SATAN THE ACCUSER AND GOD THE CHOOSER
This is another one of those gospel stories that you read it and wonder, "What exactly is going on here?" Peter rebukes Jesus; Jesus rebukes Peter. What is all this rebuking about? Of course, some of our puzzlement might even be due to the fact that we almost never use a word like "rebuke" anymore. We "scold" our kids, we firmly "lecture" our spouses, from time to time, but we don't often call such things "rebukes." I'd like to suggest a way to think about the word "rebuke" that might help us understand this story: namely, to "put someone in their place."
To put someone in their place. Previously in Mark's gospel, Jesus rebukes the evil spirits who possess people. The place of evil spirits is not in people, so Jesus puts them in their place by telling them to leave: "Get out evil spirit!" and they get out, they leave, they get put in their proper place, like in a herd of pigs somewhere, but not in people.
In this morning's story Peter first rebukes Jesus, and then Jesus rebukes Peter. What's this about? Peter's rebuke attempts to put Jesus in his place. Jesus has just begun to teach them "that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." 'Well,' thinks Peter, 'if Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, then that can't be his proper place. The place of the Messiah is a triumphant one, isn't it? How could the Messiah possibly occupy a place of suffering and rejection and execution?' So Peter takes Jesus aside and tries to put Jesus in his proper place; he rebukes him.
But Jesus will have none of this. Peter, the disciple, the follower, has all of sudden tried to take the lead, by telling Jesus, the leader, where his proper place is. So Jesus must put Peter back in his proper place, behind him, as follower. "Get behind me, Satan!" says Jesus, "For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Ah, so now we at least better understand why Peter and Jesus rebuke each other, and why Jesus tells Peter to get behind him. It's all a matter of being in the proper place at the proper time. Peter doesn't think the Messiah's proper place at the moment of triumph should be one of being executed. Jesus tells Peter that he's out of line trying to tell him where and when the Messiah should be. As a disciple, as a follower, Peter's proper place is behind Jesus.
But there's another puzzle to this reading: why "Satan"? Why does Jesus go so far as to call Peter "Satan"? And what is that next line about, that Peter has been thinking in human terms, not godly terms? If we put these two together it would even seem that to think in human terms is to be identified with Satan. Is that what Jesus is trying to imply? That human thinking has become satanic thinking? Wow! If that's the case, then we'd better try to understand what this is all about. What does it mean to think like Satan? And, conversely, what does it mean to think like God?
To help us understand this today, I'm going to suggest titles for Satan and for God and then unpack them. The titles are these: Satan is the Accuser, and God is the Chooser. Accuser and Chooser. Let's begin with God. Perhaps you've not quite thought about it this way, but if there is anything that the Bible is constantly showing us about God, it's that God is a chooser. The fancy theological word for this through the ages has been election. The doctrine of election tells us that God is constantly choosing special people. Think about it. As we read again this morning, the story of the people of Israel begins with God choosing Abraham and Sarah to be parents to a whole race of chosen people.
Now, there's something else we need to know about this chosenness: right from the beginning God makes it clear that God chooses these people as special people not necessarily because they are more special compared to other people, but because that seems to be God's method for doing something else, namely, blessing all people. Abraham and Sarah and their descendants are to be a blessing to all people. Basically, I think that this means that God wants everyone to feel special, to know that they are chosen; but in order to accomplish this, God has to begin somewhere, with someone. And the Bible tells us that God began with Abraham and Sarah.
Just so we get the idea that these chosen people are not necessarily more special to God than other people, we next get the stories of Esau and Jacob, and of Joseph and his brothers. Jacob cheats his brother out of the birthright -- that's how 'special' he is -- and he nevertheless becomes God's chosen one. Joseph is a spoiled brat to his brothers and becomes the chosen one that saves his brothers. All along in the Old Testament we get these unlikely folks who God chooses to step forward and help people understand that they are chosen, that God has chosen them unconditionally, warts and all. There's Moses and Samuel and Ruth and David and Amos and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Jonah and Esther and on and on. The Old Testament is one long story of God trying to help us understand the nature of God's choosing: God ultimately wants to choose everyone, but God begins by choosing someone. And God chooses those someones unconditionally, no matter how imperfect they may be.
Now, what do we see in the New Testament? Just last week, we read the beginning of Mark's gospel. What did we see? The baptism of Jesus: God's spirit descends like a dove and says, "This is my Beloved Son, listen to him." In other words, the very first act is God choosing Jesus. And the first thing that Jesus does, after tussling with Satan in the wilderness, is to choose disciples, Peter among them. Now, with today's gospel lesson, we reach a point in the story where Peter's thinking is identified with Satan, the thinking that Jesus had wrestled against in the wilderness. What is the satanic thinking? How is it related to the cross? Who exactly is Satan?
Bear with me just another minute. This is going to seem confusing, but remember the stakes are very high: we need to understand how human thinking can be satanic thinking. The ancient tradition of Satan has several elements. One is that Satan is a trickster. And the greatest trick that Satan can play on us is to disguise himself as God. In terms of what we have said, thus far, we might say that Satan disguises himself like a chooser. God is a chooser; Satan disguises himself like a chooser. But who is Satan really? In the ancient folklore, Satan is the Accuser. He is the one who brings accusations against people. He is the Prosecuting Attorney, if you will, charged to bring a conviction against the bad people of the world. Satan disguises himself like God, the Chooser; but Satan also is the Accuser. How does he pull this off? How can he both be the Accuser and disguise himself like the God, the Chooser? By dividing the world between those chosen and those accused of evil-doing and therefore rejected. Satan unifies those who think themselves chosen against those accused. When Satan accuses and we convict, then the rest of us who aren't accused feel chosen. We all feel good because the bad guys have been singled out and eliminated, leaving the rest of us good guys. Satan begins the game of setting us against each other, and we get caught up in it. God is choosing us good guys, we think, to do away with the bad guys. In other words, Satan tricks us into thinking that God has chosen us specially to be the good guys in this world by accusing the bad guys. Everyone goes home happy.
Everyone, except God, that is, because God's choosing is unconditional, remember? God does not choose anyone by accusing someone else. That's Satan's trick, and it's a good one, because we have bought into it, lock, stock, and barrel, haven't we? Isn't that the human thinking Jesus is trying to help Peter to see? Isn't that why Jesus calls Peter Satan? Because Peter has bought into a view of the Messiah that has the Messiah come to stand in the place of the Accuser, one who will put the bad people in their place, and the good people in their place. But that is not the place Jesus has come to take. No, as matter of fact, Peter, with his human, satanic thinking has it completely backwards. No, Jesus, as he has just told his disciples, has come to take the place of the Accused. On the cross, Satan will have worked his trick as the Accuser to a new level, and Jesus -- God's chosen, Beloved Son -- will be the condemned accused. And Jesus -- right from the cross -- will, instead of giving in and accusing others, Jesus will instead forgive them. Not accuse them but forgive them, for they know not what they do. Satan has them, has us, tricked. Thank God that God's choosing is unconditional. God's love for us is unconditional.
But why? Why does God allow it all to happen this way? To uncover Satan's tricks. And to uncover them in a way that doesn't turn around and play Satan's game of accusing, condemning, and killing. God does it this way because God is also the God of life, overflowing life. Because God will also raise Jesus from the dead to overturn our tremendous mistake. God, in raising Jesus from the dead, will help Peter and the rest of us to see what is going on.
Does that answer all our questions? No, of course not. In fact, some of the most serious questions still remain, such as: if we, even after two thousand years, still live in a world controlled by Satan -- in a world where Satan still has most people duped into thinking they are chosen by accusing others, by setting themselves off against others -- then how are we supposed to live? I mean, we're talking about our most basic human institutions, aren't we? Our whole legal system, for example: isn't it completely based on principals of accusing and condemning others? I believe that our particular American system of justice does this more humanely than it's ever been done before. But isn't that just another trick of Satan? We compare its humaneness to what has gone before, and we can tell ourselves, "God wants us to do it this way." In other words, Satan has once again tricked us into thinking that his way is God's way.
This isn't a new question for Christians. St. Paul had been a lawyer for his people, for what he had believed was the most humane and best system of law ever. But that Law had him persecute what he thought were the bad people, heretics such as St. Stephen. Until one day Jesus himself knocked Paul off his horse with a blinding light and asked him why he was persecuting him. St. Paul first encountered Jesus taking the place of the accused, not the Accuser, and Paul had to begin to re-evaluate even his most precious values. So we see a glimpse of Paul's struggles with the Law in this morning's lesson from Romans 4. Near the end of Romans (13:1-8), Paul makes some small concessions to the law of Rome, that we can at least be thankful that it keeps all hell from breaking loose. But Paul's main approach at the end of Romans is to lift up another law, the "law of love," he calls it. We are to follow Jesus in living by God's unconditional love, which even goes so far as to love enemies.
So all our questions about how to live that law of love haven't yet been answered, but we can close now by recalling one other assurance: namely, that we aren't left to ourselves to find these answers. With the power of the Holy Spirit God continues to choose a special people -- ordinary people like you and me who aren't more special than others. But we have this special call from God to share the love of the cross with others. We have a call to fall into our proper place behind St. Peter and Mary Magdalene and all the saints to find our proper place behind Jesus. In our baptisms we are chosen ones of God the Chooser. We are forgiven and unconditionally loved by God, so that we might share that love and share that news with others, that we might help others to stop getting tricked by Satan. Each and every day we are called to live out that baptismal call as God's chosen people. In a few minutes several of our seventh graders will say "Amen!" to that. Right now, let us all say "Amen!" to that. Let the people say, "Amen!"
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, February 22-23, 1997