Sermon - Ordinary 22 Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Thinking human and divine things

He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." -- Matthew 16:23

Peter had presumed to rebuke Jesus for speaking of his death when Peter had just declared him to be the Messiah:-

It was natural enough, a very human response, that Peter should think it entirely wrong that the great leader and liberator, whom he had now identified, should die at the hands of his own people. The Messiah was expected to lead the nation, to renew a glorious kingdom. Yet here he was speaking of dying: They struggled with what they expected of a great leader
Had they not been waiting a long time for him to appear? How could their hopes be so quickly disappointed? And as for being raised on the third day what could that possibly mean? People of faith were able later to see that their liberation depended not on his earthly success, but on his death, and that his victory over death was a greater victory than the greatest triumphs of their greatest kings in the past. Peter's faith could not see that far at that time. Would yours or mine?

Would we even have seen what Peter already saw in Jesus when he confessed him to be the Messiah? Yet his limited vision caused him to get in the way of Jesus' mission. Are the limitations of our vision a stumbling block to Jesus? Peter's limited vision might be understandable, it was natural and probably no worse than ours, but it was a serious matter. His natural tendency to see things in human terms made him an adversary of Jesus. "Adversary" is what "Satan" means. Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. An adversary, contestant, enemy, foe, opponent or rival, stands in the way. Peter had to be told to get out of the way: Get behind me -- it is after all where a disciple, a follower, belongs, even if, against the disciple's supposedly better judgment, the leader is going to his death.

When Jesus began to talk of his needing to go to Jerusalem to die, there was, naturally, much consternation among the disciples. The one whom we call "doubting Thomas" seems to have had more faith than Peter, albeit with resignation, on the journey to Jerusalem; as John tells us:-

They must have talked about it a good deal. Jesus himself might have hesitated. Accordingn one account it was finally the death of his close friend Lazarus which brought him to the outskirts of the city not long before the Passover sacrifice was due. Of course, he intended to be there and he began to prepare his disciples for it at least some weeks before and perhaps much earlier. Yet he still struggled within himself seeking, if possible, some other way of obedience to God the Father, right up to the prayer he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane; and the struggle for loyalty and commitment went on with the disciples to the end: The serving and suffering nature of his divinity
So he went, not lightly or with superior detachment but humanly, in struggle and despair to drink to its bitter dregs the cup that was his to drink. That is what it meant for him to be fully human and divine. The disciples had difficulty holding those two qualities together -- the human and the divine. They saw his greatness in human terms, as people still are inclined to do: you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. So lacking the divine vision the disciple becomes an "adversary", Satan. It is more significant than a lack of vision in human terms, as in the corny old saying I learned long ago:

two men looked through prison bars,
one saw mud and one saw stars.

We do need to look up and see heavenly things, but there is more to it than that, in a strangely contradictory way. In one way it was the very greatness, even divinity, of Jesus, which caused the disciples in their limited understanding of the nature of God, to think in human terms.

What they did not understand about the greatness of God was that he was prepared in Jesus to be humbled. See what Jesus said next to the disciples after he told Peter to get behind him and think of divine things:

To understand the nature of his divine sacrifice they needed to see him as the servant leader: how the great and holy one was to fulfill his mission of service to others and to enter into glory through humility: by emptying himself of his glory. In a minute I will ask you to join with me in an affirmation of faith from Paul's letter to the Christians at Philippi, where he quotes what must have been one of the earliest Christian songs with which they confessed their belief when they gathered as we do at the Lord's table, though for them it was within living memory and sometimes in the very presence of the apostles who had heard him speak of taking up their cross before they saw him take up his and walk to his death:- .... who,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
-- Philippians 2:5-11

What does it mean for us?
What then do we do? Looking up and seeing things divine yet human in Jesus Christ we are called to follow the humble servant leader, leaving ourselves behind, taking up our cross and following him. We should not be deceived about how difficult that is, especially today for people who have had some success in life and are reasonably comfortable. To lose oneself is directly opposed to popular teaching today when there is so much emphasis on self fulfilment. Jesus did not say, merely, "Leave selfishness behind" but leave yourself or leave your life behind. The Greek word translated "self" or "life" here is psyche, which also means soul. So we could say instead of "for those who would save their life will lose it", "those who would save their soul would lose it".

Make no mistake, popular wisdom is all against this basic Christian teaching. Anyone who does not seek their own fulfilment is likely to be treated with contempt. When the values of the marketplace dominate all fields of human endeavour, talk of sacrificial service is likely to be greeted with deep suspicion as if it is only another way of seeking your own ends by devious means; cries of hypocrite resound because of the basic belief that everyone must be self serving no matter what they might appear to be doing or what they say. Have you noticed the cynicism of political commentators as they say that it is necessary for politicians to lie and break promises, while they attack church people for saying it could be different, and they are very quick to point out hypocracy in church leaders as it is characteristic of us all? As atheism and, more likely, pagan religions increase we can expect more of that kind of aggression against the disciples of Christ, because he really does challenge false values in a most fundamental way:

If you are not prepared to go that strange way, to see things in divine rather than human terms, you will be an "adversary", you  will be Satan like Peter; you will be blocking the path in front of Jesus, rather than being his follower. But if you are able to forget yourself and follow the servant leader, you will see those forces of evil overcome and in the end you will share in the rewards. As we have it in Matthew's highly symbolic words: The kingdom will be established, in spite of Peter's limited vision, and

Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
does his successive journeys run
his kingdom stretch from shore to shore
till moons shall wax and wane no more. [AHB 136]

The way of humble service, through struggle, disappointment, despair and death, through Jerusalem to Gethsemane and on to Calvary, leads ultimately to the day of resurrection, the gift of new life in the Spirit, the submission of evil to the goodness of  God and the transformation of world in the Kingdom of God. It is in the Kingdom, both in this world and beyond, that the true nature of the Messiah is revealed.

Let us now confess our faith in him. [In the words of Philippians 2:5-11]

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