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Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 3, 2023

Matthew 16:21-23

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

What a difference a week makes! Last week Peter was a hero of the faith. In the midst of all kinds of wrong answers floating around about who Jesus was, Peter got it right. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asked him, and Peter responded: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus was so thrilled with Peter’s answer, coming as it did from the Father himself, who revealed this to Peter, that Jesus said, “You are Petros, which in Greek means “rock.” “You are the rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”

Now here we are a week later, picking up right where we left off last week in the gospel, and here things have taken a drastic turn. Peter goes from being a mouthpiece for God the Father just a verse or two before to being a mouthpiece for Satan himself. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said to him, “You are a stumbling-block to me!” On a dime, Peter goes from being a rock to being a stumbling block.

What happened? Well, after Peter made his good confession, after he correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of the living God, Jesus went on to teach Peter and all the disciples what that meant. Jesus taught them HOW he was going to save them. As St. Matthew tells us, “Jesus began to show them that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Peter answered the “who” question exactly right, but he did not like what Jesus was saying about the “how.” He didn’t like what he was hearing about this suffering and dying business. We can hardly blame him. I mean, Peter cared about Jesus. He loved him. No one wants the people you love and care about to suffer. But Peter went so far as to rebuke Jesus! Can you imagine? Peter knew that Jesus was the Son of the living God and he had the gall to rebuke him, to scold him, to berate him!

Jesus tells us more specifically what happened to turn Peter from a spokesman for God into a spokesman for Satan, from a rock to a stumbling block. Jesus says that Peter was setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. In his human way of thinking, Peter wanted salvation without suffering. He wanted forgiveness and atonement without sacrifice. He wanted a Christ without the cross. In putting his mind on human things rather than divine things, by reflexively rejecting suffering, Peter was missing the very means by which Christ would save us from our sin.

And not only that, but by putting his mind on human things rather than on divine things, Peter had entirely missed what would come AFTER the suffering! He missed the promise of the resurrection. He missed the part where Jesus said that on the third day he would be raised. He missed it now, and he missed it later too. You’ll recall from the Easter story that on the third day after Jesus’ death Peter was sitting around twiddling his thumbs, expecting nothing. He had to be reminded of what Jesus said!

Putting one’s mind on human things rather than on divine things was not just a problem for Peter. It is a problem for all of us. It is a common human reflex, especially in the breathtaking hubris of modern times, for people to mentally pull Jesus aside, thinking they know better than him, correcting him with their modern sensibilities.

To put our mind on divine things is to listen to Christ’s Word and to trust that he knows what he’s talking about. It is to surrender to the holy wisdom of his Word. To put our mind on divine things is to look to the cross of Christ not as meaningless suffering, but as the means of our salvation. It is to trust in Jesus’ promise that after the suffering comes the resurrection.

After addressing Peter, Jesus turned to the rest of the disciples and said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Now Jesus was talking not only about what would happen to him, but what would happen to them, and to all of us. Those who follow Jesus will have crosses of their own to carry. They can expect some suffering of their own.

Furthermore, those who follow Jesus are called to deny themselves. This is so very countercultural in a world where we are constantly encouraged to seek self-fulfillment. (“Follow your bliss.) This is countercultural in a society where the self is seen as the primary arbiter of truth. (“Seek your truth.”). This is countercultural in a society where the goal of human life is seen as self-actualization, in a culture that exalts the self-made person and self-reliance. Both ends of the political spectrum and both sides in the culture wars have their version of exalting the almighty self.

Followers of Jesus are instead called to deny themselves. This is not so much about external things. It isn’t so much about depriving yourself of all earthly pleasures. As Christians we are called to a measure of self-restraint in many situations, to be sure, but this goes much deeper.  In calling us to deny ourselves Jesus is taking away one of our favorite idols: the self. He is telling us to not turn our self into our god, that to which we look for all purpose and meaning in life. This is about not turning yourself into the final authority on truth. Above all, it is about not looking to yourself for your salvation.

Life isn’t about finding yourself, it is about being found in Christ. Life isn’t about self-actualization, but Christ being actualized in us. It is not about being definers of our own truths, but humbling ourselves before God’s truth. It is not about being self-made, but acknowledging that we are creatures who have been lovingly made and provided for by God. It is not about being self-reliant, it is about being fully reliant on Christ.

Jesus goes on to say that those who want to save their life will lose it, and that those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will find it. In the early church this was quite literal. St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, literally lost his life for Jesus’ sake. There are some parts of the world today where being a Christian literally puts your life at risk.

But there’s another way of understanding this, and it follows from what Jesus said about denying ourselves. Losing your life can also be understood as losing your “self.” In giving your entire life, your entire self, to Christ, you find what really gives life. Yes, you will lose your life, in a sense, but you will find it again in him. You will find the life that is really life.

Peter’s mistake was a very human one. Human beings are wired to avoid suffering. This is usually good. It is mostly a feature and not a bug. For instance, we naturally pull our hand away from a hot stove to avoid being burned. That’s good! But this impulse towards self-preservation can be used against us. It can become a stumbling block. Satan can use it to put a wedge between us and God, just as he did with Peter. The devil can exploit this impulse to bring us to ruin.

Last week I watched the hit Netflix series “Pain Killer,” which is about OxyContin and the opioid epidemic. As Purdue pharma was developing their new drug, one of their executives spoke loftily about ending pain once and for all. He wanted to take the morphine molecule, which had been associated with death, and market it in a way that associated it with life. He wanted his pill widely distributed, and used terms like “setting people free,” and “giving them their lives back.” I know many people suffer from chronic pain, and I don’t want to be dismissive of that longing for relief. But you know how the rest of the story unfolds. You see it every night on the news. The same molecule that promised life delivered for a while, but then brought a tidal wave of addiction and heartache and death that continues to this day.

If you know my recent family history, you know that I already bring my own baggage to a show like this, but it is hard not to see this as demonic. The human impulse to avoid suffering was hijacked by demonic forces, bringing even more suffering and death. This is how the devil works. This is what he tried with Peter, and what he continues to try with us, in a million different ways.

And so our Lord Jesus calls us to set our minds on divine things. We counter this my setting our minds on divine things, by keeping our eyes on Christ and his Word.

We are to take him at his word and look at his suffering and death on the cross as the “how” of our salvation. It is his sacrificial suffering and not our self-pursuits that save us.

We are to take him at his word and follow him by taking up our own crosses, enduring our own suffering. The gospel is not a pain killer. Sorry Karl Marx, but it is not the opiate of the masses. The gospel does not take away suffering, not immediately anyway. Anyone who has followed Jesus for any length of time knows this to be true. We are instead to endure suffering patiently, as St. Paul says in our reading from Romans, not letting the devil use it as a wedge between us and God, turning us into a stumbling block, or bringing us to ruin.

We are to take him at his word and also hear the promise he gives us. Setting our mind on divine things also means remembering what he promised about the third day. It means trusting in the promise of the resurrection. It means living in hope, for suffering did not have the last word for Jesus, and it will not have the last word for us either.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church