to what Jesus was teaching that Jesus turned on him: God behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
Poor Peter. He was only trying to help. He was only trying to save Jesus. He only meant to spare him from suffering. But he really sticks his foot in it. Jesus tells him that he has interfered in the larger purposes of God and has, in fact, made things worse.
There was suffering from which Jesus could not be spared. There was a cup that was not going to pass from him. If Peter had listened to Jesus’ teaching, he might have understood that Jesus saw the suffering that lay ahead for him as a part of God’s plan, a larger plan that stretched back to the Old Covenant and would make possible the New Covenant. “God forbid” was just the wrong thing to say!
Jesus did ask his disciples to eat with him, to listen to him, to walk with him, to be with him. Later, Jesus will ask Peter to watch and pray with him. But Jesus never asked his disciples to save him. Peter flunks active listening here. He might have given Jesus a moment to explain: “Lord, could you say a bit more about that?” But at the moment when he most needs to shut up and listen, he demands that the Master not only hear him, but abandon precisely what Jesus knows he is called by God to endure.
There is some suffering that we Christians know we’re called to endure. We know that there will be suffering in the life of every single Christian that is somehow within the will of God. Jesus clearly taught that. Every Christian, without exception, has a cross to bear. What I am saying is that there is suffering that we cannot remove. You cannot fix everything, Peter.
Time and time again in the New Testament, suffering is described as a normal part of the life of every believer. In fact, one of the great features of Christianity is that our suffering is given meaning. God can sanctify our suffering – make it holy. When we join in the sufferings of Christ, we’re brought closer to God. The apostle Paul wrote extensively on this subject: . . . we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:17). . . . we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance . . . (Romans 5:3). Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join me in suffering for the gospel . . . (2 Timothy 1:8). Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good (1 Peter 4:19). Through Christ, none of our sufferings are wasted. No suffering is pointless or beyond God’s ability to redeem. We are never closer to Christ than when we bear the cross. In Christianity, suffering is holy ground, so we must tread carefully.
There is some suffering that we cannot fix. Peter could not fix Jesus’ suffering. Jesus never asked him to.
What I’m Not Saying
I realize I may be misunderstood here. As our bishop is fond of saying, “Please don’t hear what I’m not saying.” I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work to alleviate people’s suffering. Jesus was clear that his disciples were to clothe the poor, feed the hungry, give water to all who thirst, to house the poor. At the announcement time today, I will appeal to us ask us to house evacuees, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the poor, heal the sick. The church is called to lead the way in those efforts.
What I am saying is that we shouldn’t make Peter’s mistake. We must approach people’s suffering with reverence. We have to listen with ears that are open to the Spirit. When we stand with someone who is suffering, we’re on holy ground. We must not thoughtlessly interfere in other people’s lives. It’s dangerous to play ‘amateur providence’ (O. Chambers), to blunder clumsily onto holy ground. Peter completely missed that.
There’s the sort of help that alleviates the suffering in people’s lives as God guides you. Then there is a sort of help that is, as Jesus said to Peter, a ‘stumbling block.’
I’ll Help the Hell Outta You!
This is a hard lesson for those of us in helping professions. We got into this to help and, no matter what anyone says (even Jesus), this is our moment to shine! I see someone suffering and I immediately think, “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you!” I’m gonna help the hell the outta you!
Does that sound too harsh? Please remember that some of us are born fixers. We came out down the chute this way. We are like this, not so much as a virtue, but as a fixed feature of our personality. We must fix situations. We see someone suffering and we can reflexively put ourselves between that person and God’s larger will for them.
This sort of helping comes (as my boys say) from the Dark Side. Here’s how it works: I don’t want you to suffer because your suffering makes me uncomfortable. So I will fix your problem (Please don’t interrupt). I will give you five easy steps to fix your problem. If I can fix your problem, then I don’t have to stand and suffer with you. That sort of helping is not a virtue, nor is it led by the Spirit.
There’s Help and There’s Help
There’s help and then there’s help. Sometimes I arrive home at the end of the day and Jeanie says Maggie’s been helping her all day long. Maggie (2) is at the stage where she spends each day pulling things out of every drawer she can get her hands into. And the harder Jeanie works around the house, the harder Maggie works, because she imitates everything she sees. She’s helping.
That’s a two year old. But in the weeks following Katrina,
those involved in recovery met many adults who made Peter’s mistake. They
wanted to help. In fact, they had to help. I remember receiving a phone message
from a helper in
What You’ve Learned by Suffering
In the days ahead, we are all going to have to work extremely hard to alleviate the suffering that I fear will surround us. But let’s not make Peter’s Mistake. Let’s approach people’s suffering with open ears, and with reverence.
As Christians, we cannot say, “It is never God’s will that anyone should suffer in any way.” That is not Christianity. Christianity teaches “take up your cross and follow me.”
Sometimes people are given a deep sense that God has accomplished so much through a trial that they are loathe to suggest that it should not have happened. People endure great suffering and say, “But you know, I wouldn’t change a thing, even if I could.” They are given a deep understanding of their own suffering. We should not be too quick to promise that we will fix what is beyond what God has allowed us to change.
Consider what has been made yours through suffering? What sort of person would you be if you had never suffered through any of the circumstances of your life so far? The foundations of your adult faith were laid in suffering. Your relationship with Christ is strong because He has walked with you through suffering. God has sustained you through everything.
So in the days ahead, let’s not make Peter’s mistake.