Peter has a Bad Moment: a Note for the Parishes in Central Exeter

Proper 17A. For the Gospel: Matthew 16.21-28

This morning’s gospel belongs very closely with the gospel story we heard last week. Last week, you may remember, we heard Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter’s response—what we sometimes call his “confession”: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. To which confession Our Lord said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” 

So far, so good. But what does it mean to be the Messiah? What does it mean to be Son of God?  This, the evangelist tells us in the section appointed for this morning’s gospel, is what Jesus now proceeded to show his disciples. It would not be the triumphal progress for which I dare say they were hoping—I know that’s what I would have been hoping. No, it would be something quite contrary to that.

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Peter, very understandably, is appalled by this. 

“And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

This is a terrible moment. No one else (other than Satan himself) is called “Satan” in the entire gospel narrative: none of those we might think of as its “villains”—not Caiaphas, nor Pilate, nor even the traitor Judas. For Peter alone is reserved the title “Satan”—“Adversary”!— for that is what the Hebrew word satan means. And indeed, Jesus’ “Get behind me, Satan!” must put us in mind of the “Away with you Satan!” with which he earlier dismissed his adversary at the time of his being tested in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry (Matt. 4.10).

Poor Peter! In almost no time at all, it seems, he has gone from hero to zero. “Stumbling block”! The Greek word is skandalon, whence we get our English word “scandal”. In Greek it is a very strong word indeed, and means “trap” or “snare”. So Peter, who had earlier been told that he was the “rock” upon which the church would be built, the church that would be stronger than the gates of Hades—that is, stronger than death—is now told that he is also another kind of rock—a rock that gets in the way and trips you up! Faced with what Paul called “the stumbling block” of the cross (1 Cor. 1.23) Peter has himself become a stumbling block. What on earth has he done to merit this terrible rebuke?

It is not so much that the ways of God are inscrutable, and therefore beyond Peter. Of course they are that, but we must not use that as an excuse to avoid what is actually quite straightforward—as straightforward in its way as the prophet Micah’s, “He has told you what is good— and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6.8). The straightforward essence here is that the way of God’s son, God’s anointed cannot be a way of triumph unaccompanied by pain, because (as Jesus pointed out to Satan in the episode that we call “the Temptation” [Matt. 4.1-11) it is the way of obedience to God, which is to say, the way of love. In this present world that inevitably means a way of suffering, greater or lesser. As C. S. Lewis said, “The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” Jesus’ love is perfect, and it will bring him to his cross. And he knows it. 

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”

Those who of us who want to follow Jesus—and I stress, as does the evangelist’s Greek, “want to (θέλει)”: for it is always a matter of our free choice—those of us who want to take that path must do our feeble best to emulate such love in our own lives, doing what we can to take up and bear gracefully whatever “cross” is laid upon us, always remembering that the essence of true humanity is, as the old play has it, to “love thyself last” (Shakespeare and Massinger, Henry VIII III.ii.521). That is what it means to follow Jesus. That is why, when Jesus says, “get behind me” to Peter he is actually assigning him the place where we all need to be—in truth, the only place where we can be with any degree of either realism or safety: behind Jesus. And as close behind him as we can get! Then, when he comes in the glory of his Father to face us as our judge, we may by his grace be enabled to raise our faces to his and look into his eyes. God grant us that! Amen. 

Christopher Bryan