Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 22 • 31 Aug 2014

Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Rev. Chris Udy

Last week’s Gospel reading -

the one we missed out on
because I was so keen
to look at the story
of the Syro-phoenician woman -
so – last week’s Gospel reading
is also critically important.
We won’t go back to read it again,
but that story – of Peter’s confession of faith –
describes the point in the gospels
where Jesus radically changes direction
from being pastoral … to being political.
Up until that point he’d been moving out,
among the towns and villages of Galilee,
presenting his message of hope,
and proclaiming God’s purpose
with compassion and authority -
and the culmination of that work,
at the moment when he seems to be
at his most powerful and successful
Peter says:
“You are the Christ - (in Hebrew ‘the Messiah’),
Son of the Living God”.
And then comes the reading we heard today.
From that time on, Matthew says,
Jesus began to explain to his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer -
that he must die -
and that on the third day
he will be raised to life.
He begins talking about an idea
that was absolutely foreign to his disciples.
They were all good Hebrew boys
who knew their Torah
and could tell you exactly what the Messiah’s job was,
because it was a promise
repeated all through the Law and the Prophets -
a promise almost as clear and as strong
as the promise of the land.
‘Messiah’ in Hebrew means ‘anointed’,
and ‘Christ’ is the Greek translation.
It reminded people of the way David was chosen,
when Samuel visited Jesse’s home
and rejected all Jesse’s older sons
in favour of David, the youngest,
who’d been out looking after the sheep.
Jesse poured oil on David’s head -
something that desert people did as a welcome
for people in the family.
It was something intimate and hospitable,
and when Samuel - God’s prophet - anointed David,
it amounted to David’s adoption by God:
his welcome into God’s family.
So the disciples thought
the Messiah would be a warrior king,
a commander just like David -
and his army would not only be human,
but angelic - the host of heaven.
He would be victorious in battle;
he would restore the ancient borders of Israel,
his military victories would bring peace
and he would rule with justice.
That’s what Peter meant
when he said ‘You are the Christ - the Messiah -
Son of the Living God’ -
and Peter’s ultimate expectation
was of “the Day of the Lord”
a final and terrible battle
to rid the holy promised land of foreign powers –
as well as a few people who had been in Palestine
even longer than Israel’s family.
“The Day of the Lord”:
a day when the sun would turn red
with the smoke of burning machines of war,
and the air would be filled with cries for mercy
and groans of defeat
from armies of enemies utterly defeated.
They were images that had slowly formed in Israel
over 600 years – since the first Babylonian exile (597 BC),
and they’ve echoed through the middle east ever since;
Holy War - death before surrender
and nothing less than victory for the elect of God.
Peter and James and John had been raised,
through Sabbath meeting after Sabbath meeting,
with the rehearsal and planning for this war -
and they were ready for battle:
“You are the Christ,
Son of the Living God”, Peter said,
‘Call out the people,
and we will fight and live or die for you!’.
Imagine then the shock,
to hear Messiah say -
“I’m going to Jerusalem,
and when I get there,
I will suffer and I will be killed”.
They probably didn’t hear anything else.
They were outraged and shaken.
Peter took Jesus by the arm to lead him away
from this deeply embarrassing mistake
so he could speak in private:
“Rabbi - what are you saying!
This is foolish talk - come let me speak with you!
Never, never will this happen to you!”
But Jesus pulled his arm away and turned on Peter,
and there, in front of all the disciples he said:
“Get behind me, Satan!
You are a stumbling block to me;
you do not have in mind the things of God,
your mind is trapped in human concerns” -
and then he called his disciples
to follow him - not to war and military victory -
on the way of the Cross.
There are two quite different ways of the cross here.
One is the way Jesus shows us,
making decisions and commitments in faith,
maintaining them through opposition and challenge;
walking through threats and malice
and reinforcing strength of purpose and willpower
with faith.
It’s a lonely, hard and dangerous way to live -
and Christians follow it every day.
Three weeks ago
Patriarch Louis Sako,
the leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq
appealed to the UN on behalf 100,000 Christians
who had fled their villages
on the Nineveh plains
after Isis launched mortar attacks.
He said:
"They fled their villages and houses
[with] nothing but … the clothes on their backs, …
"[It is] an exodus, a real via crucis (way of the cross)
Christians are walking on foot
in Iraq's searing summer heat
towards the Kurdish cities
of Irbil, Duhok and Soulaymiyia,
the sick, the elderly,
infants and pregnant women among them.
They are facing a human catastrophe
and risk a real genocide."        

Fr Sako lives in Iraq,
and by speaking up he puts himself in peril
and exposes his community to reprisals -
and that’s what the way of the cross is like today
for some Christians -
not only in Iraq, but in places like Ethiopia,
and the Sudan, and Pakistan,
and some parts of China.
That’s one aspect of the way of the cross -
- standing firm against evil in the world
with courage and hope -
and at some time, as disciples of Jesus,
we all have to make commitments
and hold to them with no other resource
than the determination of faith.
But there’s another way of the cross
in our reading for today,
one that’s really more familiar to most of us
than the clear and determined way of the cross for Jesus.
Last week we read Peter’s high point.
He was the first to say:
“You are the Christ,
You are the Son of the Living God.”
and he was then called Peter - the Rock,
a solid foundation for people of God.
And this week? ...
This week he’s called Satan;
and told that he stands between Jesus and his purpose
as a stumbling block - a big useless lump.
Peter’s way of the cross seems to be scattered
with mountain tops and muddy swamps,
and he moves between them many times
and with great speed.
He was the first disciple to be called;
he was first to proclaim Jesus “Lord”,
but then Peter is also the one who sank
when he tried to walk on water through the storm.
On the mountain top
he sees Jesus shining with God’s glory,
and babbles out nonsense because he’s terrified.
At the last supper he first refuses to let Jesus touch him,
and then he inappropriately asks for an all-over wash
when Jesus insists.
Peter loudly protests that he’ll always be there for Jesus,
but he falls asleep in the garden of Gethsemane,
then runs away the soldiers come to arrest him,
then denies him 3 times
when a little girl recognises his Galilean accent.
After the resurrection,
Peter is first to lead the Church,
and he has that wonderful vision
of the Gospel reaching out
to include people of every nation on earth,
but then he quarrels with Paul
at the first council of the Church,
because Peter has given in
to pressure from the ultra-conservatives,
who want all Christians to be circumcised
and bound by every restriction of the Old Testament Law.
Finally tradition tells us
that Peter went to Rome,
and was the first Bishop of Rome - the first Pope -
and when Rome burned
and Nero was looking for a scapegoat,
Peter was arrested and condemned to die on a cross.
Peter’s final request
was that he be crucified upside-down,
because, he said, he wasn’t worthy
to die in the same way Jesus had been killed.
Another way of the cross -
very different from the way that Jesus took.
Jesus in purposeful determination
seems to be in control,
seems to know where he’s going
and moves forward through all opposition
and against every diversion and challenge.
Peter flashes from the heights to the depths.
Promising everything and failing miserably
again and again and again.
It’s such a painful story -
and we can imagine Peter’s shame -
his horror at failure after failure,
his anger with himself
at once again proving to be
the man with the loudest voice and the least action.
But the amazing thing about Peter
is that he keeps coming back.
He doesn’t allow his shame to defeat him -
he keeps coming back,
keeps dying and rising,
following the way of the cross.
Peter’s way of the cross is not as clear,
or as firm and determined as the way Jesus took,
but no-one could question Peter’s faith-fulness.
No-one can question the depth of his commitment
or his dependance on God.
His way of the cross has its own power -
its own promise and effectiveness.
Where we may often find it difficult
to identify with Jesus,
Peter is often easier to understand and relate to.
Peter’s way of the cross
also has its own cost.
Peter died to himself many times,
asking almost daily for forgiveness,
and rising to new awareness of God’s purpose and grace.
Jesus said:
“If anyone would come after me
he must deny himself,
take up his cross and follow me.
For whoever wants to save his life
will lose it;
but whoever loses his life for me
will save it.”
Peter may have begun seeing himself
as a warrior general in holy war for Messiah,
but in the end he found his life on the way of the cross.
We have to find our own way of the cross,
both as a congregation of God’s people,
and also as members - individual disciples.
Whether it’s clearly laid out like a highway,
or twists and turns like Peter’s sheep track,
the end is the same.
If we want to stay safe and respectable,
never facing failure or risking embarrassment
or embracing pain,
then we’ll lose,
but if we lose our life in Christ,
we will find it given back,
rich in meaning and in purpose,
and full of hope and joy.