SERMON Lectionary 22a 2017
Get behind me, Satan
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
It has been a horrible week in America, no doubt about it. Millions of people are displaced by the storms on the Gulf Coast, many lost everything, about 35 people have lost their lives so far. How many of us know that exactly the same thing is happening right now in Southeast India and in Bangladesh, where there are already 1000 dead, and there is no FEMA and no national guard to help. It is a dark time on planet Earth.
The worst story I heard coming out of Houston was this one: as the water rose in their house, a grandfather put his five grandchildren in the car and tried to escape the flooding. He made it over the bridge across the bayou, but somehow became trapped in the flooding on the other side and the car was swept into the bayou. The grandfather was able to escape through his window, but then had to listen helplessly to the children scream as the car sank into the water and they all drowned. Imagine carrying that memory for the rest of your life.
The reason I tell you that story is because what Jesus says to Peter about himself in this morning’s gospel is just as horrible: the Messiah will suffer and die a humiliating public death at the hands of sinners. Of course, Peter is horrified and immediately announces, That will never happen to you. Peter says that because he loves Jesus; he wants to protect him from danger and harm; he thinks he has God on his side. Of course he says this to Jesus. But he has no idea how wrong he is. I imagine that poor grandfather, trying to protect the kids, said something like that to them: go get in the car, let’s get out to where we can be safe. So desperately, tragically wrong.
Both these terrible things happened. Jesus suffocated in his own blood on the cross. The kids drowned.
The difference between the two events is that one is the will of God, and one is not. This always has to be said when natural disasters strike: the tragedies and accidents large and small that we suffer in this life are not the will of God, they are not punishment for human sin, they are the consequences of living in a broken world. Some preachers have already said that Texas was being punished by God because the legislature failed to pass one of these ridiculous transgender bathroom bills. And Katrina hit New Orleans because of the wicked lifestyles practiced there. Same with Sandy. People actually stand in Christian pulpits and say things like that. Worse, people sit in Christian pews and believe it. Well, don’t believe it. It is blasphemy. God does not traffic in hurricanes and bathroom protocol. If you want to look for God in the storm, look for God in the rescue and in the recovery, in the response of people as they help each other. God did not cause the disaster, God is at work in the response that the disaster brings out of people, out of us.
I hear that they are now airlifting some of the refugees to my home town of Dallas. I know exactly what they will find in Dallas: ample, clean, well-managed shelters and thousands of church people descending on them with blankets and clothing and hot food. Dallas is full of church people, and that is what church people do.
They do that – we do that – because of what Jesus describes to Peter today, because of what Jesus did on the cross: Jesus was God’s rescue force, sent to save a world drowning in its own sin. To effect that rescue, Jesus had to die. Jesus’ death was the will of God. Jesus was sent to die to save us from death and give us life. Because we know that, because God has written it on our hearts, we can rescue others in his name, a rescue effected by relieving suffering and by sharing the gospel. In both ways, the church is God’s rescue team for a drowning world.
So when Peter says what he says this morning, he doesn’t understand what God is doing. He is speaking out of love for his friend. But for Jesus, who does know what God is doing, Peter’s words are blasphemous. “Get behind me, Satan” (the biblical equivalent of “kiss my grits”) is about the worst thing Jesus ever says to anyone. Without knowing it, Peter is denying the very thing he confessed a few sentences earlier in the gospel; he is denying Jesus’ mission as God’s savior. Peter said lots of knuckleheaded things. But this one was too important to let it go without the rebuke Jesus gave. Jesus knew he had to walk into the meatgrinder of the Jerusalem Jews and Romans. There, on the cross, he would destroy the power of sin and death from the inside out.
This is something that only Jesus could do. When he says to Peter and the others, take up your cross and follow me, he is speaking with bitter irony. Of course they weren’t going to do that; nobody did that. We can’t do it. We might die, but our death does not save us; certainly our dying does not rescue people drowning in their own sin and helplessness. This was something only God could do.
And God did it, just as Jesus told Peter today. And because of what God has done by carrying the cross for us, we can carry our own sufferings and the sufferings of our brothers and sisters. We cannot save ourselves or others on our own; that’s God’s job. But we can, as Jesus teaches so plainly and often, relieve suffering. That is the work assigned to us: we can bring food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, blankets and clothes to those who are wet, we do this, we give what we can because we have received our life and salvation from God, through Jesus’ work on the cross.
So, perhaps as we begin our program year here at Trinity, we who know ourselves to be God’s rescue mission can read our agenda in our newspapers and in today’s lesson: where people are suffering, let us do what we can to lift their burdens. Where people do not know what God is up to – as Peter did not – let us share the gospel, let us tell the old story of Jesus and his love.
Let us pray.