Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture Readings

Today’s gospel reading marks a turning point in the story of Jesus’ life on earth as recorded by Matthew. It should be read together with the gospel reading from last Sunday, as it continues that narrative while introducing a stark contrast.

Last week, the apostle Peter experienced one of the high points in his relationship with Jesus, when Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus responded enthusiastically by declaring Peter blessed for having received a revelation from his heavenly Father. This week, Peter has suddenly become an obstacle in Jesus’ path, earning a swift and sharp rebuke.

Simon Peter was among the first disciples to be called by Jesus. He has heard Jesus preach about discipleship and life in the kingdom of God. He has seen Jesus cure many people of diseases and other afflictions, and demonstrate power over the natural elements. He has witnessed Jesus’ concern for the suffering and his resistance to oppression. He has learned from Jesus how to pray.

Surely it was this last aspect, prayer, that enabled Peter to receive the revelation about Jesus’ true heavenly identity and to affirm that identity in a way that seems to have been important to Jesus. Jesus in response declares that Peter is the bedrock on which Jesus will establish his new community, and gives Peter the authority to demonstrate the will of God on earth.

Having confirmed his identity as Messiah among his disciples, Jesus now begins to clarify for them just what that means. Suffering and death were not on Peter’s agenda for this wonderful man who had come to mean so much to him, this man who had given Peter so much hope for himself and his people. Perhaps Peter also allowed himself to get a bit carried away by Jesus’ praise, and confused his own sense of how things should be with the authority he had when God spoke through him.

Peter might have recognized the prophet Jeremiah’s experience in his own: Your words were found and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name. Yet now: You are to me like a deceptive stream with uncertain waters.

As he had once walked on water with his eyes on Jesus and then began to drown when he noticed the storm around him, so Peter the foundation stone of the new community becomes the stumbling block for the community’s Messiah when he insists on his own understanding. Jesus recognizes the temptation in Peter’s concern for him and tells Peter that he needs instead to follow behind Jesus to be with him in all that he must endure.

Peter might have heard echoes of God’s response to Jeremiah’s complaint. If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth.

We need to learn to think as God thinks, not merely as human beings do, Jesus tells Peter and his other disciples and us. This will necessarily involve getting ourselves out of the way so that Jesus can take the lead and being prepared to allow all that is within us that resists God’s purposes for us to die if need be. It will involve the loss of our self-centredness and a willingness to hold lightly our sense of how things need to be. What God would bring to life within us is so marvellous that it is worth the often painful loss of all of our illusions about ourselves and others.

In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul indicates some of what might be entailed in this process of discipleship, this way of genuine love. Patience in suffering while persevering in prayer and rejoicing in hope. Living peaceably and in harmony with all as far as possible. Showing hospitality to those unlike us and associating with people who make us uncomfortable. Blessing and not cursing those who oppose us. Overcoming evil with good by feeding our hungry enemies and giving them something to drink when they are thirsty.

In his Rule for monks, St Benedict speaks of people who fear the Lord as those who do not become elated over their own good deeds, as they judge it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them. And elsewhere: We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.

Finally: Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.