The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 16th Chapter
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “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.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Last week, Jesus and the disciples pulled into Caesarea Philippi. It’s in the far North of Israel. It’s closer to Damascus and Beruit than it is to Jerusalem. It was a crossroads where trade, cultures and religions all came together. Outside of town there was a spot in a cliff face where everyone carved a niche for their god. You can almost imagine Jesus and the disciples pulling up to this cliff face and looking at all the gods and Jesus, with a wave of his hand at all the possible god-options, asking, “Who do ya’ll say that I am?” This is when Peter, the spokesmodel for the group, chimed in and said, “You are the Son of the Living God, the Messiah!” As they say on Family Feud… Good Answer! Good Answer!
As right as Peter was last week, that’s exactly the amount of wrong he is week! Together that averages him out to be a regular human being. The trouble was Peter’s idea of how the Messiah ought to act didn’t fit with what Jesus had in mind. Peter had imagined all his life that the Messiah would raise an army, go to Jerusalem, kick out the Romans and start a 1000 year rule of peace and prosperity. That wasn’t just Peter’s idea either. That was the go-to Messiah model of the time. A conquering hero was exactly what everyone was taught to expect. God was supposed to send a hero to kick butt and take names, not send someone to suffer and die!
When Jesus told them he planned to take a path to death with a side trip through suffering, Peter lost it. He’d been looking for that conquering hero Messiah since he was a kid! Jesus, he figured, just needed to be straightened out. The problem with that was when Peter went to straighten Jesus out, he was no longer following Jesus. He was trying to lead.
You see, you and me and Peter… we’re all called to follow. We often think we’re smart enough to tell the Son of the Living God how to be the Messiah but it turns out we’re not God. Unlike God we have exactly what it takes to lead boldly… right off the edge of a cliff. FOLLOWING Jesus, on the other hand, turns out to be the Way, the Truth and the Life and and not a path that leads off the edge of a cliff.
There’s a catch though… following Jesus on his path… it’s hard! Lots of steep grades, hot feet and aching legs on that Jesus path. And what makes it even harder is that following Jesus actually means “following”… real life moving, doing and going… You can’t watch a live feed and virtually follow from a pew… you’ve got to actually get off your sitter, put one foot in front of the other and do your life the Jesus Way… out there!
Eventually Peter and the disciples did just that. They remembered God was God and as God, God was allowed to do a new thing. They stepped out on the Jesus path and followed him on down to Jerusalem. They walked faithfully some of the way and wandered off here and there too. Sometimes 100% right… sometimes 100% wrong, mostly averaging out to 100% human just like you and me. In our Baptisms we too have been set on this path that follows Jesus. Our path doesn’t literally walk the same geography… down hill to Jerusalem, but it’s a path that all of us Baptized Christians are called to not just think about, study and discern, but to actually walk… one foot in front of the other every day of our lives.
In the second lesson Paul outlines what walking that path looks like for us. Talking about it, theologizing about it, debating it, studying it and discerning it is good, but it’s not enough. It means in every step of our day, letting love be genuine with everyone we encounter. It means hating what is evil, holding fast to what is good. Loving one another with mutual affection and outdoing one another in showing honor.
It means taking the risk and actively working for the things that are good and actively opposing the things that are evil. It means more than just sending a couple of bucks to for flood relief in Houston. It means insisting that when what used to be called 500 year storms happen multiple times in a single decade we face the truth of why that is and do something about it. It means more than simply thinking racism is wrong. It means standing and speaking and acting in ways that change hearts and minds and privileged systems. Walking the Jesus path means doing charity… and then taking another step and doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly on the Jesus Way.
You may have caught on, this ain’t no afternoon stroll! It’s a hike! Easier paths that focus on yourself, your comfort and your success are out there, sold by preachers in expensive suits and perfect teeth. Those paths just don’t look very much to me like the path Jesus walked. We walk the Jesus Way. As Luther said, every day we wash our face, we remember our Baptisms. We remember we’ve been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever and because we’ve been given that, we have what we need to step out on the Jesus Way, put one foot in front of the other and walk. No short cuts. Mostly long-cuts to be honest. But as we walk that path we’ll begin to realize that we are alive… really alive... abundantly alive and it’s a path we walk together as the Body of Christ. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s start walking! Amen.