11th Sunday after Pentecost
“We believe that the truth of the gospel cannot be separated from the kind of lives required for the recognition of that truth” -Stanley Hauerwas
“Our instinct to embrace Jesus’ exemplary goodness while avoiding the blood of the cross is a “stumbling block” to God’s mission in the world.” -Charles Hambrick-Stowe
At some point in my growing up years I remember seeing, on the bookshelf in our living room, the spine of a book whose title was Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. Even at a young age, I can clearly remember sensing the irony and nonsense of that phrase. Who makes war to get peace? Now I understand why its author would have suggested that the dominant ethos of our time is the notion of perpetual war for perpetual peace. Now I see why the world is so easy to believe that the means for achieving peace in the world need not match the ends. Why? We do it all the time.
This week’s gospel lesson is ripe with possibility for reflection upon all of the ways that we assume that weak or faulty means will lead us to strong and/or productive ends. One must only look around at most of our lives to see the ways that our means of achieving a goal hardly match the ends they seek: Lose weight by taking a pill! No lifestyle change necessary. Make millions working from home! No actual work required. Grow your church by installing a coffee bar, projector screen, or other pre-packaged trend du jour! No further congregational effort needed. We have an entire society built upon the notion of easy answers and quick-fix solutions to the problems that ail us. No wonder that we assume that problems of international relations can be solved with bombs and boats.
In today’s gospel lesson, the disciples get a rude awakening when Jesus tells them that while he is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for, their liberation and salvation would come at a cost to both him and them. The means, he suggests, must be consummate with the ends. A Messianic kingdom of love, forgiveness, grace, and peace would not be inaugurated with violence, hatred, and suspicion, but with the power of suffering love, forgiveness, grace, and peace. If the world is to be transformed, it will not be by the same means that got us into the mess in the first place. For those of us like Peter, with the tendency to seek the easy, work-free, and pain-free way out, this can be a hard pill to swallow.
I find it helpful to note that when Jesus rebukes Peter for his mistaken assumption that either Jesus or the disciples will get to the Kingdom without “losing their life”, that the Greek phrasing parallels that of Jesus’ original call to discipleship. The proper place for a disciple of Jesus is “behind me” (opiso mou), a phrase found in both Matthew 4:19’s call to “follow me” and here in Matthew 16:23’s “get behind me”. How often do we commit ourselves as followers of Christ only to then jump back out in front of Jesus and presume to lead him in our own way? How very human of us to want to direct our paths far from the pain and challenge of suffering. How very human of us to want the easy way out. The call of discipleship is a call to follow, not to lead. That requires a measure of self-denial and the relinquishment of control that we are reluctant to give. Jesus’ harsh rebuke of Peter is a reminder to us that our temptation to want to accomplish ministry on our own terms is not only demonic, but a stumbling block to the coming of the Kingdom.