God With Us: Journeying Through The Gospel of Matthew
“Being Human, Following The Divine”
Matthew 16: 21-28
Simon Peter goes from being hailed as Jesus’ rock to being a mouthpiece of Satan in just a few short words. Poor Peter. Poor Jesus. Poor us. This world is just too hard to understand sometimes. Even Jesus, bringing love, bringing salvation, bringing hope and humanity to all of us, still yet, is just too hard to understand sometimes.
The events of the past week are hard enough to understand, and they happen in our times. Black men shot inhumanely by policemen for no earthly, justifiable reason; policemen executed like dogs when all they had done was give security to a peaceful demonstration. Men who wanted nothing more than to go home to their wives and children—a black man in a car, a policeman on the street—dead, with no earthly tomorrows, no next moment left to behold and cherish.
It is harder still for us to be expected to understand words and events from 2000 years ago, words from a time and a culture not our own.
But they are words from a rabbi, words from a savior, words from a Jesus very much our own.
And they are hard, very hard words to understand. They are harder still to accept.
If we really listen, though, and if we take these sacred words of Jesus to heart, then they will help us find peace, keep our courage, and regain our sense of humanity and love during times which can be oh so dark, and confusing.
First things first, my dear friends: Jesus isn’t calling Peter “Satan” in this scripture, though at first blush it appears so. No. Jesus is however, telling Peter his words remind Jesus of something he has heard Satan saying before. Many folks like to make a link between Peter telling Jesus to abandon his talk of destined suffering and death to the words of Jesus’ tempter many years before in the wilderness. Remember, Satan offered Jesus the world and all Jesus had to do was fall down and worship him. In both cases, both speakers—Peter and Satan—try to convince Jesus to prove to the world who he is without showing humanity his love with the essential act of self- giving love of the cross.
The words Peter say echoes in Jesus’ memory with the same meaning and cadence of those long-ago words from Satan.
What Jesus is telling Peter is that he, Peter is doing something so very human, I do it, and maybe just maybe, you do it, too. “Peter, you are setting your heart, your mind, your imagination on earthly things, and not divine things,” Jesus says.
Jesus wants Peter, and us, to look up, but Peter is too busy looking around.
Jesus’ heart is set on all people—all people of all tribes, orientations, geography, even time—coming to wholeness in humanity and knowing peace in God. Peter’s heart is set on his people—probably Peter’s concern is most real for his immediate family and most friendly neighbors (that’s how most of us are, anyway…not just local but very local in care and concern) finding greater self-rule and autonomy from the Roman Empire. Jesus’ worldview is cosmic; his concern for humanity universal. Peter’s worldview is national;—sound familiar?—his concern for his own blood and neighborhood.
Jesus thinks about heaven coming to earth. Jesus thinks about the divine.
Peter thinks about the earth, and very specifically his own home. Peter thinks about the human.
We focus today on the broad expanse of this scripture, more so than the very specific details. I believe that this story captures the essence of the difference between Jesus and us. In our conversation about this story, we aren’t going to demonize Peter. We are Peter. In telling the story of this true, painful story in Peter’s life, Matthew the writer uses Peter as an archetype for me and you.
Jesus thinks holy, sacred thoughts. Jesus’ thoughts are expansive and cosmic.
We think small, sometimes petulant thoughts. Our concerns are often limited to self: self-preservation, self-promotion, and self-gratification. Often our selflessness, unselfish service and compassion is limited to those selves who look and think just like we do.
What we are talking about here, what this scripture addresses for us, is the timeless dance between the human, and the divine. As Christians, we constantly seek a balance between the two. We know we are human. We celebrate our humanity. Yet we are forever seeking the divine touch upon our humanness: divine reflection within our humanity; divine forgiveness of our sin; divine healing upon the scar tissue of our brokenness.
Shakespeare was right—we are all angels. Michael Shaara was right too though—if we are angels, then we must be “killer angels.” Look around at our world. Look around at our country.
So Christians seeks a balance between our God-created humanness, and the divinity in whose image we were created, and saved by. Actually, our Christian faith begins by seeking balance. When we first believe in Jesus and become Christian, we hold our humanness and Christ’s holiness, God’s divinity, in creative tension. Sometimes we fall back on very human thoughts and ways. Other times, what we think and what we do can be very sacred and divine.
That’s the beginning of our journey with Jesus. In the long journey of our faith, however, the goal isn’t balance. The goal is surrender. We seek to surrender this very humanness to God in order to become more Christ-like, and indeed, more holy. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called this lifelong pilgrimage, this graceful transformation going on to perfection. We Methodists do indeed believe in going on to perfection. Do we believe that we can be perfect this side of heaven? No, of course not, but if you don’t seek, if you don’t stretch, you can never, ever grow.
Peter tries to talk Jesus out of the cross because Peter is just beginning his journey, the eternal journey of being Christian. Jesus understands, and he persists in his teaching of suffering, self-giving love, the cross, death, resurrection, new, healed life.
Jesus Christ, of course doesn’t need balance or surrender when it comes to humanness and divinity. Jesus was, Jesus is, at all times and for all times completely human, and completely divine, all at the same time. Sometimes we forget that, and we fall into a heretical trap which makes Jesus some kind of Clark Kent/Superman dualistic being:
Okay, when he went off in the Temple and cast the money changers out, that was human Jesus.
When he healed the leper outside the city gates, that was divine Jesus.
No. That isn’t Jesus. That’s Hollywood. Scripture and tradition, the 2000 plus years orthodoxy of the Church teaches us that Jesus forever holds his humanity and his divinity in perfect balance. Actually, they aren’t balanced in the sense that they exist half-and half within Jesus’ being. They comingle; they co-exist; they are in perfect harmony within Jesus very blood, within every atom of his sacred being.
It’s a mystery, to be sure, and a very essential, heavenly mystery.
We don’t seek balance so much as we seek surrender.
If we surrender our humanity to Jesus, then we can truly be beautiful, living together in the masterpiece of God’s earth, as God’s humanity.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 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 confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.