Aug. 27, 2017

Matthew 16:13-20

Romans 12:1-8


I’m thinking that we’re probably inclined to hear in Peter’s response a rare victory for the disciples, a moment of clarity and understanding from Peter who otherwise generally doesn’t quite grasp who Jesus is or what exactly he’s up to. In fact, I’ve heard many thoughtful sermons based on this premise: Peter gets it right!  He understands.  Jesus is his savior.  He’s the savior.  The very son of God…  Now, who is Jesus to you?

Not a bad question for us to consider.  Do we act as if Jesus is our Messiah – really and truly the Son of God?  Do we allow him the impact on our lives (our priorities, our thinking, our acting) that a true savior might have?

Again, these are good questions, but they aren’t the direction I’m moved toward as I read this passage.  In part, that’s because I read beyond our passage.  As you may know, the biblical text doesn’t specify where you should stop and start.  The original Greek doesn’t even have chapters and verses, so just because the lection stops doesn’t meant that the author’s thought stops.

Anyway, after sticking the landing with his answer to Jesus’ question and receiving Christ’s remarkable reply that Peter will be the rock on which Christ’s church is built, Peter once again moves bravely forward into that familiar m.o. of not quite getting it.  Jesus affirms that he’s the Messiah and then explains how as the Messiah he will go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed and on the third day be raised.   Though that “being raised” part should count as a positive, it’s clear that none of the other parts of the plan sound good at all to Peter.  That’s not at all what Peter has in mind for his Messiah, and he pulls Jesus aside and lets him know it.  Then comes a line that many of us likely know: “Get behind me, Satan… You are setting you mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Those, of course, always strike us as rough words from Jesus to a friend, but as I hear them with today’s passage in mind it makes Christ’s affirmation of Peter all the greater.   Notice, he doesn’t take away those keys to the kingdom that he had just given to Peter.  He doesn’t tell Peter that he’s changed his mind, or that Peter’s lack of understanding has just gone too far.  Rather, it’s that his promise still stands.  It’s that Jesus gives the keys to imperfect people.  It’s that Jesus doesn’t need his people to always understand, to always get it right, to be more than who they are.  He needs people like Peter –  normal, everyday people who are willing to step out in faith, and then step out again.

So again, rather than this passage representing a victorious moment for the disciples, I would suggest that it represents a victory of grace and the promise of a God who as Paul puts it, “uses what is weak in the world to shame the strong, and what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”  We have a counterintuitive God, a God of the cross, whose victory is never determined by the victory of our expectations.  We have a God whose grace works in humbling, usually surprising ways.

The Christian Century recently hosted a contest where readers were invited to share their brief reflections on the theme of surprise.  The winners got published, and I thought I would share this one reflection with you.

On a hot afternoon, I head into church to help with the food bank. I do it with ill grace.  Something’s awry in my gut, and I’m not sure what.  But I don’t feel unwell enough not to go, and I remind myself that last time I arrived at the food bank tired but left reinvigorated.  The physical work recalibrated my sluggish system.  Our guests’ needs were basic and imperative, their gratitude warm and unfeigned. 

            Today I feel empty and fearful.  The congregation is relatively new to me, and walking through the door I’m never sure I’ll know the people there.  Will I have to explain who I am again?  Or will they remember me while I draw a blank on their names?

            I arrived at this church rather intuitively, in a frantic search for solace after my husband left me.  He was and is a pastor, and I had been happily part of his congregation for nearly 15 years.  When the separation happened, I flailed about, trying to discern where to go next.  The congregation seemed paralyzed.  No one told me to leave; I opened the door and saw myself out.  I felt rather Hagar-like, squinting in the oppressive desert light: the church the official wife and I the lesser one.  To leave a congregation I knew so well and then learn to navigate the complex relationships within a new place – sometimes this all seemed too much to handle.

            I enter the cool basement of the church.  As soon as I do, a young girl I have met only once hurls herself toward me, putting her arms around my waist.  Last time we served coffee and cookies together, and she is looking forward to working with me again.

            At home later, I read an email from a young friend, someone I worry about.  We’re setting up a coffee date, and because of my strange inner ache, I have been putting her off.  She’s fine with that but, in the meantime, is there somethings she can do for me (she asks)?  I feel less like the despairing Hagar than the one who hears God suddenly ask, ‘What is the matter, Hagar?’ while pointing out the well nearby.

            I remember being surprised, years ago, when someone – surely my husband – told me that repentance is not explicitly about smartening up, toeing the line, or offering up heaps of shame.  Repentance is, first, about turning.  Sometimes the turn is started for us, and all we have to do is pivot with it.  Undue fear and excess melancholy may not seem like big sins, but I have come to see them as obstacles that can lead us away from God.  An embrace from a child I hardly know, a single sentence of grace from an unexpected source – I would have thought that the gap inside me would need a bigger patch.  But later that day, when I think to inspect my inner damage, I find the wound still there but the ache nearly faded.[1]

“I would have thought that the gap inside me would need a bigger patch.”  That’s a great line.  Where else but in God’s kingdom, in God’s counterintuitive way of redemption, would the enthusiastic  embrace of a mostly-unfamiliar child and the thoughtful concern of a friend whom you are mostly trying to avoid be the salve that brings life back into your life?  Where else but in God’s kingdom do you go out to serve and find that it’s you who’s been blessed?

Last week Eleanor Ramey shared with us an article by Cindi Bigelow of Bigelow Tea who expressed a similar message as she described her participation in her church’s annual Appalachia Service Project trip with the youth group.  She writes, “The beauty of ASP is that you see the transformation in these students almost immediately.  They come to Appalachia set in their ways, hanging with this particular group or that one, but by mid-week everyone is smiling and including others in their photos and activities.  Barriers meld down.  We tell them, ‘See who you are today, here in West Virginia, and bring that person back to Fairfield County.  You can be kind and loving to everyone.  No ranking, just acceptance.’”  By the way, she notes that this discovery is important for CEO’s and just about everybody else too – not just youth.

We heard Paul, in the Romans passage, talking about the gifts of faith.  Faith has been portioned out differently to each of us, but God’s purpose in doing it has nothing to do with making anyone special or more important than another.  Rather, these gifts are given so that we can make others special.  They are given for the building up, the healing, and the blessing of others.  In God’s upside-down way of doing things it is in the blessing of others that we find ourselves blessed.


[1] Sue Sorensen, The Christian Century, June 7, 2017, page 22.