The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Yvonne Amanor-Boadu, Deacon

Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

 

 

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus begins to tell his disciples about what lies ahead for him; it is the first time in his ministry that he tells them that soon he will go through great suffering, that he will be killed, and after three days he will be raised from the dead. And they, understandably, can’t wrap their heads around it. Peter even rebukes Jesus – this strikes me as having a lot of nerve; I can’t imagine rebuking Jesus. But he’s Peter, and so he does. And he says, “God forbid it, Lord!”. Peter hears the news about what God has ordained, what Jesus’ purpose on earth is, and he says, “God forbid it, Lord!”. What is interesting to me is that this passage comes in between two other moments where Peter either proclaims or witnesses the truth of Jesus as the son of God, but in this moment we see him really struggling with the implications of what this means. It’s something I can relate to.

Immediately before this passage, when Jesus asked the disciples “who do you say that I am?”, it is Peter who proclaims him to be the Messiah, the son of the living God. And in response Jesus tells Peter that his faith will be rewarded, that he will be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The keys to the kingdom of heaven. Pretty majestic language. And then right after this passage is the transfiguration, and Peter is right there and sees this dazzling version of Jesus and wants only to stay up there on a mountain with Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah. Who wouldn’t? But in this moment that we hear about today, falling between these two experiences, when Peter struggles to hear the news of Jesus’ upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus calls out Peter for setting his mind on human things, not on divine things.

I wonder, what are the divine things that Peter has lost sight of in this moment? In first century Judaism, there were many different visions of what a Messianic figure might look like; some were quite majestic, envisioning a future king, and others less so, picturing someone who would come in the role of prophet or priest, but most visions still carried some expectations of someone who would bring change, who would make things right by ushering in God’s justice. And Peter and the other Jewish followers of Jesus, living in the first century, would have had a picture of what it means to be the son of the living God, language that was used during this time to refer to Roman Emperors. So their expectations of Jesus at this point, their pictures of the divine, would not have included images of suffering and being put to death. But in his redirection of Peter’s thoughts, to what is divine, this is exactly where Jesus points him. So I think that in this moment Jesus is telling Peter that the divine is not only images of the majestic, but it is also the struggle of “take up your cross and follow me”. It is also lose your life so that you might find it. It is, put simply, love your neighbor, or even, as St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans today, “love your enemies.” God forbid it.

God calls us to do many difficult things. As Jesus reminds Peter, the call to set our minds on what is divine and not what is human, to take up our cross and follow Jesus, is a call to set aside our preconceived ideas about who God is, and go out there and meet God in our neighbor. One of my favorite writings by C.S. Lewis (besides the whole Narnia series) is an essay called, “The Weight of Glory”. In this essay, Lewis wrote, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” That means that the holiest object present to all of us in this moment, is the person next to us, in the next room, or down the street. The person we might see later today while we’re out walking the dog; the one who crosses our path who we know nothing about, and have nothing in common with. That is the holiest object before us. That is where Jesus redirects Peter to put his mind on divine things.

I know that it is hard for us in these times, under pandemic restrictions, to be shut off from our places of worship; we long for the ability to gather in our sacred spaces, to share in the Eucharist. And we should feel this way. These are vital parts of our spirituality, vital ways of connecting to the divine. But they are not the only ways, because there is also the care that we take of our neighbor. In that same essay, “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis says that the way that we care for our neighbor, the holiest object in front of us, should be “a real and costly love.” This is what “take up your cross and follow me” means; this is what “lose your life so that you might find it” means. It is not the love of an afterthought, not the time or the energy that we have left over when we do all the other things that are important to us.

We take up our cross and follow Jesus when we set out first and foremost to love our neighbor. When we give freely something of ourselves to take care of another. Again, this is a very hard thing to do these days; under pandemic restrictions, we can be, or feel, more limited in the kinds of actions we might take to care for our neighbor. A lot of these kinds of ministries have been turned upside down, and we’re still figuring out how to adapt them for our current conditions. It’s work that we must not give up on; the needs of the world have grown bigger in these months, certainly not smaller. And at the same time, we are also being challenged in these moments to hear hard truths in the voices of those who call for racial justice, and we’re challenged all the more by voices of hatred and division all around us. This has become so difficult, that sitting down to engage in conversation with someone we fundamentally disagree with, to really listen and understand them, may be an act of love that feels well beyond us these days. The ways that we need to stretch to figure out how to meet the needs of the world in this moment, how to continue to engage with others rather than simply giving up on them, these are the ways of costly love that we are called to at this time. And noticing the trepidation that we feel in thinking about this, maybe this is some small part of the way it would have felt to Peter, to hear that Jesus would willingly go toward Jerusalem knowing that it was the way of suffering and death.

But I want to bring our attention to one more point that I think Peter is missing in this moment that we read about today, and it’s actually the most important point. Because when Peter says, “God forbid it, Lord”, I’m pretty sure that he has in mind the things that he heard Jesus say about suffering greatly and being put to death, and not the things that Jesus said about being resurrected. I think Peter missed that point. And it’s the whole point; this is the promise that Jesus is making to Peter, and to all of us, in this moment. It’s what happens when we follow Jesus, when we put aside our preconceived ideas of who God is, when we go out there to find God in our neighbor, to love our neighbor, and not just the neighbor who is easy to love. At the end of this passage in Matthew, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” The way of Jesus is the not just the way of love, it is the way of a costly love. And it leads us all the way to the resurrection.