Sunday, August 31, 2014

31 August 2014 -- Proper 17

Proper 17 / 12th after Pentecost  — 31 August 2014
Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45 am

Track 2:  Jeremiah 15:15-21  |  Psalm 26:1-8  |  Romans 12:9-21  |  Matthew 16:21:28

[Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Last Sunday in the Gospel reading we heard how Jesus asked his disciples, “so – what do the people think about me?  Who do they say I am?”  And the disciples respond, “Well, a lot of ideas are floating around.  Some think you’re John the Baptist come back to life [John had just recently been executed by Herod Antipas], or the prophet Elijah returning, or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”  And Jesus then asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah!”  And then last week’s reading concludes, “[Jesus] sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”

Well, what’s that all about?  As you may be aware, this reflects what New Testament scholars have often called “the messianic secret,” which is most obvious in St. Mark’s gospel but is also followed by Matthew and Luke.  (It doesn’t appear in St. John – rather the contrary – but John is following a different narrative strategy.  But that’s another sermon, or lecture series, for another day!)  And it still doesn’t answer the question, “‘Don’t tell anyone’? – What’s that all about?”

And today as we read and hear the next eight verses, perhaps we begin to get a clue.  Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem – the seat of power – and suffer and die at the hands of power – and on the third day be raised.  The Gospel continues, “Peter [the one who had just said, ‘You are the Messiah!’] took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord!  [More literally, the Greek means ‘Mercy on you!’]  This must never happen to you!’  But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block [literally, ‘a scandal’] to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things [more literally, ‘you think not of God but of human beings’].”

“Get behind me, Satan!”  Well, that’s rude!  Come on, Lord, give the guy a break!  He just professed his faith in you as the Messiah! 

And that’s just the point.  Peter was wrong.  The reason Jesus ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah was that it wasn’t true.  At least not the way they would have meant it.

Perhaps we shouldn’t talk about the “messianic secret” but rather the “messianic denial.”

Well, yes.  You see, the problem was that nearly all the Jewish people in the late second-Temple period had a notion of what “the Messiah” meant.  There were some differences among their ideas, but they also had a lot in common.  And the disciples, including Peter, pretty obviously shared these ideas.  And they were all wrong.

And that’s the point Jesus is making with them.  “You do not know what you are saying!  So until you do, keep quiet!” 

“Get behind me, Satan!”?  Yes, exactly so.  Remember that after his baptism, when Jesus was in the desert on what we might call his retreat of discernment or his vision quest, Satan tempted him.  Not a temptation to abandon his vocation as Messiah, but temptations about what kind of Messiah to be:  temptations to be the kind of Messiah that everyone, yes, everyone, was expecting.  Magic.  Manipulation of public opinion.  Political-military power.  And Jesus said “No!”  But Satan didn’t give up, and now he returns in the mouth of Peter.

And this idea that the Messiah was to be a figure of earthly power—whether divinely or politically based – just wouldn’t go away, and it still won’t do away even today.  It has been speculated – a speculation, but I don’t think unreasonable – that the reason that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus was because Jesus wasn’t being the kind of Messiah Judas had been hoping for, and by setting up his arrest Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand.  And even after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Cleopas and (presumably) Mrs. Cleopas, on their way home to Emmaus, told the stranger they met on the road about “how our chief priests and leaders handed [Jesus of Nazareth] over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel [i.e., the Messiah.  But obviously not].”  [Luke 24:20-21] 

So now Jesus goes on to say to his disciples, in effect, “If you’re going to talk about me as the Messiah (the Anointed One; in Greek, of course, ho Christos, the Christ), then you need to get straight who God’s Anointed One really is.  So if you want to be my followers, you must deny yourselves” – Jesus isn’t talking about giving up chocolate for Lent!  “Denying yourself” is what you do publicly, maybe even in a courtroom, when you profess Jesus.  It is to put your life at risk before the powers of this world.  Peter, in the high priest’s courtyard, did not deny himself, he denied Jesus.  “Take up your cross” – this is not metaphorical.  In the first-century world, crosses were not symbols, much less decorations.  To take up the cross was to accept the condemnation of the powers of this world.  “And follow me” – we’re not going to Disney World, you know.  To follow Jesus is to follow him to Golgotha.

And to the Resurrection, certainly; but only first to, and by way of, Golgotha.

Many who claim to follow Jesus Christ appeal to their faith in their quest of power.  We did it in the fourth century, we did it in the middle ages, we did it in the Renaissance and in the Reformation, we’re still doing it today.  And I don’t just mean “those other folks,” I mean us as well.  And Jesus still says, “Get behind me, Satan!”