A sermon for September 3 on Matthew 16:21-28
This evening I want to focus on the reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, and how it flows from—and comments on—the Gospel text from last Sunday. I can’t, however, not say something about one of the verses from the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. It might have caught your ear as it was being read:
‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’
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Oh. Now at first hearing that might sound like Paul is saying something like, “if you really want to get your enemies, be kind to them and let God give them a more proper—and torturous—thrashing. I’m going to suggest, however, that Paul is doing something a little more nuanced than that. He’s quoting from the Proverbs (25:21-22), and one of the characteristics of many of the proverbs is that they hold together two thoughts; sometimes in a kind of tension. The aim is to get the reader to enter a posture of reflective engagement; to deepen wisdom by doing a bit of wrestling. And so according to the biblical scholar Paul Achtemeier, “When Paul speaks of caring for an enemy’s needs which heaps coals of fire on that enemy’s head, he is not giving advice on a better way to get back at one’s enemies! Rather such treatment is intended to get the enemy to turn from enmity to friendship. Gracious deeds thus burn away the hate within.” This is also the reading given the passage by Karl Barth, who says that in doing “the irrational, impossible, and altogether unpractical thing” of offering care to an enemy we may discover that “the other [is] driven by our action out of his position as an enemy.” I think this is quite born out by Paul’s next sentence: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” so I’ll just leave it there for tonight.
So, on to the gospel. Last Sunday’s reading had Jesus posing the question to his disciples as to who people were saying he was. Oh, some think you’re one of the prophets, or maybe John the Baptist come back to life. And you? Who do you say that I am? And here Simon Peter blurts out for the first time the thing they’d all been thinking: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Ah, blessed are you Simon, this is clearly an insight that has come from God! And then Jesus did something that happens at various key moments in the Old Testament: he gives him a new name. It’s a kind of a nickname really, one build on a word play. “I tell you, you are Peter—in Aramaic Cephas, in the Greek of the New Testament, Petros—and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” You’re foundational, Peter, and you will be ever more so as my movement continues to grown and spread. And then comes that line that as I said last week has given rise to all of those jokes about St Peter standing at the pearly gates with his ledger book:
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Now that can sound like Peter has been given a whole whack of power, and there are parallel verses in the gospels where much the same is apparently conferred to the all of the disciples. They—or in this case he—get jurisdiction over who is in and who is out; what is forgiven and what is not? Well, break out the royal robes and toss in a gold ring or two while you’re at it. Maybe he does get to sit at Jesus’ right hand in his kingdom. Oh man, when we ride into Jerusalem this is going to get good.
But it is not about power, because Jesus is singularly disinterested in holding power. It is about authority, which is quite a different matter. Power is the thing you hold in your hand, while authority is something you have in your whole self; something that people can see, and are drawn to, recognize. Earlier in Matthew’s account, he comments that “the crowds were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (7:28-29) Now here, just as they had been given “authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (10:1), they are given authority to forgive.
Oh, you might say, but they’re also given authority not to forgive or not to loose and set free… that’s clout. We need to revere Peter, maybe fear him, because he’s the rock on which the Christian movement is built and because he’s got that binding and loosing ability.
Which is why you need to read that gospel together with this one. Watch, as the first cracks show in the rock:
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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’
All the way through the gospel, Jesus has exuded an authority that had drawn people to him, and all through the gospel his posture has been one of servanthood, self-sacrifice and self-giving. Peter was surely right in proclaiming, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” but he was right off the mark with his assumptions as to what this Messiah was truly all about. “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem”—check… good… let the overthrow of the Romans and the corrupted Judean leaders begin—“and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes”—oh, slow down… suffering… well, maybe there will be some struggle—“and be killed”—stop right there, Jesus. “And Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’” The rock thinks he knows better than the Christ. Not for the last time, of course, that someone—a theologian, a bishop, a biblical scholar, a pope… the church—will imagine that they have a better, more pragmatic, effective way to do God’s work than the way Jesus actually lived it.
“But Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’—the name means adversary—‘You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” You’re not living into the authority I’ve recognized in you, but instead are already trying to run the show and tell me what it means to be messiah. Heck of a rock.
And then he turns, and looks at the group of them, and speaks of self-denial and the need to put their very lives on the line for the sake of others. If you are going to walk in the way of this authority with me, it will surely cost you. In the words of the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, at the heart of the gospel the message seems to be, “If you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed.”
We watch as Simon Peter goes from a rock to a satan, and then, called up short, he will begin to limp his way back again. Jesus wants Peter—wants all of them—to walk with him in his authority. He wants the disciples to draw people, to heal people, to forgive and reconcile people, to love people, and to serve one another just as he has served them. He knows that if they don’t do that, they won’t be truly alive. And he knows that as they do those things in his name, in their world they will be putting their very lives on the line, just as he did for them. And for us.