Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2005 (Proper 17, Year A)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on August 28, 2005. 
Based on Matthew 16:21-27 (Proper 17, Year A).

It’s pretty harsh. Disproportionately harsh. “Get behind me, Satan!” There could be no stronger rebuke from Jesus. And it must have cut Peter to the bone. Reprimanded by his master and for what? One minute he’s defending his Lord by expressing horror at the prospect of his being put to death and the next minute he’s being compared to the devil.

But this isn’t just a matter of Peter having caught Jesus on a bad day. Jesus is making a point about discipleship. The human perspective is limited. And putting human myopia onto the divine lens of omniscience is not only foolish, it is evil. The death of Jesus is all part of the divine plan of redemption. It may make no sense from a purely rational point of view. But there’s nothing rational about God. And so Jesus’ passion prediction – his foretelling of his own death and resurrection – is not something the well-intentioned Peter can fight or prevent. The divine plan must unfold. Peter’s own wishes must be subverted if he is to fully live as a disciple of Christ.

But Jesus’ words do seem harsh. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” But the putdown is also dripping with humor and irony. There’s a light touch here that gets lost on our modern ears. Because Jesus tempers the rebuke with a pun. Jesus has already renamed this man ‘Peter,’ meaning ‘rock.’ And in doing so proclaimed ‘upon this rock I will build my church.’ Of course in many of the gospel stories Peter acts nothing like a rock. He is often portrayed as either fearful or ludicrously overzealous. But now Jesus calls him a ‘stumbling block,’ literally in the Greek a ‘stumbling stone.’ So once more we glimpse this great apostle as merely human. At times he is filled with divine revelation, as he was when he proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” And at other times we see him naked in his humanity. A mere mortal struggling to understand what it means to follow Jesus.

So in a brief period of time, Peter has gone from confessing to Jesus as the Messiah to being rebuked as a stumbling block. How does this speak to our own spiritual lives? In many ways it mirrors the very journey of faith. A vivid, engaged faith life is a series of missteps and stumbles. We get to the spiritual mountaintop only to find ourselves stumbling on the way down. It’s a pretty standard pattern and Jesus well knows this. We go back and forth between setting our minds on divine things one moment and setting them on human things the next. Not because we’re evil or satanic but because, like Peter, we’re human. Even the most faithful Christians are merely stumbling seekers of the divine.

We were up in Maine for a few days this week. The weather was beautiful, the beaches picturesque. The rocky coastline was stunning. And I thought about this concept of the stumbling stone as one of the boys insisted I walk with him over some treacherous rocks (Zack, of course). So, the two of us held hands and gingerly wandered over the rocks looking for nonexistent sea shells. We used great care and made it back to the beach without stumbling and “dashing our foot against a stone,” as the psalmist puts it. As we were gathering up our stuff to leave, I stepped on an innocuous looking rock on the beach. Of course it flipped over and became my own personal stumbling stone and I cut my foot. A good reminder that we tend to stumble when we least expect it. Just like Peter. Just like our own journeys of faith. Jesus expects us to stumble. He expects us to become stumbling stones. Which is precisely why he had to be handed over to the “elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” It may not make much sense from our human perspective but it’s the divine one that counts.

Which is ultimately what Jesus is trying to convey to Peter and to us. Jesus’ response to Peter is much more than a mere rebuke. It literally puts Peter in his place. When he tells Peter to “get behind me,” he isn’t telling him to go away. Rather he is calling him and us to metaphorically get behind him and follow him as Lord. Jesus is talking about discipleship. And the posture of discipleship demands that we subvert our own wishes and follow Jesus. 

We are all occasionally stumbling stones. To ourselves, to others, to Jesus. But as long as we’re following Jesus, as long as we are able to confess him as Lord even when we ourselves stumble, we remain on the path of righteousness.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005

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