Well, you may remember a few weeks ago I said I might post the sermon I wrote for Homiletics, if I liked how it turned out. As my silence on that subject indicated, I was not very happy with the end result. But lo and behold, I had to write another sermon two weeks later, and I turned this one in on Friday. I'm much happier with it than I was with the last one, so I thought I'd post it.
The reading is Matthew 16:21-28, Jesus' infamous "Get behind me, Satan!" rebuke. Enjoy!
In the film Bruce Almighty, God gives a self-centered, down on his luck guy, Bruce, the powers of God. In one scene in the film, Bruce is trying to answer prayers, but there are vastly too many prayers for him to answer. Utterly overwhelmed, he chooses to reply to all the prayers with the same response: YES. In the next scene, we learn that a character who has prayed to win the lottery has finally won: “But get this, there were like 433 thousand other winners, so it only paid out 17 dollars. Can you believe the odds of that?”
What did all these people, the characters in the movie, think of God? Each and every one of them prayed to win the lottery; the joke in the movie is that, since they each got what they wanted, no one really wins. Obviously, each individual expected God to answer his or her specific prayer, instead of the prayers of all the other people who wanted to win the lottery. Each one wanted God to take care of him, to take care of her, without considering all the other people who wanted the same special treatment. In turn, these people were assuming that God was a God interested in solving their particular problems, without considering the needs of all people. Their own selfishness was projected onto their idea of who God is and how he acts.
In our reading for today, Jesus reveals to his disciples that he must go into Jerusalem, suffer, and die, and rise again on the third day. Peter, flush from his success in recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, now tries to scold Jesus: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus, however, who just a few verses earlier praised Peter, now sharply rebukes him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Jesus’ words are harsh, and sound even harsher coming on the heels of his praise of Peter and his promise of the keys of the kingdom. Indeed, this rebuke shows Jesus at his most sharp in the whole gospel story; clearly, Peter has made a grave error.
The heart of Peter’s attitude lies in his outburst to Jesus: “This must never happen to you!” Though we may wonder what Peter believes about the promised resurrection, it seems that he is primarily concerned with Jesus’ suffering and death. The disciples all know how volatile the situation is between Jesus and the church leaders; to go to Jerusalem would be to go into the lion’s den. And then: to see Jesus tortured and killed at the hands of the chief priests and scribes. It’s almost too much to imagine. The very idea of it is painful. “This must never happen to you, Lord!” We must never see someone so wise, so good, so truly great, the very Son of God, be treated this way. We can’t allow it. We won’t accept it. Peter cannot even restrain himself from telling Christ what to do, or rather what not to do. We might sympathize with him—Peter wants to protect the person nearest and dearest to him. He wants to save Jesus.
At first glance, Peter’s mistake in the Gospel of Matthew seems very different from the attitude of the people in Bruce Almighty. After all, those characters in the movie are just being selfish! All they want is a big payout in the lottery. Peter’s not like that—Peter is trying to protect the greatest gift God had given him, or any of us, the Messiah. Peter’s concern is truly a worthy one, even a holy one... isn’t it? “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter’s error is to be too human, even in the face of his recognition of the divine. Peter believes he understands what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, but he is shocked to hear Jesus’ foretelling of his own suffering and death. Peter is trying to force his own understanding of how God ought to work onto Jesus. He is being just as selfish as the people who expect God to help them—and only them—to win the lottery. Peter in the Bible, and the characters in the movie, are setting their minds on human things.
Although the characters in the movie are a caricature, we are often not much different. Of course, we pray for our personal fears, hopes, and concerns, and we are right to do so. But too often, that is all we do. We forget about the bigger picture, about God’s saving work for all creation, instead letting ourselves get stuck on the little personal problems we each face. Like Peter, we try to limit God’s saving work to just us, just the particular sphere we see every day. If Peter had his way, Jesus would never die for the sake of all creation; he would remain a teacher for this particular group of disciples, never truly doing what he came to earth to do. We, too, sometimes believe that God’s scope is the same as our scope. If we limit God to lottery tickets, or limit him to being a teacher, we don’t leave room for God to do God’s work.
Jesus has different ideas. And he doesn’t just leave Peter, or us, with a rebuke. In fact, as soon as he has spoken his harsh words to Peter, he immediately begins to answer the question that must have been on the minds of all the disciples: “Well, if Peter just got it wrong, what are we supposed to be doing? How can we follow a master who is walking into his own grave?” Jesus answers his disciples and speaks to us at the same time: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It is not enough to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God; true disciples must accept what that means and follow him, even as far as taking up a cross. It seems like madness, to fall into step behind a troublemaker on his way to execution; but it is only madness in the human way of thinking. For God, lowliness, humiliation, and death are the way of true greatness. Indeed, we must act in this way; because attending to the self, focusing on our personal problems, and expecting God to follow us causes us to lose our lives. It is only when we give up the self to Christ, and become part of his greater work, that we truly find life.
To make that sacrifice, to give up ourselves to follow Christ, necessitates that we also give up our ideas of who God is and how he works. We can no longer force God into a mold of our choosing; instead, we must accept that we are created and recreated in his image. When we allow ourselves to see God’s new and unexpected ways of working, we truly see Christ, the Son of Man, in all his glory. To do so, we must get behind him, letting him be the leader, following whatever path he might choose.