Preached (via Zoom) at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 3o August, 2020.  Readings for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost:  Exodus 3.1-15, Psalm 26.1-8, Romans 12.9-21,Matthew 16.21-28



22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 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.”


From rock to block!


I recall one particular soldier who kept me busy during my ministry with the Army.   He was brave and very good at his trade, but he had a singular talent for getting into trouble with money, alcohol, and women.   As his sergeant told me, “Padre, that guy can go from hero to zero so fast it will make your head spin.”


That phrase “hero to zero” came to mind this week as I thought of Peter in today’s gospel.    Poor old Peter!  Last week, when Jesus asked the disciples “who do you say I am?”, Peter totally aced the exam.  “You are the Messiah,” he exclaims,”the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), to which Jesus basically says “Well done Peter, go to the head of the class!”   Jesus declares that Peter will be the “rock” on which he will build the church, which in the language of the creeds is the founding moment of the “holy, catholic, and apostolic church” that we are a part of, all because Jesus recognized that Peter was the hero needed to found and build the church.


How quickly it all changes!  Here we are just a few verses later in Matthew 16, and Peter goes from hero to zero in a heartbeat!   In Matthew’s gospel, this is the first time that Jesus predicts that he will go to Jerusalem and die there.  He describes his death (note the word “must” in 16.21) as an obligation, something he has to do.   For Peter, who has just identified Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed saviour of Israel, and who was doubtless raised on stories of Israel’s great military heroes from stories such as those in the books of Joshua and Judges, well, this is all a bit much to take.  Peter surely wants a Messiah who wins, not one who loses.


Peter doesn’t just challenge Jesus, he “rebukes” him, which in military terms is like telling the general, “sir, that’s crazy talk”.  So it is that Peter goes from hero to zero.    What he can’t recognize is that in telling Jesus not to go to Jerusalem and die, he is essentially repeating the temptation that Satan offered to Jesus in the wilderness to save himself from death, to which Jesus replied “Away with you Satan” (Mt 4.10).  Peter becomes an obstacle on Jesus’ road to Jerusalem, literally a stumbling block (scandalon), which literally means something you can trip over but it also means a trap.   Thus we can say that Peter goes not just from hero to zero, but he goes from rock (the foundation of the church) to stumbling block.  Hero to zero.  Rock to block.  Ouch.  Poor Peter.


All this background is necessary to help explain two ensuing phrases which give Christians a lot of trouble.  One is Jesus telling Peter that he is “setting his mind not on divine things but on human things”.  There is a temptation here, especially after hearing Peter called “Satan”, to think of an absolute division between heaven and b earth, so there’s  the divine, God stuff, and the earthly, human stuff, which is bad and maybe even demonic.     Call this way of thinking sacred versus secular.   At it’s worst, it’s sectarian thinking, making believers want to have as little to do with the human world as possible.   At it’s mildest, it makes us compartmentalize God, so that we only occasionally think of ourselves as Christians and disciples while going about our business in the real or physical world.


This confusion is made worse when we don’t properly understand what it means to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus.   These words as they are often understood can reinforce the sacred/secular divide and make is think that a life focused on divine things must be a joyless life of abstinence and suffering, like the lives of the early Christian hermits in their hair shirts.    Which is all very strange when we remember that Jesus in the gospels went to weddings, visited the homes of people he loved, ate and drank with friends and was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard.    It all seems very hard to reconcile.


What if we didn’t have to think in terms of a faith that called us away from our earthly lives, but which instead enriched them?   What Peter doesn’t understand is that Jesus must go to Jerusalem not only to die, but also to live  (“and on the third day be raised” 16.21).   The cross that Jesus calls us to is thus not life-destroying but life-giving.  The cross gives us eternal life, but it also gives us life in the day to day of our lives.  Our reading from Romans 12 gives us a good sense of what that life looks like:  rejoicing, blessing, befriending, companionship, all in the company of others.   The self that has to be denied in that life is the self that gets in the way of these things – cursing, hating, grudge-holding, pettiness, hatefulness, hoarding, and selfishness, fear and bigotry and racism.   No one wants to be that guy!   These are all the dark things that we need to take to the cross and give to God so that we are free to live the way God wants us to live.


This calling sounds like a life worth living, like our best possible life, and it is!  It’s what I called in an earlier sermon our vocation, our calling as disciples of Christ.   But what if we slip up?  We are, on occasion, selfish, we are constantly tempted to put our needs before those of others.   What if we, like Peter, go from rock to block, from hero to zero?  Because we probably will, on any given day.   In which case, God will say to us, as he says to Peter, “get behind me”.   Jesus never says “Get away from me”.   He only says that to Satan.  He won’t say that to us. Getting behind Jesus means retaking our rightful place as a disciple, as a follower.  Following Jesus means that we won’t get lost, and we don’t want to be lost, because Jesus is taking us to our best life.




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