Jer 20:7-9 • Rom 12:1-2 • Mt 16:21-27
In a homily delivered at the time of the major political conventions in 2008, Rev. Paul John Nuechterlein, senior pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Portage, Michigan, took last Sunday’s Gospel (“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”) and this week’s Gospel and compared them to a political convention. It definitely emphasizes the shock of Jesus’ words that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly. . .and be killed.”
Last Sunday, Jesus had taken His disciples to Caesarea Philippi, one of the most politically charged towns in Palestine. There He asked them who others were saying He is, and then who the disciples themselves say He is. Rev. Nuechterlein said that Peter gave the nominating speech: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” As His political team, the disciples, especially Peter, are ready to flesh out Jesus’ plan. They expect Jesus to march on Jerusalem, pick up supporters on the way, choose His moment, say His prayers, fight a surprise battle, take over the Temple, kick Rome’s puppet leaders out of the city, be installed as king, and then finally kick the dirty Romans out of Palestine. That’s how God’s kingdom will come!
Today is Jesus’ acceptance speech, and it is a whopper of a surprise. Yes, Jesus admits, He is the Messiah, and here’s what the campaign is going to be like: 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.
It’s hard to over-emphasize that this was not what the disciples expected. It’s completely the opposite.
Shocked, Peter did his duty as campaign chair by pulling Jesus aside and saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Last Sunday, we heard Jesus compliment Simon by calling him the “Rock,” that is, the foundation of the Church. Today Jesus calls Peter a rock again, but this time He says that Peter is an obstacle. The word Matthew uses is skandalon, the root for our word scandal.
At one level a skandalon is a rock that we might trip over; thus Peter is still a rock but different from a foundation stone. At a deeper lever, skandalon designates an unavoidable obstacle that somehow becomes more attractive each time we stumble against it. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a type of skandalon for Adam and Eve. It was an obstacle to their possessing everything as their own in the garden, and the serpent managed to make the forbidden tree look attractive.
Jesus did not necessarily want to suffer and die. He would ask the Father to take this cup away, but He was obedient to the Father and loyal to the Father’s plan. Yet Peter’s urging Him to avoid this path was truly tempting. If it had not been, Jesus would not have reacted as he did by calling Peter “Satan” (a word meaning tempter).
Mark’s version of this event says that Jesus rebuked Peter. In Matthew’s version, Jesus does not reprimand Peter. Instead, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan, you are a skandalon to me.” This is not a rebuke; it is an instruction. Jesus is saying that Peter is thinking as a human being, not as God. “Get behind me” is an instruction such as a teacher would give. “Line up behind me, class, and follow me.” Jesus is taking the disciples to a new place and belief, and He needs for Peter to follow and not try to lead.
Jesus asked the ultimate question of Peter and the disciples, and He asks us how we find meaning in our lives. Matthew’s answer is that we find meaning by being willing to get in line behind Jesus and follow Him wherever He leads, even if it means ending up on a cross.
The heart of Christianity is to serve and to serve sacrificially. We cannot serve others and not be willing to sacrifice our lives on the crosses of our life’s journey. The sacrifice Jesus asks of us when He says that we must lose our life is not necessarily about death. It is about giving up our self-centeredness, our selfishness and our temptation to tell God to serve our needs.
Unfortunately, Jesus’ statement “Whoever takes up his cross and follows me” is often interpreted as, “This is my cross in life to bear,” without realizing that that attitude is individualistic and fatalistic. We don’t merely resign ourselves to suffering. Taking up the cross is an act of willing choice to follow Jesus’ plan even if and when it hurts.
We should serve God’s needs and the needs of the Kingdom. Giving ourselves to the Lord in just such a spirit of sacrifice is the only source for providing real meaning in our lives. If we want meaning, we’ve got to get in line behind the leader!
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.