Sermon preached on Matthew 16 at Moortown Baptist Church, Sunday 26th February 2023. The sermon can be watched here.
The question is not: who do people say I am?
But who do you say that I am?
A question to be heard by individuals, you and me, and by the whole community – who does church really say that Jesus is?
Peter found his answer, in the biggest, most wonderful words he had in his vocabulary – You are God’s anointed, the son of the living God – [every word significant, and words coming with a corona, trailing clouds of glory from the history of God with his people – Christ, Messiah]
Jesus recognises this answer as God’s truth, not simply Peter’s insight – my father in heaven has given you these words. They echo the voice from heaven at his baptism (Matt 3.17).
Now, within the disciple community, which knows Jesus is God’s anointed, Jesus can say more and go further with them.
So he tells them, I must go to Jerusalem.
Jesus assumes his disciples will go with him, that is what he asked them to do, and they left all to follow him.
I think Peter would have been happy to go to Jerusalem with Jesus for if Jesus was going as the anointed Son of God, it would be with all the glory and power, the king coming to his capital city (Psalm 24.7-8).
But what put Peter off was when Jesus told him what would actually happen in Jerusalem – Jesus, Peter’s anointed leader would be taken, shamed and killed. Jesus would not take over the city just by riding into it.
The disciples, those close followers of Jesus, hungered for the high places when Jesus came into the glory of his kingdom – let us sit on thrones on each side of you. Jesus says Those thrones are not mine to give you. All I have to offer you is to drink the cup I drink, and to be baptised with my baptism – to lose your life, to suffer death with me. To follow in the path of meek faith, whatever the cost …Jesus has nothing other to offer us.
Peter and the others would be happy to go to Jerusalem. They imagined God’s anointed would go there as a Messiah should, in fitting dignity: He would be the conquering king, the government would be on his shoulders and of his kingdom there would be no end. The disciples would march into the city along with Jesus, scatter the enemies and oppressors and sit on thrones alongside Jesus. That would be glory for them.
Now feel their dismay. Their faces and minds changed when Jesus went on to tell them that he would undergo great suffering in Jerusalem, and be killed.
Their excitement turned to fear and distaste.
Peter jumps in to do something about this crisis. He after all is a ready spokesman, the disciple to whom God gave the words to confess that Jesus is the anointed Son of the living God. he thinks that means he is competent to advise Jesus. So Peter takes Jesus aside, to tells how to be God’s anointed, even to change his course. He will save Jesus from making a terrible mistake.
Peter is moved with pastoral concern – Jesus is hurting himself, by walking with such determination into Jerusalem. Ileos soi – have pity on yourself, he says: Jesus should be kinder to himself. Getting shamed and killed in Jerusalem is beneath him. What good could it do?
When we hear that, do we not react like Peter did, very wisely, very self-protectively, and even very protectively of Jesus. What is the dignity and status of Jesus, if he is the broken victim of the powers of the world?
Is it not a key but neglected question in all pastoral practice – are people to be protected from hurt or called into the way of Jesus?
Look after oneself is advice commonly given to people these days. Be self-forgiving. I don’t doubt there is something in it, and it is right for some people sometimes. But if we want to follow Jesus, and to become fully human as he is, we need to put a constant question mark alongside our self-caring. Going to Jerusalem, the city, the busyness of human living in the raw, going into the world, with Jesus and for the kingdom of God, calls us to the risk of self-giving.
Peter knows the right and true words to say about Jesus, but does not grasp their full meaning. Saying the right words does not qualify you to take over the management of God’s project from Jesus, and to get him to do it our way, man’s way rather than God’s.
Do we let Jesus lead all the way, or do we get on the first step, say Jesus is Lord, and then expect the Lord to work to our plan, our desires, our norms?
Churches, teachers and preachers and songwriters and leaders, and people, are constantly engaged in presenting Jesus, one way or another. With good intention, Churches tailor Jesus to make him accessible to people where they are, but that is not the same as Jesus calling us to leave all and follow him. We shape Jesus to suit ourselves. We follow Jesus as much as is convenient to us. And we present other people, in our words and actions, the Jesus we have shaped for ourselves? When Jesus led the disciples, they were often amazed, puzzled, frightened. When he told them he was going to Jerusalem to be killed, he did not make himself easily accessible. He was taking himself into the darkness of this world, and it was as Isaiah said:
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,Isaiah 53.2-3
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Do we walk the way of Jesus towards and through the dying of Jesus?
Peter did not like the way Jesus was going.
But more than that, Peter felt confident enough to advise Jesus to find a safer easier cheaper way?
Who did little Peter think he was? The advisor and manager of the Lord?
Will you follow me if I but call your name….
Jesus rebukes Peter, the negative epiphany – as sharply as he had sent the tempter packing in the wilderness (Matt 3).
Why should we not run away from the story as Peter did, and as Peter tried to get Jesus to do?
One way of finding a bit of an answer is to do a thought-experiment –
Suppose Jesus had taken Peter’s advice – how would things have turned out?
Jesus could have had a long ministry and a happy life in Galilee.
But If he had stayed there, we would never have heard of him, in England in the 21st century.
He would never have been proclaimed throughout the world as God’s anointed Lord and Saviour.
There would have been no good news of a God of self-giving love, alive and active in human beings, starting with Jesus.
If Jesus had refused Jerusalem, he would not have carried through faithfully, serving God to the end.
St Ignatius Loyola prayed – it is simply a prayer to follow Jesus in the way he leads:
Teach us, good Lord,St Ignatius Loyola, 1491 – 1556
To serve thee as thou deservest;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To toil and not for seek for rest;
To labour and not to ask for any reward
Save that of knowing that we do thy will.
Peter did not see that he was telling Jesus not to practise what he preached – he wanted to protect Jesus and his dignity – but the dignity of Jesus consisted in living as the faithful Son, one with the Father in heaven, praying and living for his kingdom to come.
Following Peter’s advice, Jesus would not have lived according to his own sermon on the mount – for example, he would have missed out on risking meekness – blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth …
It was in meekness Jesus went to Jerusalem, meek and riding on a donkey, the lowly king … trusting God that The meek shall inherit the earth:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.Zechariah 9:9
In Jerusalem, the meek one is weak when surrounded by priests and kings and Roman governors, men with sticks, witnesses blatantly lying, crucifying soldiers. The meek one is weak and has no chance against them. But the meek one who walks with faith in God, faith which does not try to escape, which does not come down from the cross, this meek one proves to be strong as a servant and co-worker with God. This meek one is the one vindicated in the final valuation God makes.
Jesus confronts all these powerful people, the rulers and the gullible murderous mob, and the light of his helpless meekness, his consistent love and goodness, even for enemies, shows up the wickedness of the world. The wickedness of the world is its cruelty, its disrespect for life in all its forms, its blindness – none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
The sin of the world is exposed by the light of the meek suffering, generous Christ – the light of Christ shines in Jesus and in all those who are like Jesus, who are at all like him, in meek, self-giving goodness, even though they easily get sidelined and crushed by the world as we make it and accustom ourselves to it.
Thanks to the faithful obedience of Jesus, doing the Father’s will, we today have a story that does not leave out Jerusalem and all its bustling life, its commerce, politics and criminality. We have the story of God’s son who set his face like a flint to go to Jerusalem, and when he got there, he wept over the city which, like the world at large, did not know the things that make for peace, and then he went into the city as the meek Lord who gives his life, his body broken, a ransom for the world; a faithful humble servant of God whom God has now declared to be saviour and Lord for the world …
His disciples failed him, fled and denied him, they learned and knew themselves in truth as broken failures, that was unforgettable. Then Jesus did not shrug his shoulders and say, don’t worry, things happen, it doesn’t really matter, I don’t mind being let down; there would be no forgiveness in that kind of dishonesty. He rather said, You are mine and I am faithful to you, though you are not faithful to me, and because I am Lord, the living Lord, we will start again on the same service, the same life as we had before this shattering disaster, and we will go now from Jerusalem into all the world, which is mostly as dark and dangerous as Jerusalem. You will have no escape from taking up your cross and following me. You will find your life in losing it, loving enemies in a way that exposes wrong and invites all people together into the life of God. You will bear my yoke and learn from me, the lowly and meek Lord, and in active service with me you will find the reality of being forgiven. You won’t do it as isolated individuals, though sometime you will be alone, but as church, the company of disciples of Jesus together.
This whole story, the nice bits and the frightening bits, all together make the good news. Don’t leave anything out, don’t shy away from the challenge of any bit of the journey to Jerusalem. Because Jesus went to Jerusalem in the way he did, there is Gospel for all the world.
Finally, How everyday, down to earth meaning can this story have for us?
Most of us who follow Jesus will live long, tolerable lives and will die in bed, cared for even if there is pain.
But it is possible, even if only remotely, that following Jesus could involve some of us in losing our bodily life or social happiness in some ghastly way.
Whatever our lot, easy or hard, Jesus invites us to live to the end, in his way, giving ourselves in love for others, near and far.
Some like Ukrainians today, lose life, for others, giving themselves for peace and justice and hope in the world.
And there are poor parents who don’t eat, and damage their health, so the children can have food – I think of my mother in some hard years when I was young.
There are many like Epaphroditus in ordinary life:
But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honour people like him, 30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.Phil 2.25-30
All life involves costs, and we help each other by bearing each other’s burdens – we give our lives for others, near and far.
All this I think is to be seen and interpreted in the light of Jesus who gave himself for the world – to live in that light, to follow Jesus with feet on the earth, that is true worship.
Isn’t it a good thing that Jesus went to Jerusalem?
Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift.
Sometimes, these burdens are heavy, and we are tempted to shirk taking our share.
Sometimes, in this world where nothing is perfectly efficient or fair, we have to take more than our share in order to help the community.
Sometimes, our share is imposed on us by the carelessness or selfishness of other people, and then we think, Why should I? I should not forgive them, give them a chance to get away with it.
And then, I lose Jesus, I don’t follow him all the way.
But we might take their load, following Jesus.