Get behind me! (Year B, Proper 19)

We had a tough gospel this past Sunday, with Jesus speaking words that surprised and shocked us, calling a woman a dog.  Well, this coming Sunday’s gospel lesson isn’t any easier, even if Jesus does manage not to insult any women.  Jesus and his disciples are together, and he asks them, who do others say that I am? This question probably doesn’t feel so strange; after all, it sounds almost like gossip.  Hey, guys, so tell me — what does everyone say about me? The disciples were full of answers.  Then Jesus surprises them by asking, And who do you say that I am? They’re less sure how to answer this one.  He’s Jesus, you know?  The son of the carpenter Joseph, from Nazareth.  Their friend on the road all these months.  The one who seems to take complete delight in confounding authority, who heals on the Sabbath and challenges the Pharisees.  And at the same time, they know that he is more than these things.  Only Peter tries to put this into words, You are the Messiah.

I have known several people for whom Peter is a hero.  In the gospels, Peter comes across as a bumbler, and yet he is the rock on whom God’s church is founded.  He is impulsive; words seem to tumble from his mouth before he brain engages; in contrast to Jesus, Peter always seems to be doing something wrong.  This time, though, he gets it right.  Jesus is the Messiah.  Knowing Peter to be very human, I’m sure that when Jesus failed to deny this — just telling the disciples to keep it quiet — he felt proud and warm inside.  I got one right!  Yay, me! But then, the poor guy bumbles again.

Jesus begins teaching, preparing his closest friends for his arrest and death, and for the resurrection that awaits them all afterward.  Poor Peter, though, can’t handle this.  Didn’t you hear me, Jesus?  You’re the Messiah!  The Messiah can’t die! So Peter speaks up, and Jesus puts him down sharply: Get behind me, Satan!

Wow.  Last week, Jesus spoke sharply to a woman who came to him seeking healing, and he called her a dog.  And this week, Jesus rebukes Peter and calls him Satan.   This tells us something very important about Jesus, and it teaches us something important about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.

From the gospel accounts, we can see that Jesus loved Peter very much.  In the times that Jesus withdraws from the disciples, taking only his closest friends with him, he always includes Peter.  And Jesus is honest with Peter.  He raises Peter up, and he also shows Peter when he is heading in the wrong direction.  Jesus tells him, You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.  This is true.  In challenging Jesus on his own death, Peter is thinking about himself, about his friends, about the physical body and presence of Jesus.  In that moment, the love Peter has for Jesus is a human love and not a divine love.  Purely human love is selfish and self-centered; we love the other because they make us feel good, or maybe just because feeling that love makes us feel good.  Purely divine love is other-centered; we deny ourselves so that the other can have everything they need.  I believe that most love in this world lies somewhere on the spectrum between these two poles.

It is possible that Jesus is a little too harsh on Peter here.  After all, it’s hard work to stay focused on divine things.  We still have to eat and sleep; we have to work in order to have food to eat and a shelter to protect us while we sleep; we have all these people around us all the time; we have expectations thrust on us from every direction; we’re doing the best we can just to keep going.  Peter is shocked by the words Jesus has just said here.  He has given up his work as a fisherman; he has left his wife behind; he has followed and walked with Jesus for months; he truly believes that Jesus is the promised Savior for Israel, the Messiah who will overthrow pagan kings and restore Israel to its proper place in the world.  Jesus hasn’t done these things yet, and now he’s talking like he’s ready to die?  I can hear Peter’s thoughts as though they are my own: I’ve given up everything for you, Jesus, and now you’re just going to give up and let them kill you?  You’re going to leave us, just like that?  What are we supposed to do without you?  You can’t die!

Get behind me, Satan.  You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.

Jesus loves Peter enough that he must be honest with Peter.  Jesus decides to share what he knows is coming with his companions, to prepare them for the work that is ahead of them after he is gone.  And when Peter argues, Jesus sets him straight.

When I was 20 years old, I moved out of my parents’ house and into an apartment with my fiancé.  We were in love, and we both had come to the point where living at home with our parents was intolerable.  We moved up the plans for our wedding, and we lived together for six weeks between the move-out and the wedding.  This devastated my father.  When he recovered from the initial hurt, though, he sat down with me for a talk that I will never forget.  He talked with me about how important it is to have a shared vision, that a marriage cannot work, cannot last, can only fail if the husband and wife do not share a vision.  Naturally, being 20 years old and giddily in love, I tried to say that we shared many things.  Dad waved these away; these were not vision, not how we saw the world, how we saw marriage.  When the conversation ended, I really had no idea what he was talking about.

The man who is now my ex-husband, he and I never did share a vision.  We see the world in fundamentally different ways, and we never could reconcile those visions.  The marriage did not work, did not last, and did fail.  Dad was right.  I am sure that the conversation he had with me, so many years ago, was not an easy one.  I am sure that it was hard for him to see me continue on my path and prove his words true.  I remembered this conversation only after I was in the process of separating from my ex-husband, when I was blessed enough to find someone who does share a vision with me.  And I learned that, like Peter, I’d been setting my mind on human things — stability, comfort, selfish love — rather than on divine things.

It is important in our relationships with each other to be honest, to have these difficult conversations, to speak deep truths to each other.  So often, our only dialogue is very human; we talk about the weather, about gasoline prices, about buying the nice blouse on sale, about running out of milk, about who is picking the kids up from school today.  In the bustle and busy-ness of just keeping going, we can so easily avoid the real conversations, the opportunities to set our minds on divine things, the times when we can just be in relationship.

And Christianity is not a religion of rules to follow, of right behavior.  Christianity is about community, about  right relationship.  Christians are in a living, dynamic relationship with God, and we live in relationship with each other.  God’s love flows into us, and through us into all those we encounter.  And to live in right relationship, sometimes we have to rebuke others.  Sometimes we have to say, Get behind me, Satan! It doesn’t feel good when we say this.  We know that our relationship may be in danger, if we do not speak these words in love, or if our beloved chooses to reject our words and to reject us.  But we are called to help each other in our relationships with each other, to support each other in our relationship with God.  Whenever someone is baptized, we promise to do all in our power to support this person’s life in Christ.  And if I know that sometimes I fall down and fail to keep my mind on divine things, I’m pretty sure that there are others who experience this, too.  We are here to help each other, to prop each other up.  But we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge that those around us need help, if we can’t face that maybe we are making a mistake.

The letter of James warns us about how we speak to each other.  James reminds us of the power of our words, the great good — or great evil — that our speech can bring about.  We must tread carefully when we speak to another as Jesus spoke to Peter.  We must be careful to make sure that we are not the ones with our minds set on human things, rather than on divine things.  But sometimes, we must speak.

Lord Jesus, our Messiah and hope,
you corrected your friend Peter
when he spoke in fear, focused on the things of this world.
Guide our minds, hearts, and bodies,
that we may keep our vision focused on the things of your world,
that we may set our minds on divine things.
Help us to be loving friends
when we correct a loved one
and when we find ourselves corrected.
And when it is time for us to come to you,
please welcome us with open arms
and eyes full of love.