Rocky Like Peter
Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel is one that can be really puzzling. It’s one of those that seems to show a different side of Jesus. And it’s a window onto Jesus that can make us a little uncomfortable. The Jesus in today’s reading can even seem a little inconsistent — maybe different from the Jesus we’ve been following over these past weeks. Just over these past summer months, as we’ve been reading Matthew’s gospel a story at a time, we’ve heard all about sweet Jesus — like we read in Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning:
let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Extend hospitality to strangers.
And then there’s the Jesus who’s sweet even in adversity — which really tests our human nature:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves… it is written, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
YEESH!! These are tough, right? They fight with our very nature. Bless those who are actively trying to do us harm? Not want to get even if someone hurts us? It’s a basic human instinct to protect self and avoid physical harm to our bodies. We see this tough conflict played out in the person of Jesus in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel. All through the summer, our readings from Matthew’s gospel gave us the story of Jesus gathering his disciples, doing miracles — healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and driving out demons all around the Sea of Galilee — the freshwater lake in the Jordan Valley — in the northern part of today’s State of Israel.
As Shakespeare might have said, these were the “salad days” of Jesus’ earthly ministry, when the movement was just beginning to green and grow — to put out shoots and leaves and blossoms. The disciples were just beginning to catch fire with the excitement of the movement — of following and learning from their amazing teacher, leader, rabbi and friend — Jesus. The crowds grew and grew, spreading like sweet potato vines or wild mint through the fertile areas around the Sea. Salad days are actually an accurate description of life around the lake even today. The whole Jordan Valley is the salad bowl of the State of Israel, filled with crops grown from the waters of the Sea. The hills at the side of the Sea are covered with bananas, mangos, and date and coconut palms, all carefully tended — covered with solid burlap tents to shield them from sun and birds — so they don’t get burned in the hot Galilean sun. The burlap tents look like part of the hillside unless you are very close up, blending into the hillsides around them.
After the healing and casting out of demons we read about in July, we moved on through our own growing season, as Jesus sent the disciples out to preach, teach, and heal. Jesus himself traveled all around the little villages of the Galilee, teaching with stories about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like… tending grapevines, planting tiny seeds that grow into sheltering bushes, tending fields, baking bread, and finding hidden pearls of great price.
And through July and August, we read the parable of the Sower of Seeds, the parable of the weeds and wheat, and the parable of the mustard seed. Many of us who keep gardens at home were in our own salad days while we were reading these parables, with tomatoes beginning to ripen, and waves of lettuce in loose green curls through our gardens. After all of that greening, growing, harvesting, and rising bread, it’s really hard to hear Jesus’ harsh words to his old friend, Peter, this morning. Peter, a fisherman, is Jesus’ first recruit as a disciple. And Peter is our favorite. He’s a Jesus booster — a Jesus fan. Peter is Jesus’ bestie — always at his side to cheer him on. Jesus even stays with Peter in Capernaum in the first part of his ministry. Peter goofs up a lot. He gets things wrong, forgets, and misunderstands so very much.
Any of Us Could Be Peter
This is why I root for Peter. I root for Peter because I could be Peter. Any of us could be Peter. Peter is our scriptural Everyman. On our very best day, we’re just like Peter: a beat slow, two steps behind, with a death grip on the wrong idea. So what has happened in today’s reading that leads Jesus to rebuke (that’s Bible talk for scold or chew out) his first disciple — his biggest fan — as Satan? The story just before this one is the one where Peter recognizes Jesus as Messiah — the son of the living God — and gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Just minutes before in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says he’s founding his church on Peter — the name Jesus gave his first disciple that means rock. And that’s our legacy today. Right here and now. Jesus founded his church on old Rocky — Peter — the guy who was always a beat slow, two steps behind, with a death grip on the wrong idea — kind of like we are, on our very best days. Jesus founded his church on a guy just like US.
And this is the turning point in Jesus’ earthly ministry. It’s the point where Jesus explains again, clearly — 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 at this moment, Peter — the rock on which Jesus was founding his church — probably still gripping the keys to the kingdom of heaven in his rocky, human hand — takes Jesus aside and argues with that future.
Because none of us like change. None of us want the way of life we’ve known and love to end. And I don’t know about you, but I feel like Peter! I want to say NO. God forbid it, Lord. That should not — will not — happen. We always want to be just like we are now. Because we, on our very best day, are just like rocky Peter: full of love and great intentions, but a beat slow, two steps behind, and with a death grip on the wrong idea.
Jesus Wrestles With His Full Humanity
And Jesus probably feels it too! He’s wrestling with his own full humanity. He’s the Son of Man after all, as he often says. Fully human and fully divine. It’s our great mystery. Jesus says 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.” Jesus is talking to the humanest part of himself — and to Peter and to us — all at the same time. That’s rough talk — rocky talk — especially after the salad days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And Jesus tells us he struggles too.
Jesus recognizes that Peter’s love for the way things always have been — it will never happen to you, Jesus. We won’t allow it! — is the very most human part of us.
Jesus tells Peter that his “supportiveness” — Peter’s reluctance to change the ways and relationships they have loved with what happens next in the fullness of their lives with God —Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection — is our very humanity. PETER, Jesus’ best bud in the world, who loves him and would follow him anywhere, is still gripping the keys to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus himself has given him. THIS Peter is now Jesus’ stumbling block — a rock in his path. Our humanity — the way in which we are like Peter — or even like Jesus — our humanity is our stumbling block. And Jesus founded his church on stumbling blocks — stumbling rocks — just like us.
What are our stumbling blocks today? What changes do we want to avoid in our lives in community, in our nation, in the world? What do we fear in our relationships in our families, our church, and with our natural environment? What ideas, ways, or habits — that we love — might be stumbling blocks to us — all of us? Because we’re rocky like Peter. We are our own stumbling blocks. We clutch the keys to the kingdom of heaven in one hand, with a firm grip on the wrong idea in the other.
And that’s ok.
Jesus founded his church on a guy just like us. Amen