Text: Matthew 16:21-28
Date: Pentecost XIII (Proper 17A) + 9/3/17
In Matthew chapter 16 the evangelist brings us to the climax of everything that went before, namely, the big question of the identity of Jesus. Opposition to and rejection of Him have increased from the very beginning. We have followed Him increasingly so far avoiding the conflict that will surely be His end-goal. The disciples are gradually coming to faith in the truth, as they said in that wind-battered boat, that Jesus is the Son of God. Now, however, in a place almost furthest away from Jerusalem He teaches them what His ultimate purpose and work and goal is. At His own inquiry God the Father reveals to and inspires Peter to confess Jesus to be the promised Christ, that is the Savior anointed to bring the Kingdom of God and to be its King. Jesus says Peter was blessed by the Father for that confession which certainly had to increase Peter’s boldness and maybe even pride.
Today, however, we hear the other side as Peter’s boldness and pride lands Him in the exact opposite camp, not only “not blessed” by the Father but serving as the representative of the chief accuser and enemy of Christ. Says Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!” Why? What happened?
The identity of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the Lord now explains in plain terms. The disciples, even up to the very end had the “theology of glory” idea that Jesus would somehow take over Jerusalem, deport the undocumented alien Romans, and restore the glory of the holy city by “restoring the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). But now Jesus says “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed….” “Horror of horrors! What’s He saying?” It was as if they didn’t even hear His final words how He also “must be raised on the third day.”
In misdirected boldness Peter says to Jesus, “God be merciful to you, this shall never happen to you.” Never? Then, if not, the kingdom will not come and Jesus will not become king no matter how many crowns you put on His head. No jeweled crown for Him now but only one of thorns will He wear as He takes His place not on a royal throne but on an executioner’s cross. These things the disciples will see with their own eyes and will flee from in utter dismay and fear.
More mysterious, however, is that, as unexpected and seemingly wrong was this picture of a suffering Savior, Jesus “doubled down” saying, as for Him, so for you! Jesus told Peter to “get behind Him.” That of course is where all faithful disciples must be and remain in order to follow where our Lord leads. Our Lord leads us in the way of the cross, that is, as He says, to deny self, take up our cross and follow Him. Now these were not in any way meant as requirements for becoming His disciple. These already were His disciples. So are you! But this is the path on which we followed Him to the cross and on which He still leads us today.
The first and main thing that will keep you from following Jesus is yourself. Think Peter and his misdirected boldness. Or think of yourself, your continued struggle with sin and our blindness to God’s ways. We are often tempted to just give up. It is a constant struggle even to this very day.
“If anyone would come after me let him deny himself.” In an interesting way today’s Epistle, which often seems unrelated to the Gospel reading, does highlight many ways of self-denial. “Let love be genuine” implies that our claim of love often is not genuine but self- serving. We, with the apostle Paul elsewhere, need to be encouraged to abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good. How seldom we are “patient in tribulation” or “constant in prayer” to say nothing of blessing those who persecute us. It’s quite a catalogue of the self we are called to deny.
“If anyone would come after me let him deny himself, and take up his cross.” Your cross does not consist in every struggle, every sadness, every pain, every suffering. For most of our failings and failures and difficulties are not sent by God but are self-inflicted, of our own making. Your cross is, rather, your confession of faith in Jesus which will always surely be challenged. Even in our own country founded upon an identity of faith in God, people have little patience for the exclusive claims of the Christian gospel and we are challenged more and more by unbelief.
“Deny self, take up your cross, and continue to follow me.” We continue, daily, to discover what this following means.
At the end of our text we have a puzzle. Is Jesus talking about the last day of His coming in judgment or of something else? He does give us hope in the last judgment by saying, “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” Definitely a description of the final judgment. But then He says these mysterious words, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” All those standing there died, mostly by a martyr’s death. So what did He mean?
In all the synoptic Gospels this confession of Peter as the Christ and his denial are followed by the account of the Transfiguration when Jesus took three of them, Peter, James and John, to witness that event. Indeed here were three of them, before their death, who saw the Son of Man coming in his kingdom accompanied by Moses and Elijah. So for us. By faith in Jesus the judgment has already come and we are released from our sins and have the gift of eternal life, even before we must face the grave. Thanks be to God that, after His resurrection, these men did report the account of our Lord’s Transfiguration in order that we all may believe.
By our Lord’s innocent suffering and triumphant resurrection from the dead Peter’s eyes and ours are opened to see and understand the way of the cross. In this faith we can sing to a “once despised Jesus,”
Hail Thou Galilean King!
Thou didst suffer to release us;
Thou didst free salvation bring.
(From our faithful position taking our place behind Him, denying self and taking up our cross we joyfully sing:)
Hail, Thou universal Savior,
Bearer of our sin and shame!
By Thy merit we find favor;
Life is given through Thy name. (LSB 531).