This morning we continue in a similar theme from last week. Since last time, Jesus has been traveling, healing both Jews and Gentiles, teaching, and generally ticking off the religious establishment. So you know, standard Jesus stuff. This morning we come back around to interactions specifically involving Jesus and Peter. Peter is an important guy in the stories of Jesus' life and ministry, not because he's better than anyone else, but because he's just like everyone else. He's just like us. We are supposed to see ourselves in Peter. He's enthusiastic in his desire to follow Jesus. He's genuine. He's curious. Sometimes he gets it right, and sometimes he doesn't. In this morning's stories we see him at his most insightful and also at his most oblivious. We see him getting it and we see him totally missing the point. But he's always there. Jesus keeps choosing him, keeps talking to him, keeps bringing him along for the important stuff, keeps offering him opportunities. Jesus honors Peter's desire and his raw potential. Jesus doesn't cut Peter out when Peter screws up. Because Jesus doesn't cut us out when we screw up. Jesus is not interested in our perfection; he's interested in our progress. And wherever Jesus sees progress, all he wants to do is try to help it grow.
"Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading: Matthew 16:13-23, 17:1-8 (NIV)
Narrator: When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,
Jesus: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
Peter: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Jesus: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Narrator: Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
Peter: “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Narrator: After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus,
Peter: “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
Narrator: While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
Jesus: “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”
Narrator: When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The highlight of our worship this morning is to be gathered around Christ's table. And on the weeks when we celebrate Communion, I usually preach a shorter message. So this morning, before we get to the table, I just want to point out to you a few things from this text that have been rattling around for me this week.
The first is that Jesus invites us to belief and faith. His question, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" is a question of belief. It's a theoretical question, an interesting theological debate. It is good for us to be grounded in reason and sound interpretation of the scriptures. It is good for us to think, to have mental, cognitive belief.
However Jesus also asks, "But who do YOU say that I am?" This is a question of faith, which does not mean accepting something that is scientifically ridiculous. Faith means trusting, like in a relationship. "Who do you say I am" is only a question you can answer if you know someone, or if at least you are trying to get to know them.
Now I'm not going to put a value judgment on this. I'm not going to tell you that faith is better than belief, that belief is incomplete without faith. But what this story tells us is that there is a blessing that comes when we have both belief AND faith. It is not until after Peter answers the question, "Who do you say that I am?" that Jesus gives him a blessing and a mission. When we embrace not only the theoretical but also the personal, something is unleashed in us. When we choose not only to know <head> but also to trust <heart>, we open ourselves up to the work that God wants to do not jus in us individually but through us in the world.
The second thing that stands out to me is what Jesus says to Peter after Peter rebukes him in the second part of the story. Peter recognizes Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus says the Messiah must suffer and die and be raised again, and Peter says, "No way. That can't happen to you." And Jesus replies, "Get behind me Satan."
Here's what's interesting. That's almost exactly the same thing that Jesus says to the evil one when Jesus was being tempted in the desert at the beginning of his ministry. (We missed reading that story together because our worship got snowed out that day.) The final temptation of Jesus in the desert was that the Evil One would give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would worship the Evil One. Jesus' response to that is "Get away from me, Satan." (which just means Adversary) And here Jesus says to Peter, "Get away behind me, Satan."
What these two situations have in common is the temptation to get around God's plan. One day Jesus will be recognized and honored by all the kingdoms of the world. In the desert, Satan offered him a shortcut and Jesus rejected it. Peter also tried to pull Jesus off the path by saying, "No don't do it that way." And Jesus rebuffed him in the same manner.
We talked a few weeks ago about how following Jesus leads us into abundant life, but that doesn't mean things are always going to be easy or simple. We follow a crucified savior. A risen one yes, but still crucified. This is part of what we remember during the season of Lent. Great love for God's beautiful and broken world may lead us to great personal sacrifice. We would much rather get around that and find another way. But if we follow Jesus, he will lead us straight into it and he will have a strong word of caution for anyone who says there's an easier way.
And finally, on the mount of Transfiguration, the three disciples have this amazing transcendent experience. They witness Jesus changed before their eyes and they see great heroes of their faith, Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Incredible. Peter's immediate response is, "Oh I'm gonna build some shelters!"
Now, scholars don't know exactly what Peter is referring to here. Likely he's talking about the tents that were used during one of the Jewish festivals. Here's the hitch: when God does something new, it might not fit in our old religious structures. My former pastor used to say that our organized religion is what happens in the wake of God. It's like God is a ship coming through and we're making rules in the waves left behind. God is already ahead of us, going somewhere else. If we get too invested in only one way of doing things, one style of preaching, one style of music, one style of praying, one order of service, one liturgy for Communion, we could miss what God is doing next. These tents Peter was talking about were designed to be moved around but he's talking about setting them up in one spot. He's missing the point. In order to be healthy, the church needs to be able to balance ritual and spontaneity, honoring the past and embracing the future, sometimes in the very same worship service.
We have these stories as invitations. The best thing we can do with them is not pick them apart, but put ourselves in them. Imagine ourselves as one of the characters and see what kind of wisdom that give us.
And so as we move to the table this morning, and as we make space for contemplation, here are some things to consider. Have you experienced both belief and faith? Who is Jesus to you today? Do you love only when it's easy or are you willing to love radically like Jesus even if it costs you something? And are you open to God doing something new in your life and in our life?
What a beautiful question to ask as we gather around this table. This ritual that we will never neglect because it is at the core of our identity. Since the beginning, our tribe, in its many different forms, has testified to God's inclusion by including each other in our eating and drinking. In the ancient world you would never sit down to table with someone who wasn't of your social rank. But our ancestors in the faith did just that. And so we keep doing it as a reminder to ourselves and all the world that no matter what anyone else says, this IS the joyful feast of ALL the people of God; and that one day people of all nations and all races and all orientations and all abilities and all ages and all political parties and all denominations will come from the north and the south and the east and the west and the resurrected Christ himself will set us a table in the bosom of the one God who is the mother of us all.