Scripture: Matthew 16: 21-28
There is a struggle playing out in our gospel lesson today. The struggle isn’t new, in fact it is as old as time. If you pay attention to what Matthew has been writing in his gospel account so far this is a reoccurring theme. Two sides are vying for control and are expressing their idea of why Jesus has taken on human form and walked among us. Two different ideas for what it means to be the Messiah.
Jesus is preparing the disciples for his eventual death. He keeps hinting at it, they keep seeing him doing wonderful miraculous things and they develop a disconnect. How can Jesus suffer and die when he’s doing all this good stuff? This isn’t what they had expected and the disciples are rather surprised by it and perhaps they are a bit fearful.
Finally, after listening to Jesus explain how he must suffer and die at the hands of religious authorities Peter has had enough and he tells this to Jesus. And Peter is rather emphatic in his words, “God forbid it!” he tells Jesus. “This must never happen to you!” Now we can understand Peter’s distress. If I told you I was going to suffer and be murdered by the church and that this must happen you might, I hope, have a similar reaction.
Jesus rebukes Peter. If you thought that Peter was using strong language, the words of Jesus will cause you to pause, perhaps even stagger. “Get behind me Satan!” Satan! This is the same Peter that Jesus is going to build his church on. It is a harsh rebuke and if Jesus delivered it to us, we’d be stunned. Jesus continues by expressing how those who will follow him will experience a difficult path. The passage about picking up our crosses is well known, but there is a warning there too. Some people are a bit to eager to pick up their cross. Some use it as a weapon and others as a crutch. Both approaches are not good examples of discipleship.
As I mentioned earlier, the passage before us holds up two contrasting ideas of the Messiah. Peter’s words to Jesus come as surprise and shock, this isn’t what I thought I was signing up for! How can you die when you’re the Messiah. Whereas Jesus knows that in order to attempt to break the bonds of sin and death that we are beholden to, he must take on that brokenness and die himself. This is why we describe our faith as salvific. On the theological level, Jesus has restored our relationship with God and demonstrated how we should be living.
However, on the practical side of things. Well let’s be honest, not much has changed. People are far more caught up in the struggles for power that we see and experience. While preparing for this morning I came across the following illustration which I believe helps sum things up. “In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.¹ An important part of that novel is the section “The Grand Inquisitor,” a kind of parable told by Ivan, one of the brothers. It takes place at the height of the Inquisition and Jesus has returned to Earth to the Italian city of Seville. He is arrested by the leaders of the Inquisition as he is performing miracles and is sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor himself visits Jesus in his cell as he awaits execution. He explains to Jesus why the Church voted “yes” to imperial power. “The Church no longer needs you” he says. “You were wrong to refuse the power to feed the poor, perform a miraculous leap from the Temple, and grab rulership over the world. We picked up where you left off and improved on what you started. In fact we corrected your mistake. Yes, it was necessary to use the devil’s principles to do so but we do it in the name of God. What you don’t understand,” says the Inquisitor, “is that humanity cannot handle the free will you gave them. We gave them what they really need, security from want.”
“Jesus doesn’t respond except to listen in silence throughout the interrogation. When the Inquisitor’s diatribe is finally spent, Jesus silently kisses him on his “bloodless, aged lips.” The Inquisitor is startled by this gesture and is even moved by it perhaps, but is not converted. He does, however, let Jesus go with a warning: do not return again.
“The parable of the Grand Inquisitor brings into bold relief the stark differences between the ways of Crown and Cross to usher in God’s realm. Because the Church says no to Jesus’ way far too often, we need, like the disciples, to be reminded of the differences.” (Richard Ward – https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22/commentary-on-matthew-1621-28-6)
There are some striking words and thoughts in that illustration:
- The church no longer needs you.
- You were wrong to refuse power to feed the poor, perform a miraculous leap from the Temple, and grab rulership over the world.
- We picked up where you left off.
- In fact we corrected your mistake.
In fact, we corrected your mistake. And for many years this may be what the church did, knowingly or unknowingly. Of course, I wouldn’t classify the decisions of Christ as a mistake. But the church, perhaps it did. And often I think we still do, though we don’t realize it, nor would we actively classify it that way. But often, the church and its members do act in that way. We judge people. Sometimes we discriminate, often we exclude. We like to think of ourselves as welcoming, but welcoming to who? We want to help, but we often don’t know how. And often when we do help, the people we help are us. Now I want to be clear, I’m not talking exclusively about us. Rather, I’m painting with a very broad brush how the capital C Church has often acted throughout its history.
People who attend church often wonder where everyone else is? We wonder, don’t they know how nice we are and what good we do? And the answer is no they don’t and when those who have never attended church think of church, it’s all those things in the past, the blemishes that turn them away.
What might attract them? I don’t know, the church has been trying to figure that out for years. And maybe that’s the problem. We’ve been trying to create programing, activities, a culture, a worship experience for people to come in and consume. But that isn’t what this passage is about. Jesus wasn’t telling Peter to be the next best thing. Nor was he telling Peter to be the central pillar in society. The message of Jesus isn’t about grabbing power, it’s about humility.
Deny yourself. Pick up the cross. Follow Jesus.
In this way we receive a reward far beyond our understanding. In this way we can be at peace, with God, with each other, and with ourselves. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
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