Proper 17 (Aug. 28-Sept. 3)
Texts: Matthew 16:21-28;
“MESSIANIC NATIONAL CONVENTION 32 AD“
The political season has heated up for the final two months before the 2008 election. And it occurred to me that last Sunday’s and this Sunday’s Gospel Lessons form a political convention of sorts. Last week, the story begins by telling us where: Jesus has gathered his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, one of the most politically charged towns in Palestine. He asks them who others say he is, and then who they say he is. Peter gives the nominating speech, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In those days, as a Jew, you couldn’t get any more political than to call someone the Messiah. Jesus congratulates Peter, saying that God must have led him to say that.
This week we have Jesus’ acceptance speech. Yes, he is the Messiah, and here’s what his campaign in going to be like: “Jesus began to show his disciples,” we read, “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.” It’s hard to exaggerate that this isn’t what the disciples expected AT ALL! In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s like either Barack Obama on Thursday, or John McCain this week, standing up in their acceptance speech and saying, “I plan to go to Afghanistan soon after I’m inaugurated and turn myself over to Osama bin Laden.” They’d never say such a thing! Obama and McCain are saying the opposite, that they are tough on terrorism and will finally nail that guy. Likewise, Peter and the disciples expected the opposite from Jesus. They expected a campaign plan more like this: march on Jerusalem, pick up supporters on the way, choose your moment, say your prayers, fight a surprise battle, take over the Temple, kick the puppet leaders out of Jerusalem, install Jesus as king, and then finally kick those dirty Romans out of Palestine. That’s how God’s kingdom will come! That’s what it means to be the Messiah. So Peter does his duty as campaign chair and pulls Jesus aside, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But Jesus’ response is even more shocking. He has just congratulated Peter for getting the Messiah part right, telling him that he’s thinking divine thoughts. But now he calls him Satan and a stumbling block, and he tells them that his is now human thinking again, not God-thinking. What’s going on here?
Let me first make a proposal of what is going on. We are seeing the difference between the Creator God’s unconditional love — a power of love that not only creates us and all life, but the love which specifically makes us human beings capable of receiving and passing on that kind of love to others. But in meeting Peter’s view of the Messiah we are seeing the end result of God’s unconditional love meeting the fallen version of our human love, a love which falls into all kinds of conditions — that is, a love which says, ‘Sure, I’ll love you, but only if you do this for me. And that. And that.’ And so on.
There’s a story about it near the beginning of the Bible, with the first man and woman in the garden. The tree in the middle, the only tree God has forbidden amongst an abundance of trees, becomes the first stumbling block, as the serpent plays the role of Satan, turning God’s love into an occasion for distrust and envy. The serpent convinces them that the forbidden tree is something God is holding out on them, something which could make them rivals with God if they possessed it.
It is similar with Peter and Jesus. His coming campaign as Messiah becomes a potential stumbling block as Peter plays the role of Satan. Jesus as Messiah must show God’s unconditional love by dying on the cross and being raised from the dead in order to show the conditionality of human efforts at love, fallen into envy, resentment, and violence. Peter doesn’t understand — he can’t understand really until after the Resurrection, God’s exaltation of Jesus as the Messiah. So he falls into the role of Satan, trying to turn God’s unconditional love into an occasion for distrust and envy.
Now, before I say just a little bit more about this, let me also make a proposal about what is not going on here. Many strands of the Christian faith have unfortunately concluded from passages like this that Jesus came to steer us into a wholly other realm of politics, God’s politics, such that our Christian faith, over the centuries, has become more and more other-worldly. It has become all about where you end up after you die. I need to emphasize once more that we are in the midst of a big change on that score. Even the more conservative biblical scholars, over the past ten years or so, have been telling us that the other-worldly emphasis in the church is and has been off course. It was Plato and the Greek philosophers who were other-worldly. Good Jews like Jesus and the apostles would never have gone for that. Their faith was anchored in the love of a Creator God whose love for the creation is unconditional and so would never abandon it. When God sent the Messiah it would never be to snatch a few faithful souls away to heaven and then chuck the rest of creation. No! God was sending the Messiah to save the world, to save creation! And so Jesus the Messiah is calling all his disciples to be about saving this world, too. God sent Jesus the Messiah into one of the most politically charged places and times in history to win the first victory of God’s saving campaign — a victory which would, however, at first look like a defeat. Not because it wasn’t political, but because it was about God’s power of unconditional love meeting our fallen human powers of conditional love.
If you and I think that God’s kingdom is so wholly other-worldly, then we better check out Paul’s words to the Romans in our First Lesson today. If we are to be disciples of Jesus the Messiah, then we are to follow some crazy ways to live which come from living in the Spirit of God’s unconditional love. Things like: be patient in suffering; extend hospitality not just to friends but to strangers; bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them; never avenge yourselves.
Let’s finish this morning by bringing this out of the realm of national and international politics, however. Not because Jesus wants that, but because it’s so hard for us to understand on that level. In our Gospel lesson, for example, we see Satan and the stumbling block personified not in potential political enemies such as Rome but in a closest friend, Peter. This is where we need to better understand first: on the level of closest relationships — we who are gathered here this morning, for instance, as families and friends. How does God’s power of unconditional love fall into human-satanic powers of conditional love?
Today we celebrate two baptisms, the promise of God’s unconditional love to tiny Evan and Kaitlyn. I think it’s easiest to understand God’s kind of unconditional love at that age, don’t you? Infants are completely dependant on you as parents. Their every need is met by sheer grace, without conditions. As we grow older, however, our desires begin to swirl together in rivalrous ways, as we begin to say, “No!” to one another. And so the conditions begin: ‘You can’t have that, until you do such and such.’ It’s a function first of all of human desire falling into envy and rivalry. And then as those rivalries intensify, we begin to become stumbling blocks and Satans to one another, bound together into loving relationships that also include moments of hate and hurt. A stumbling block is something or someone you can’t stay away from because you feel that you have to have it, and yet you keep stumbling against it and getting hurt.
Addictions are the epitome of a stumbling block: something we come to crave as something we desperately need and yet keeps taking us downward into hurt and even death. The relationships around addictions also develop that way. Wise and healing guidance around addiction tells us that there is not only the dependant person but also the co-dependant. Everyone gets pulled into relationships of being stumbling blocks, even of personifying Satan to one another as someone who turns our potential love into envy and rivalry. And the Twelve Step movements in facing addictions have the wisdom of bringing God’s unconditional love back into the equation. Only relying on our ‘higher power’ will be able to free us from such relationships of hurt, affording us the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Does that begin to help glimpse what’s at stake in this morning’s Gospel Lesson? Peter has become Satan personified and a stumbling block to Jesus in the politics of God’s kingdom, the politics of unconditional love, that Jesus came to bear. But God’s people were still addicted, for example, to military solutions as the only kind of solution to deal with one’s enemies. They couldn’t begin to see one’s enemies in light of a Creator God who holds all people of this world in unconditional love and grace. They couldn’t begin to see their enemies as siblings, as brothers and sisters who had become Satans and stumbling blocks to them. Can we today? Are we still addicted to military power as the only way to face the problem of enemies? Do we have any other addictions bringing us down and threatening us as we enter into this election season? Have we also become addicts to a global economy of consumption? What about an addiction to being entertained?
What we celebrate today is God’s call to you and me to begin to use our God-given imaginations to suggest other political solutions for the problems of our day. We are invited to begin to understand our human problems as addictions, as becoming enslaved to the ways our fallen human love becomes conditional, and so we fall into envy and rivalry and conflict. And so the only way out is our higher power. In Jesus the Messiah, we are promised the Spirit of his unconditional love that never fell into conditions. We celebrate being baptized into his Holy Spirit so that we might experience true freedom. We are called, then, to begin living by that freedom in amazing ways — things like: being patient in suffering; extending hospitality to strangers; blessing those who persecute you; never avenging ourselves. And we celebrate being fed every Sunday with that grace and spirit. Let us come to the table and be fed that we might leave here as peacemakers for the politics of our broken world. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, August 31, 2008