Jesus’s turn toward Jerusalem, following where we don’t want to go, and facing our own fears
a Homily for Proper 17 A | Text: Matthew 16:21-28
We are in the middle of a conversation. We always are. The passages of our lives are always small segments of a much longer story. A common place for us in life–to be in the middle of a story, or the telling of a bigger story–then interrupted. We pick up our conversation when we get together again.
We do this with church. Each week we gather and continue telling the story; continue piecing together our lives.
This morning, I mean it more literally. Jesus is talking with the disciples about identity and mission. He asks them “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” then “But who do you say that I am?”
Messiah! Peter says.
Shh! Tell no one!
We pick it up there: as Jesus tells them about His mission: to stare death in the face and return.
Peter’s response “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” may as well be You can’t go! Is Peter afraid of Jesus’s death, His mission’s death, or the responsibility that will fall on him, the rock, after He’s gone? Or all three at the same time?
Peter’s fear and confusion is a problem for the mission which Jesus rejects. Perhaps the danger is that Peter’s fear (just told not to be afraid) would spread like a contagion. Or perhaps Peter’s defense of Him is too tempting for Jesus.
“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.”
How we hear this conversation really depends on how we see the mission. The mission Peter endangers, the mission Jesus refuses to abandon: a mission of confrontation and revelation. Of walking to certain death and rising on the third day in defiance of the laws of nature and the laws of humanity. Laws that see death as ours to make, laws that say lives are ours to judge, laws that say GOD’s will is not as important as our own.
Many of us here feel as if we are in the middle of a conversation: a conversation too big to fit into one hour, too difficult to summarize into bullet points, too important to let go.
We are conversing about identity and purpose: the very mission of our lives and of St. Paul’s. We are hoping for more answers than Jesus can give us. Like the pious young man, coming to Jesus with a question about the afterlife, we are told to get rid of our stuff and follow Jesus. Like the disciples, it is we who are told to take up our crosses and follow Him. Still we ask:
Jerusalem, He says.
What is there? We ask.
The cross. My cross. There will be other crosses, too. One day, yours will be there.
Not all of us will. We all will die someday. But knowing the kingdom, living the kingdom, loving the kingdom here, in our Jerusalem makes death different. It tastes different when we do this His way, Jesus’s way, GOD’s way, Yah’s way. Not our way.
The chapter began with another confrontation with the Pharisees: Show us a sign! they demand. Jesus tells them that there are already signs.
Jesus warns the disciples–beware the yeast of the Pharisees, beware their teaching, for left alone, it grows on its own.
Contrast this with Jesus’s teaching: follow me. Follow me. Deny yourself and follow me. Deny that vision of power so that you can recognize GOD’s vision of power. Deny that certainty they offer and embrace the only true certainty that is found in GOD’s grace. Deny that selfishness and fear that grows in your heart and follow me, together into the kingdom, a new kingdom, a kingdom come that is nothing like this evil you love, where hope withers, but is being replaced with GOD’s love; a fertile soil in which giving grows and courage blooms.
Jesus offers a kingdom that is already come and becoming visible. Signs of its presence are visible for those with eyes to see. Signs of GOD’s grace and hope and thanksgiving.
This is Jesus’s mission and His turn to Jerusalem brings it closer. His call to His followers, “Come!” Like His call to Peter on the sea, “Come!” Where Peter walks on water just calmed by Jesus. “Come!”
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
To Jesus, life can’t be saved; not that way. Not in the ways we think about. Not through safety. Saving comes through risk; through stepping out onto the water or following Jesus into Jerusalem: into the hands of the executioners. Those who follow to the gates of Jerusalem, bearing their crosses on their backs will pass, not through the gates of the Kingdom of Rome, but the very Kingdom of GOD.
Kingdom is (even) here
This is what we face as Christians: this is central to our mission and our very purpose. It is our work and our very lives. It is the most important thing we can do: for our faith and the faith of everyone we care about: to stop obsessing about ourselves! About our clothes and our jewels and our buildings and our budgets and our worship and our communication and our achievements and our calender and all of those signs our culture uses to measure us and judge us. Stop worrying about whether or not we will pay our bills or if we can keep our doors open! Stop worrying about the specks you see in everyone else’s eyes! Listen to Jesus! He’s calling! Come, take up your cross and follow me!
That’s how we’ll find the kingdom here. Fear drowns us and hope saves us.
You can’t see it yet because it isn’t visible to us all, like looking through a mirror dimly. It may feel like the valley of the shadow of death, but what do we say then? What do we say every time we pray the Psalm? I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.
Stare death in the face! Get off your butt, right up on your tippytoes and say “This is not where the story ends. We will not cower in fear. We will not fight with our friends. We will not let evil steal this kingdom from us.” That is what the cross does for us. Strapped to our backs, it gives us courage in the midst of emptiness and hope when others think all is lost. We go with Jesus to Jerusalem while the weak attack the weaker in the streets or our pews.
Jesus is moving, people! Whether you’re coming or not. He’s on His way. He’s not leaving you behind, but you’re in danger of leaving yourself behind.
Go. Do not be afraid. But do not get in Jesus’s way. For we are going to Jerusalem. We are carrying our crosses and we are following. Banish your fear! Banish the Satans that blind you! Do not stop until we get to that spot reserved for us; that place in which we confront the evil, we enter those gates, and for the first time we walk in the Kingdom of GOD. Then it’ll all make sense. Then we’ll know comfort and grace and realize that the hope and love we know was there the whole time. The whole time. Here. Even now.