Get Behind Me, Satan!
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.”
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.” Matthew 16:21-28
We certainly struggle with making sense of the suffering that is so much a part of life. Because of suffering, some people refuse to believe in God. Some of those who do believe are often disappointed in or angry at God. And many believers live asking, “Why”? Why is there suffering and, most distressingly, why do the innocent suffer? And the “why” is met, with what appears to be, a deafening silence on the part of the universe.
While Christian faith does not answer the question, as to the “why” of suffering, it does invite a distinctive relationship with suffering and a distinct response to it. In this morning’s gospel Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Not long before Jesus uttered these words, he began to tell his disciples of his own impending passion and death. At that point, Peter takes him aside and begins “to rebuke him.” He says, “No way, Lord. That can’t happen. You can’t let that happen!”
The reply of Jesus is stunning in its harsh directness: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!”
Jesus will not be deterred from what he has to do. If Peter, his closest friend, will not journey with him, he will go it alone. Should Peter stand in his way, Jesus will place Peter behind him, where he cannot interfere. It’s only after these curt exchanges that Jesus gathers the whole body of his disciples and lays on them this hard teaching about cross-bearing. He wants his followers to have no illusions about what lies ahead in Jerusalem. The way of faithful discipleship leads, inevitably, to a cross.
The response of Christianity to the reality of human suffering is, on the one hand, that it is a part of life, a facet of being human, an inevitability of our intrinsic vulnerability; a consequence of the evil we inflict upon ourselves and others – our sins, and, on the other hand, and most importantly, suffering will follow faithfulness to the call of the reign of God, as certainly as the night follows the day.
In the gospel view of things, how we respond to the given of unsolicited suffering and our acceptance of suffering as a part of faithful discipleship is what matters most. The process of living through our own suffering and of sharing the suffering of others; the process of taking up “the cross we are made to bear or the cross we choose to bear in solidarity with another” can, astoundingly, lead to new life. It can be personally redemptive; and bit by bit, little by little, effect the transformation of the world.
Remember, ours is the faith that boldly hangs the image of an instrument of capital punishment in our worship space. We even hang it around our necks. In these ways we proclaim to the world that there is no experience in this life that God’s love does not have the power to transform.
Our spiritual tradition charts a course not around suffering, but straight through it. Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, will find it.”
As we mature as Christians, we come to discover that Christianity is more than a philosophy of positive thinking. We come to understand that Christianity’s God is far greater than a cosmic vending machine, whose sole purpose is to dispense answers to prayers as quickly as we can plunk in our quarters. We discover, in other words, that God has better things to do than to hover around us like some anxious maître d’ trying to meet our every need. Relieve our every distress. And make everything perfect for us.
When Peter rebukes Jesus, his horrified reaction is very understandable. The vision of a suffering God is just too painful, too mind-bending for Peter to bear.
Yet, even for those who do manage to grapple with the notion of a crucified God, there is still the further challenge of taking up those crosses that may come to us or those crosses that we are invited to bear on behalf of others.
At the start of the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network, I had a conversation with ten households who have taken the initial step of identifying themselves as safe houses for immigrants at risk. At this first meeting those gathered had an opportunity to voice their motives for being moved to do this. A few said, in one way or another, that simply being human made present within them the DNA that compels them to respond in this way.
Others made reference to the historical fact of the Holocaust, and their growing up with an intense appreciation of those whom Jewish history remembers as the “Righteous Ones”. The Righteous were those gentiles who hid Jews in their homes and if caught were themselves made victims of the same fate. These saw it as their time and their turn to step up to that plate and respond in kind.
Still others made reference to the cross and to their response being part of their baptismal commitment to die with Christ that they might rise to a fuller experience of life with Him. Our time together was holy and soul nurturing for all.
A lawyer was present to clarify how they might best keep themselves and their guests safe in the face of possible of government aggression, and the potential risks and legal consequences that could flow from any involvement in providing safe harbor to our vulnerable neighbors. I concluded the meeting asking them to reflect upon the information that was provided them and when they were ready, to confirm their commitment with me.
This past week we were hit over the head once again with the brutality on the part of some law enforcement officers and a system that continues to serve them at the expense of black lives and the common good.
A twenty-eight year old, unarmed, father of three was shot in the back seven times. He is left impaled upon a cross upon which he will hang paralyzed for the rest of his life. When will enough be enough?
His mother called for justice and not violence, even as understandable as a violent response, borne of crippling frustration and an experience of profound powerlessness might be. All this happened even as the speakers at the RNC stoked and fanned the flames of white supremacy and doubled done on a favorite law and order theme while advancing the reelection bid of a lawless and disordered failed leader and shell of a human being.
Each of us is once again morally challenged to find a way to bear this cross with Jacob Blake and the many others who have preceded him.
Jesus encourages us not to flee the possibility of suffering and its associated pain, should these come our way, but rather to confront them and even embrace them. He challenges us to take them up and bear them, as he bore his own cross to Calvary. And to step up to bearing the cross of others, as the iconic Simon of Cyrene, recognizing that in our doing so, we bear with God, the pain and suffering of the world.
The spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis once said a profound thing about cross bearing: “If you bear the cross gladly, it will bear you.”
And so yes, every so often circumstances unfold in our lives that radically challenge us. But they bear the potential of becoming the very vehicles for our transformation. I have known any number of people who have come through a life-threatening or potentially soul-vanquishing experience, not only to recover, but find a new vitality, purpose and hope for living. And those who willingly enter into the life threatening and soul-vanquishing experiences of others truly come to a new experience of life’s depth.
Call them turning points, conversions, new births, awakenings, spiritual resurrections, call them what you want, but call them gifts from God.
We are a species that has the ability to be transformed from one plane of existence to another higher level of being human; from one level of loving to a deeper level of loving; from feeling little purpose to our lives to discovering God’s higher purpose for us and others.
When pain tempts us to cash in faith’s chips and walk away, remember that God is still transforming lives by the renewing of our minds, hearts and wills. Dare to believe that God is not finished with us, not now, not ever!
The Lord is telling us that transformation only comes from the giving of our lives, the taking up of our crosses, the bearing of the crosses of others, and the following of him into tomorrow.
“The losing of our lives for His sake” is another way of saying that we surrender our way, we relinquish our demands, and we submit our self-centered thinking and self-serving actions into God’s hands.
When challenged by a genuine cross, if we seek to bear it in all humility and faith, we discover that truly, the cross bears us. And in times of suffering and heartache, we discover that we are far from alone.
The one who travels beside us, you see, knows all about cross bearing. He offers strength we could never begin to muster. Such strength he gives us as a gift — a free, unmerited, unexpected gift of grace.
“The world breaks everyone,” said Ernest Hemingway, “and afterward many are stronger at those very broken places.”
I don’t wish a cross for you, or for me, or for anyone else, but when one comes our way, may we discover the presence of the living Lord, the one who tells us not that he will lift all our burdens, but that he will surely give us the strength to face and carry them, and better yet, that He will bear us, as we bear them.
Rev. Frank J. Alagna
August 30, 2020