Between a Rock and the Devil

Matthew 16:21-28

Once upon a time there was a jester.  His job, of course, was to amuse the king, to tell him jokes and funny stories or even to find some comedy in affairs of state within reason.  Unfortunately, this particular jester loved puns.  Simply couldn’t resist them. “What did the grape say when it got crushed? Nothing, it just let out a little wine.”  “You should see my collection of candy canes.  They’re all in mint condition.”  “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”  That sort of thing. 

The king, for his part, hated puns.  Hated them.  And one day when there had been one pun too many he told the jester, “If I hear even one more pun out of you you’re a dead man.  I’m serious.  I’ll have you hanged.  Do you understand me?”  The jester could see that the king was serious,  so he simply said, “Yes, majesty. No more puns.  I promise on my life.”  

Just then the smell of smoke came wafting into the throne room through the open widow.  The jester looked out into the town and cried, “Oh no!  The bakery is on fire!”  Then without thinking added, “The poor baker.  His business is toast.”

The next morning as the jester stood on the gallows and the hangman slipped the rope over his head, a messenger came galloping up frantically.  “The king has decided to be merciful,” he called out to the jester.  “If you will swear never to utter another pun for as long as you live, he will spare your life.”

The jester looked out at the crowd who had come to witness his hanging, then with a wry little smile said, “Well, no noose is good noose.”  And that was the end of him.

I love that story because even with all its silliness it illustrates an important point about human nature:  we find it hard to change.  Even when the stakes are high, life-and-death high, we don’t like to change.  The jester in the story couldn’t bring himself to make a simple change even though his life was on the line.

We don’t like to change the way we do things.  And we are especially resistant to changing the way we think.  The way we think about ourselves.  The way we think about others.  The way we think about the world.  The way we think about God.

In this week’s gospel lesson, Simon Peter is having trouble changing his understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah.  Jesus had asked him, “Who do you say that I am?”  In a flash of insight, Simon Peter had responded, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”  That’s when Jesus in a play on words, a kind of pun, affirms that Simon is Petrus, a Rock, and that he will build his church on the petra, the bedrock of Peter’s confession.  

For a glowing moment, Peter is the star.  He had the right answer.  He’s A Rock.  But then things turn sideways for him. 

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.

This absolutely does not fit with Peter’s idea of Messiah.  Messiah may go to Jerusalem, but it won’t be to suffer and die.  Messiah, in Peter’s understanding, in is a conqueror.  Messiah will ride in at the head of an army, kick out the Romans, and restore the Kingdom of Israel.  Messiah will lead a revolution!  That’s how Peter understands it.  So he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

I can sympathize with Peter.  I think we all can, at least to some extent.  He had this picture in his head of how he thought things should be and how he thought they should go.  But it wasn’t what Jesus had planned, what God had planned. 

Peter needed to change.  He needed to change his understanding of Messiah.  He needed to change his understanding of Jesus.  He needed to change his understanding of how God was working.  He needed to change his understanding of how the world works.  He needed to change his understanding of himself and his role in what was happening. 

We don’t like to change.  It’s not just that we don’t like it, we have all kinds of ways of resisting it, especially when it comes to changing our ideas, our understanding of things, the way we think.

We have all kinds of ways of resisting information we don’t want to hear.  Often we immerse ourselves in echo chambers so we only receive information that is consistent with our way of thinking.  We only watch certain news channels, only read certain papers and periodicals.  Surround ourselves with social media friends who think like us and screen out those who don’t.  Some simply close their minds and refuse to take in any new or different information. 

And then there’s what writer Julian Sanchez calls Epistemic Closure.  He describes it this way:

“An ‘echo chamber’ just means you never hear any contrary information. The idea of ‘epistemic closure’ was that you WOULD hear new and contrary information, but you have mechanisms in your belief system that reject anything that might force you to update your beliefs.[1]

Peter needed to update his beliefs.  But he resisted.  He pushed back.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

It must have cut Peter to the heart when Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.  You’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  

 How often do we try to get Jesus to follow our plans instead of committing ourselves to him and his plans? 

I wonder sometimes if we—and by we I mean a large segment of white American Christianity—I wonder if we haven’t created an epistemic closure version of Christianity.  We call ourselves Christian because we believe certain things about Jesus—that he’s the son of God, that he died for our sins, that by his cross and resurrection he saves us.  And if someone challenges our claim to the Christian label because of the way we treat poor people or hungry people or immigrants, or people of color, or people of differing sexuality, or because of our infatuation with firearms, our because of our less than generous politics, or simply because we’re not really doing much to change the world into something that looks more like the kin-dom of heaven, we  crank up the defense mechanisms of our epistemic closure to shield us from any pointed new information or hard questions.  We point to the creed or our church attendance or our giving to certain things.  We point to particular passages in our Bibles.  We point to our baptism.  We point to our claim that we’re saved.

 We forget sometimes what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Jesus had to shock Peter into the fact that he needed a makeover of the mind, heart and spirit.  He had to call him Satan.  The cosmic opponent.  Lord, that must have hurt.  Going from Rock to Devil in nothing flat.  Jesus had to shock Peter to get him to simply stop believing certain things about him in his head and to get him, instead, to start following him with all his heart.

What would he have to say to you to get through your defenses?  What would he have to say to me?  What would he have to say to turn us from mere believers into followers who carry a cross?

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

There is so much in life that fragments us.  Not just things that fragment our unity with each other, but things that fragment our individual souls.  We try to wear layers of identities that don’t always fit well with each other.  The patterns clash.  They chip and chafe our psyches if we ever give half a thought to them.  It’s hard to love when you’re trying to hold the pieces of your soul together.  Better to let your self—your selves—fall away into the love of Christ.

That’s exactly what Jesus is asking us to do.  Deny ourselves—let go of our false selves—put down the beliefs and personas that don’t really fit well with the identity of follower of Christ.  And quit trying to make Jesus wear a costume that fits our ideas of who we might prefer him to be.  

Lay it all down.  Pick up a cross.  And follow.  That’s where we will find our lives, our souls, and be saved.  That’s where we will be made whole.  In Christ’s healing work.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] Julian Sanchez@Normative

Questions in the Key of Rock

Matthew 16:13-20

What was it like for them I wonder?  What was it like for the disciples traveling from place to place with Jesus?  Did Simon the Zealot argue with Matthew the tax collector every step of the way?  Who assigned the chores when they camped somewhere?  Was Jesus responsible for all that or did he delegate that job to someone else?  How many of them were there?  Was it  just Jesus and the 12 when they were on the road or were there more?  At one point Jesus sends out 70 on a mission; were they all part of the touring company or did that larger group stay behind at Capernaum?  Luke’s gospel mentions a number of women; did they travel with Jesus, too?   

Have you ever been to a place that both frightened and fascinated you?  A place that filled you with both awe and maybe a little bit of dread?

About ten years ago I was backpacking in the Sierras above Sequoia when we came around the bend of the trail onto a broad, open space of bald granite like a great, slightly sloping observation platform.  The view was nothing short of stunning.  In front of us the cliff dropped away into a yawning canyon that opened into an expansive valley.  Off to the north we could see all the way to Half Dome in Yosemite.  It felt like we were standing quite literally on the edge of the world.

As I said, the view was stunning.  And part of me wanted to stay there as long as possible just to soak it all in and marvel at the beauty of it all.  But another part of me was mindful of the sloping granite beneath my feet, some of it loose and chipped and slippery beneath my boots.  I was a good safe distance from the edge where the granite curved over then plunged into the emptiness, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was nothing that one might be able to grab onto if one happened to find oneself sliding toward trouble,  because, you know, life is uncertain.  Teenagers horse around.  People stumble.  And even geology hiccups from time to time.  A slight fear of heights makes you think about these things. 

So I was fascinated, but also a bit uneasy.

I imagine that’s how the disciples felt when they came to Caesarea Philippi.  

Fascinated but uneasy.

They’re in foreign territory, a little more than twenty-five miles from the Galilee.  They’ve walked there, of course.  And now here they are, good Jews, every one of them, standing on the hill overlooking the city, and the most dominant buildings they see are the temple to the god Pan and the temple to the emperor.  The divine Caesar.  

The temple to Pan was built around the entrance to a natural cave called Pan’s grotto.  It was also called the Gate to Hades.  Pan was regarded as a fertility god.  The pagans believed that the fertility gods slept through the winter in Hades then reemerged in the spring to bring new life to the world.  They believed that this grotto was Pan’s passageway to and from Hades, the realm of the dead.  Inside the grotto there was also a gushing spring—it was gushing in ancient times but now it’s barely a trickle—that was one of the sources for the Jordan river. 

What did the disciples think as they were looking at this assortment of temples to these other gods, these gods who were not their God, even a temple to the emperor—and the administrative buildings of the tetrarchy?   What did the disciples feel as they stood in this place confronted by the structures of religion and politics, but not their religion or their politics?

Did the ground feel, maybe, a little slippery under their feet?   Did they wonder if their nervousness might be the influence of Pan?  After all fear is Pan’s weapon; the word panic comes from Pan’s name.

And it’s here, confronted by strange powers—strange religion and strange government—that Jesus asks his first important question:  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Why would he ask that here?  Why now?  Why not back in Galilee where he’s been doing most of his teaching and working wonders?  Why now in this foreign place?  Is he trying to distract them from feeling so out of place?  Is he showing them what they’ll be up against later when they take the message of the kin-dom out into the wider world?  

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples make it clear that people are impressed with Jesus.  They identify him with the pillars of righteousness and prophetic justice in their tradition:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the other prophets.  They understand that Jesus is someone who is somehow extraordinary.  But how, exactly?

Who do people say that Jesus is?  It’s still an important question for us.  

If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, a representative of Jesus, you need to know how the rest of the world sees and understands Jesus, how they describe him, because that’s where conversation begins.  Who do they say he is?  You need to know that before you can make a good case for who you say he is.  

I imagine that Jesus thought a moment about their answers to his first question before he asked the next question: “But who do you say that I am?”

“You,” said Simon Peter, “are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  

The Christ.  The Messiah.  The Anointed One.  I can’t help but wonder how Simon Peter understood his own words.

In his Commentary on Matthew my professor, the late Robert H. Smith wrote: “As the reality of the Son overwhelms mind and senses, people try to get a handle on him by fitting him into some convenient slot like prophet.  However, the Christ or Messiah is not a prophet but the goal of prophecy, not another promiser but the inaugurator of the promised time.  As Son of the living God his is the bearer of the presence of God and acts in the place of God, not as a renewer of old traditions, but as agent of God’s fresh creative work, bringer of new heavens and a new earth.”[1]

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Do you call him the Christ, the Messiah?  Do you understand him to be not merely a prophet but the goal of prophecy?  The one who was prophesied? 

Is he for you the Son of the living God?  Does he bear the presence of God in your life?  Do you see him not as the renewer of old traditions, but as the agent of God’s fresh creative work, the bringer of new heavens and a new earth?

Or has he become for you the centerpiece of old traditions?  Do the titles of Christ and Son of God simply echo memorized lines from the creeds that get repeated without much thought? 

Jesus is asking us the same question he asked Peter, James, John and the others as they stood overlooking the monuments built to idols and government:  “Who do you say that I am?”

We hear that question as we stare out into a world devoted to those same distractions and others even more powerful:  “Who do you say that I am?”

And it’s oh, so tempting for us to leap straight to the answer we memorized, the answer we have heard all our lives, without really thinking about the question or what our answer means. 

If you, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then you are also acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of his church, the ekklesia established on the bedrock of that confession.  You are acknowledging that you have been called to participate in Christ’s fresh, creative work of making the kin-dom of heaven a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  You are acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of the beloved community and to live by the ethic of grace and generosity that guides that community. 

In 1989, President George Bush was entering St. John’s Episcopal Church to attend Sunday worship when he was stopped by a homeless man, William Wallace Brown, Jr. who simply asked the president to pray for him.  President Bush  replied, “No. Come inside with us and pray for yourself.”  From that day on William Wallace Brown, Jr. attended church faithfully. He would sit in the pews in his street-dirty clothes alongside the rich and powerful and always put a dollar in the offering plate even when that dollar was all he had.

William Wallace Brown had been invited to come in to the beloved community, to encounter Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And to him that meant everything.

This community, this church built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, is, in Robert Smith’s words, “well founded, not by human authority or ingenuity only, but by the exalted Jesus, Son of the living God.  This Jesus is not a figure of the past alone.  He is still present in the midst of the community, not as unseen observer only but with his authority and teaching.”[2]  

I would add that Jesus is still present with his love and compassion, and that these keys of the kin-dom will unlock the power in us to change the world.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Robert H. Smith, The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, pp.198-199; Augsburg Publishing House, 1989

[2] Ibid, 202-203

Don’t Be Afraid

Matthew 10:24-39

[Jesus said,]   “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 

26  “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.  28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna) 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 

32  “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;  33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 

34   “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 

35       For I have come to set a man against his father,

         and a daughter against her mother

         and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 

36       and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;  38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Standing up for what you believe in, standing up for the right thing, can cost you. 

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter dash in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they stood on the awards podium with their black-gloved fists raised in what the press called a Black Power salute to call attention to  the ongoing fight for civil rights in the United States.  Tommie Smith and John Carlos called it a Human Rights Salute.  Standing with them on the podium was the silver medalist, a white man, an Australian named Peter Norman.  Norman didn’t raise his fist but he did something else that brought down the whirlwind.   In solidarity with Smith and Carlos, he wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his uniform.  

After the race, Carlos and Smith had told Norman what they planned to do during the ceremony and Norman encouraged them.  They asked Norman if he believed in human rights.  He said he did.  Then Smith and Carlos asked Norman if he believed in God.  He said he believed strongly in God and that what they were about to do was more important than any athletic accomplishment.  And then he said, “I’ll stand with you.” On their way to the medals ceremony Norman saw the Human Rights badge being worn by Paul Hoffman, a white member of the US rowing team and asked if he could borrow it for the ceremony.  He didn’t feel it was appropriate to raise his fist because that particular symbol belonged to the people whose civil rights were being denied.  But he could wear the patch.

That moment of solidarity was costly for Peter Norman.  He never returned to the Olympics.  Back in Australia he became a figure of controversy and got somewhat lost in his own life.  “If we were getting beat up,” said John Carlos years later, “Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” says Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  In other words, if they’re going to call Jesus himself the devil, don’t be surprised if they call you worse.  

This comes near the end of a long  section where Jesus is sending his disciples out on their first mission to proclaim the Good News—remember the good news?  the Reign of God is arriving?—but  now he’s telling them that this Good News, this news that people have waited for for eons is going to be disruptive, and some people aren’t going to like that.  

People are funny.  We can pray week after week, day after day, year after year “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  But when it gets down to actually working to make that happen, people get cranky because then we actually have to change things—our politics, our religious practices, our structures and systems…even ourselves.  “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” makes a lovely needlepoint but it can turn everything upside down when you actually put it in practice, especially the do  justice part.

Don’t be afraid, says Jesus. Do not be afraid of opposition.  You know it’s coming so just face it.  If you trust me, if you believe in what I’ve been teaching, then live by it.  Proclaim it.  Act on it.  Shout it from the rooftops. What’s the worst they can do to you?  Kill you?

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna)

Okay, two things here, and I’ll take the last one first.  Hell.  Hell isn’t hell. The actual word here is Gehenna which was a valley just outside Jerusalem where all the city trash was dumped and burned, including the carcasses of dead animals. It’s not the Hell of popular imagination.  Think city dump.  So, fear the One who can toss your whole self into the trash heap.

The second thing:  Soul.  The Greek word here is psyche.  Soul is one translation.  It can also mean life.  In this context, though, maybe think of it as your true self.  Jesus is saying don’t be afraid of those who can only kill your body.  Save your fear for God who can completely undo you.  Remember in Isaiah chapter 6 where Isaiah stands before the throne of God and says, “Woe is me for I am lost.”?  The Hebrew word there which we translate as lost is nidmeti.  It can mean lost or silenced.  It can also mean unmade. It’s the same idea here. 

Fear the One who can destroy both body and soul.  Fear the One who can destroy your true self.  God is one of only two entities in the universe who can unravel your true self.  And, spoiler, God won’t.  God will not.  God loves you with a passion.  God may work furiously to reshape you, to rid you of poisonous thoughts, ideas and attitudes, to smooth certain rough edges, but God will not destroy you.  

God may, however, let you destroy yourself.  God loves you enough to give you free will.  And you are the only other entity in the universe who can destroy your soul, you should be careful and thoughtful with that gift.  

One of the reasons, I think, that Christ gives us the high honor and calling of announcing and building the beloved community is to help steer us away from the numerous rabbit holes of self-destruction we could dive into, and also to give us trustworthy companions for the journey of life.  But, to take us back to where we started, Jesus knew that doing this, announcing that it’s time for a systemic do-over, would bring opposition and confrontation.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” 

There’s a similar passage in Luke 12 where Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.”  I don’t think that Jesus is saying in these passages that he is intent on creating conflict.  I think he is simply acknowledging that conflict is inevitable when we proclaim the kingdom and work for it because the whole and healthy society that God envisions, the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God is very much at odds with business as usual in the earth of empires and economies.

There will be opposition.  There is opposition. And some of it is brutal.  That’s why Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Scholar and theologian John Howard Yoder points out that the cross was “the standard punishment for insurrection for the refusal to confess Caesar’s lordship.”  The phrase ‘take up your cross’ was commonly used by Zealots when they were recruiting.  It was a call to stand in defiance and opposition to Rome and the systems of empire that perpetuated oppression.  

But there was another dimension to it.  Roman citizens could not be crucified.  If a citizen was guilty of a capital offence, even insurrection, they would be beheaded.  Crucifixion was reserved for those of lesser stature, the invisible non-persons of the empire who opposed it.  “Take up your cross” was not just a call to stand in defiance of Rome, it was also a call to identify with the people on the margins.  It was a way of saying “Stand with the poor, the downtrodden, the nobodies.” 

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  And here we find the word psyche again in the Greek text, this time translated as life.  Life. Soul.  Self.  This is such a cryptic saying from Jesus.  Here’s how I understand it:  If you go looking for yourself, you’ll lose yourself, but if you lose yourself in the life of Christ, you’ll find yourself.  

I think maybe Jesus is saying stop worrying about the meaning of your life or what, exactly your soul is, or even who you are deep down in your soul.  Let go of all those esoteric questions and lose yourself in the business of the reign of God.  Work for equality and equity.  Feed the hungry.  House the homeless. Take care of the sick.  Bring hope to the hopeless.  Stand with those who need you to stand with them.  Act on your faith.  It may cost you.  There will be opposition.  Don’t be afraid.  The reign of God, the kingdom of heaven is in reach.  In Jesus’ name.