Scripture: Matthew 16:13-20
I am a preacher’s kid. This means I grew up my entire life with a church right next door to me. For all intents and purposes the church was my backyard. Please keep that in mind, because it helps this story have some context. In college I was part of a Christian service group called Kappa Chi. This organization had a tradition of having an annual lock-in at a local church, and conveniently there was a Methodist Church right next to the campus. We contacted the church, made the arrangements, and had everything set. On the night of the lock-in we arrived at the church to find all of the doors locked. Cell phones were only beginning to be a thing then, so it was a lot harder to get hold of people. In walking around the church to see if there were any locked doors, I noticed there was an open window. Not only was the window open but the screen was practically off. It was only dangling by a corner. Remember, I grew up being very comfortable coming and going into church buildings at all times for any reason. Since we were supposed to be in there and a mess up clearly occurred, I saw a way to fix it. I climbed through the window, fully put the screen back up where it goes, and then went to open the front door. Fifteen minutes later the college chaplain showed up to do a communion service. Right as he was breaking the bread, the police showed up. Apparently, the window I climbed into was to the room where the church safe was held and when I opened the door I triggered a silent alarm. Needless to say the police officer was very confused, the chaplain very kindly intervened on my behalf, called and explained to the Sr. Pastor the whole situation, and everything was resolved without me going to jail. As you can probably understand, I never told my parents about this little mishap, but I also learned you can not really keep things from your parents. Nine months later my parents attended a dinner at annual conference where the chaplain was the speaker. He began by telling his version of this story as an example of you never know what will happen in campus ministry. He did not use any names, but as soon as my parents heard the story they knew I was the one who did it! We all make mistakes don’t we? We act before we think it all the way through, we say things without thinking it out, we do things we instantly regret and wish we could take back. We have bad days, days we wish we could forget, or days where we really should just not gotten out of bed. Every now and then we have days where we are left with our hands in the air, our heads in shame, and all we can really do is say “oops”.
I suppose we can take some comfort in the fact that the Bible is full of bad days. Nearly all of the big names from the Old Testament had bad days. The bible records about times when Abraham, Moses, and David all had the kind of bad days where they probably wished they could get a do-over. In fact, one of things that sets the Bible apart from other ancient literature is that the heroes are displayed as flawed and capable of mistakes. We see this in the New Testament as well. The disciples are not portrayed as perfect. Usually it is the opposite in fact, they often come off as easily confused and slow to figure anything out. One of the disciples that is most prominent in the gospels is Peter. Extroverts tend to love Peter because he is always in the middle of everything, and he is not afraid to speak his mind. Even when it gets him trouble. This morning’s scripture of this is a perfect example of how Peter sticks his foot in his mouth, and at the end of the day can only say “oops”. When it comes to our faith, we have a lot in common with Peter, and we can learn from his example.
This morning’s scripture is fascinating. Jesus says to Peter “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah,” Then just six sentences later Jesus is saying to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” That is impressive in how quick that turn around happened. When this morning’s scripture happened, Jesus had been doing his thing for a while. He had told parables, healed the sick, cast out demons, and fed thousands. Jesus had started to garner a reputation, and so he asked his disciples what that reputation was. The rumor mill it turns out was weird. There were three major answers. The oddest is John the Baptist. The gospel of Mark records this as well. King Herod had John the Baptist executed because he called out the king’s immoral behavior. Somehow the rumor got started that Jesus was a resurrected John the Baptist. This shows that at this time John must have had more name recognition than Jesus, but still it is odd that people jumped to that conclusion so quickly. The second answer was a bit more bold. Malachi 4:5 records a prophecy that states that Elijah was to return before the day of the Lord, that is the coming of the messiah. Jewish tradition, especially in Jesus day, had really grabbed onto this and some people clearly saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Malachi. They thought Jesus was the one paving the way for the coming Messiah. The third answer was less grand, but it made more sense, that Jesus was a prophet like Jeremiah. At this point, the prophets of the old testament had been gone for over 600 years. In other words, it had been six centuries for the Jewish people since God had raised a prophet with enough authority that they thought this person was truly speaking for God, and that the prophet’s words had divine authority. Some people saw that Jesus might be the return of this kind of prophet. Jesus ask his disciples what they think, and Peter goes all in. He declares that Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one, the one promised in the scriptures who will free people from sin and death, and rule in God’s righteous kingdom. Even though Jesus was and is the messiah, he did not go around advertising this fact. In fact, this is the first point in the gospels where he reveals and claims the title for himself. This is the truth as it is who Jesus is, and Jesus praises Peter for his statement of faith.
After Jesus reveals to his disciples that he is the messiah, he begins to talk with them about how things are going to play out. In the first century the expected messiah was thought to be a political and military leader who would take back the promise land by force. Jesus knew that the freedom and salvation he was offering was spiritual and that his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus knew this might come as a shock to his disciples so he began to prepare them, and warn them about what was to come including his death. As we can understand, this did confuse and upset the disciples. Peter, ever the budding leader, noticed that Jesus’ going all emo was not helping the group’s morale. After all, he was the messiah, what business does he have talking about his death? Peter tells Jesus to cheer up and not be so negative. More or less. Specifically the gospel records, “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you.” This is what causes Jesus to shout “Get Behind me Satan!” Remember, Jesus already faced down the temptations of Satan in the wilderness. Satan tempted Jesus to use his power for selfish reasons. Satan offered Jesus the whole world. In other words, Satan tempted Jesus to use his power to be the kind of messiah everyone wanted him to be, a political and military savior. Jesus rejected that temptation only to have one of his trusted friends tempt him in the same way.
Poor Peter! He just did not get it. He was so close, but he did not pull it all together. He knew and believed Jesus was the messiah, but he just could not let go of his preconceived notions of who he thought Jesus should be. This is why Jesus scolded Peter that he did in mind the concerns of God but human concerns. Peter’s faith was at odds with itself, it was jumbled, not all together. The phrase did not exist then, but today we might say that Peter’s faith was a hot mess. On the one hand, he could take amazing steps of faith, but on the other hand he could not let go of his own hang-ups and desires. Can you identify with Peter? I know I can.
As disciples, it should be goal and very nature of our lives to live out our faith daily as we seek to follow the example, the commands, and the life of Jesus the messiah. However, like Peter we can drop the ball, we can mess it up, and in the end we can only say “oops, mistakes were made.” We have done this collectively as Christians. In the past, Christians have used the bible and their faith to defend their right to own slaves. The bible has also been used in the past to justify not giving women equal rights and opportunities. Many of the people who opposed the civil rights movement in the 1960s, were faithful church goers. More than once the church has been on the wrong side of history, and in history on the wrong side of the gospel. Like Peter, we collectively were close but we just did not have it all together. We allowed our pre-conceived notions of what we thought or what was culturally acceptable distort the way of Christ.
We do this personally as well. In their song Between the Altar and The Door, the band Casting Crowns expresses this kind of feeling. They put it this way: “Lord this time, I’ll make it right. Here at the Altar I lay my life. Your Kingdom come, but my will was done. My heart is broken and I cry, but like so many times before my eyes are dry before I leave the floor. O Lord I try, but this time Jesus how can I be sure? I will not lose my follow through between the altar and the door.” We come to church on Sunday morning, we worship God, we pray, we commit ourselves to follow Jesus. Yet, it seems by Monday morning a bad commute to work, whiney kids, or the office copier not working erodes all of our good will and resolve to put others first, be kind, or act in a loving way to people who do not deserve it. We can have an amazing mountain top experience, where we have never felt closer to God, yet by the next week we are stuck in the same gutter, weighed down by selfishness and guilt, where we have found ourselves before. It seems that one minute we have it figured out and God has never been more real. The next minute we feel like we understand nothing and that God has never been more distant. Our faith can be a mess. Mistakes were made, and all we can do is say oops.
A faith that is seemingly deep and shallow at the same time is a struggle of what it means to be a disciple. In some ways, I think the image of a person tip-toeing ever close to the deep end of a pool is an accurate image for discipleship. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of moving towards the deep end: towards a deep faith, an open heart overflowing with love, and an unshakable trust in the goodness of God. From this morning’s scripture and Peter’s discipleship there are two examples on how we can better make our own journey to the deep end.
In response to Peter Jesus tells all of his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” When someone was condemned to crucifixion they had to carry their cross with them to the crucifixion site. Their burden was literally the end of them. The analogy Jesus is making here is that we have to give up our pride and selfishness to follow him. Carrying our cross is the burden of dying to ourselves. It is fulfilling our prayer, “not my will but yours be done.” In Romans, Paul uses another phrase to refer to this. He calls it being a living sacrifice. This morning’s scripture appears in the gospel of Luke as well, but Luke records it a bit differently. The gospel of Luke states “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily.” The addition of daily is important. When our faith, and the way our faith influences our lives is based only on Sundays then it is no wonder our faith falls apart in the middle of the week. We have to daily deny our selfish desires and prideful parts. We have to daily make the choice to follow Jesus in our thoughts, our words, and our actions. The great reformer Martin Luther had a daily practice where he would splash water on his face and tell himself, “Remember, you are baptized.” He would daily remind himself that because of God’s great love he has been saved and freed from sin, and how he live his life should reflect that. We also need to daily remember and choose Jesus.
Peter did not quite learn his lesson in this morning’s scripture. If we look ahead, we know that Peter’s faith fell apart again. We know that he put himself and his desires over Christ when Jesus was arrested and Peter denied Christ three times. Even then, there was forgiveness and Peter continued to move into deep end of faith. Peter would go on to be the leader of the new church. Catholic tradition counts him as the first patriarch or pope of the Catholic church. During all of this time, Peter was in community. The book of acts describes the incredible fellowship that Peter, the other apostles, and the early church had together. Even though, Peter’s faith fell apart at times. Even though he had to say “oops”, he was still part of the community. For each and every one of us there will be times when we fall short, when our faith stumbles, and when we say “oops”. During those times we need to be there for each other. The faith community should be a safe place. It should be a place where we are free to admit our short comings and failings, because we know that we are cared for. The church should be a place where we can ask “How is it with your soul?” and we can answer honestly because we know there is no judgement here. The church should not be a place where “oops” is met with stern rebuke and guilt. Rather, we should be a place where people can feel the grace and forgiveness of Jesus just through the way we treat one another. When we do this we build one another up and help one another grow deeper in faith.
Many of us truly can identify with Peter’s experience. We have had intense faith highs and catastrophic faith lows, sometimes in the same week. This morning’s scripture that can comfort us because it points out that those kind of ups and downs, victories and setbacks, mountaintops and valleys is part of the faith experience. To be a disciple means that sometimes we are going to be a hot mess, we are going to blow it, and we are going to say “oops.” May we not let those times define us. May we not let guilt and fear of failure hold us back. May we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus, the messiah who was, who is, and who is to come.