Jeremiah 15:15-21 – Psalm 26:1-8 – Romans 12:9-21 – Matthew 16:21-28
Have you ever had a setback, a defeat, a screw-up? Have you ever snatched failure from the jaws of success?
Playwright Oscar Wilde once commented after a disastrous opening night that his play was a great success but the audience was a failure. That’s one way of handling defeat, I guess.
Winston Churchill had that same ability to spin a setback into something else. He was once asked, “What most prepared you to lead England through World War II?”
His reply? “It was the time I repeated a class in grade school.”
His questioner then asked: “You mean you flunked a grade?”
Winston Churchill straightened himself up to his full height and replied: “I never flunked in my life. I was given a second opportunity to get it right!” (1)
That’s the way to handle a defeat look at it as a second chance to get it right.
Simon Peter knew about second chances. You will remember from last week when Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
It was Simon Peter who answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus heaped on Simon Peter words of profound praise for his answer:
Today’s lesson follows that rapturous scene. Matthew tells us that from that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. At this, says Matthew, Simon Peter took Christ aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Well, you know what happens next. Jesus turns and says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
What a turnaround! It takes Simon Peter only seven verses to go from being the rock upon which Christ will build his church to being the voice of Satan tempting Christ to avoid the cross. That is one of the reasons I love the Bible. There is no attempt to make biblical characters more holy than they were. One moment Peter proclaims Christ as the Messiah and the next moment he is telling Christ how to go about his work. One moment he is in the garden defending Christ with a sword against a Roman legion, and the next he is standing outside the palace where Jesus is being tried and denies with an oath that he ever knew Jesus. One moment he is in hiding as his Master is being crucified, and the next he is proudly proclaiming Christ’s message to thousands of listeners on the Day of Pentecost. This is Simon Peter.
Even more important, however, is this truth: we are Simon Peter. Up and down, in and out, defending and denying that’s us. We can identify with this fickle disciple. When he looked back on it later, Simon Peter probably regretted trying to correct Jesus. But we all say dumb things from time to time. We all take our feet and shove them toe first into our mouths. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I suspect it is part of the human condition.
In her memoirs, Barbara Bush described one of her most embarrassing moments. Along with her husband, then the Vice President, Mrs. Bush was lunching with Emperor Hirohito at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. Sitting next to the Emperor, Mrs. Bush found conversation an uphill task. To all her efforts at verbal engagement, the Emperor would smile and simply answer “Yes” or “No,” with an occasional “Thank you” tossed in.
Looking around at her elegant surroundings, Mrs. Bush complimented Hirohito on his official residence.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Is it new?” pressed Mrs. Bush.
“Yes.” Hirohito replied.
“Was the old palace just so old that it was falling down?” asked Mrs. Bush.
In his most charming, yet regal, manner, Hirohito replied, “No, I’m afraid that you bombed it.” (2)
Oops! Mrs. Bush doesn’t regard that as one of her finest hours. But we’ve all done it at the least appropriate moment, we’ve blurted out something dumb.
Simon Peter rebuked Jesus. The truth is that Peter cared about his Master. He didn’t want him to suffer and die. But something else vexed Peter. How could the Messiah be put to death? That didn’t make sense. Peter was impetuous and a little impertinent in his rebuke of Jesus, but he was being quite honest. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” As usual Peter was probably saying what the other disciples were thinking.
If we were honest about it, there is a lot about our faith that bothers all of us. If that is not so, why are we not turning this community upside down with our zeal for the Gospel? Why are we so anemic in our witness for Christ?
Because we are like Simon Peter before he was confronted by the risen Christ. Sometimes we’re up, sometimes we’re down. Sometimes we are convinced; other times we are confused. Sometimes we are soldiers in Christ’s army; at other times we are missing in action. Thank God for grace. Surely none of us merit salvation.
After Christ confronts Peter about his impetuous comments, Christ spells out what is facing those who would give their lives to him completely. Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it . . .”
This is heavy stuff. Jesus says if we want to follow him, we must take up his cross.
In August of 2003, the Church of the Holy Cross in New York City was broken into twice. In the first event, thieves made away with a metal moneybox. Three weeks later, vandals escaped with something much more puzzling. Being a Catholic church there was a large crucifix in the church. The thieves had unbolted the 4-foot long, 200-pound plaster Jesus from the crucifix, but left behind the wooden cross to which it was attached.
The church caretaker, David St. James, confessed his bewilderment at this. “They just decided, ‘We’re going to leave the cross and take Jesus,’” he said. “We don’t know why they took just him. We figure if you want the crucifix, you take the whole crucifix.” (5)
We know why, don’t we? Many people would like to have Jesus and leave his cross behind. Jesus represents forgiveness and grace. Jesus is a divine Friend who accepts us as we are, hears our prayers and helps us in times of need. Who wouldn’t want Jesus? But his cross, on the other hand, represents discipline and self-denial. The cross represents service and sacrifice. The cross represents taking our eyes off of ourselves and putting them on those for whom Christ died. That’s an entirely different matter altogether. We want Jesus; we’re uncertain about taking up his cross.
Yes, those thieves are not the only ones who want to take Jesus, but not his cross. That is our temptation as well.
Peter backslid in a hurry when he was first confronted with the message of the cross. Often we will, too. But fortunately that is not the end of the story.
Peter had an encounter with the risen Christ, and the man who had been a fickle reed became a solid rock of faith and service. That can also happen to us.
But that is part of what taking up the cross of Jesus is all about. Oh, we backslide sometimes, just as Peter did, but by God’s grace we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and even more importantly, we hoist the cross back on our shoulder, and we seek to live as Jesus lived. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. And in all things, we give God the glory.