America’s two major political parties have now held their conventions for 2020, meaning that for the next sixty-five days, we’ll be hearing both nominees tell us things that they and their “handlers” think we want to hear: things that will vindicate us in our desires and ambitions, maybe in our fears and prejudices. Political campaigns are rarely times when we’re told either hard truths or true promises.
Today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 16:21-28, shows us that Jesus never took the advice of political “handlers.” Otherwise, He wouldn’t have given the hard truth or true promise He delivers to us today.
Let’s set the scene. The Gospel lesson continues a conversation we began to consider last Sunday. In it, Simon, the son of John, confesses that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Because it’s on this confession of Jesus as both God’s anointed King, in the world to make all things right, AND God the Son, that Jesus will build His Church and His Kingdom, Jesus gives Simon a new nickname, Peter, Petros, meaning Rock. All who can confess Jesus as their King and God have new and everlasting lives with God. Their lives are built on the strong rock of God’s grace that gives forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who trust in Jesus.
In today’s lesson, Jesus explains to us what it means to have Him as our Messiah (or Christ) and King. “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matthew 16:21)
But this isn’t what Simon, the Rock of faith, or the other disciples had in mind at all. And it isn’t the sort of thing that Trump’s or Biden’s handlers would advise their candidates to say.
Nobody wants a Savor King, a Christ, Who suffers and dies, even if death is followed by a promised resurrection.
We want Messiah Saviors who are going to make our lives smooth and easy, who will save us without telling us to give up our sins, selfishness, greed, envy, gossip, adultery, idolatry, and prejudices.
We want glory without a cross, forgiveness without contrition, resurrection without crucifixion, new life without the death of our old sinful selves.
But, Jesus is saying that’s not how the Kingdom of God comes into our lives. If even the sinless Lamb of God must die in order to fulfill His mission in life, how much more must we, who are sinners, die to sin in order to share in Jesus’ eternal kingdom?
Peter's reaction to Jesus’ words is immediate and forceful. “‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’” (Matthew 16:22)
It’s here that Jesus gives Simon a new nickname. Thundering with anger, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:23)
In the blink of an eye, the foundation rock, Peter, has become a stumbling stone, an impediment trying to prevent Jesus--just like Satan had in the wilderness--from fulfilling His mission.
That mission is simple: To offer His sinless life on a cross, paying the price for our sin, so that all who follow Jesus rather than the call of sinful human concerns, will be raised from the dead with Jesus.
We’re to stop getting in Jesus’ way with our sinful desire for the worldly successes and victories of this dead world and, instead, get behind Jesus and follow Him through cross and resurrection.
Jesus clarifies His call in this way, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
What exactly does Jesus mean here?
Years ago, a group of pastors approached a colleague, who served a small inner-city church, about becoming bishop for their church body. The pastors had long been impressed by his faith, his teaching and preaching, his servant heart, and the way the love of Christ was seen in him. After they’d made their pitch, the inner-city pastor said that he couldn’t be a bishop. He explained that his wife suffered from a debilitating condition and his adult son had developmental issues. Both needed his care. Surely, his colleagues insisted, he could enlist help.
The pastor felt in that moment as though he was being accosted by Satan, being given an easy path away from his call as husband and father so that he could chase the glories of the world. He didn’t cave.
He could, he told the group of pastors, get more help for his wife and son and he might need to do so sometime. But for the foreseeable future, he believed, God was calling him to be with his wife and son. He couldn’t delegate the life to which God had called him to anyone else.
Keep in mind that this pastor’s cross wasn’t his wife or son. People today misuse Jesus’ words from today’s lesson when they describe the adversities of life as their crosses. No, this pastor’s cross was the satanic allure of forsaking his call to follow Jesus in order to gain the rewards of the world, the sin all of must confess, of wanting this world more than we want the crucified and risen Jesus.
That pastor was ultimately able to refuse what the world would regard as a promotion because following Jesus goes by way of the cross, the way of crucifying the old self “with all sins and evil desires,” as Martin Luther puts it in The Small Catechism, so “that the new person [can] come forth every day and rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
With what easy pathway is Satan tempting you today?
You married folk, is there someone else in your life who’s new and exciting, someone with whom you’ve never had an argument over bills or purchases, kids or childcare?
Young people, is there an easy way for you to cheat on your tests and get the good grades you think will unlock a great future for you?
Citizens, are there candidates offering easy solutions to hard problems, candidates telling you what you want to hear instead of what you need to hear?
The world is filled with Satan’s siren call to the easy way. But the easy way is a stumbling block to following Jesus and the life He gives to all who trust in Him.
There’s only one way to life with God. It’s the way that Jesus speaks of today: the way of daily repentance, that is, daily turning away from sin and daily turning to Jesus for the forgiveness of sin that brings new life from God.
This is the way of daily burying our sinful selves so that our new selves can face each new day free from sin, guilt, and the shifting standards of an unforgiving world.
This is the way of taking up our crosses and following Jesus, “the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
May Jesus be the Way we follow today and always. Amen