12 after Trinity

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Readings

Jeremiah 15.15-21
Romans 12.9-21
Matthew 16.21-28

Sermon

I don’t know if you’ve come across the Alexander McCall Smith No1 Ladies Detective Agency stories – the books are rather better than the attempted TV adaptation. Mma Ramotswe, the heroine and founder of the said detective agency, describes herself, euphemistically, as “traditionally built”.

“Mma Ramotswe sighed. 'We are all tempted, Mma. We are all tempted when it comes to cake.'

That is true,' said Mma Potokwane sadly. 'There are many temptations in this life, but cake is probably one of the biggest of them.”

Cake is a relatively harmless temptation, and the more harmful ones are those we’re less likely to talk about, but today’s gospel reading has both an unexpected tempter and a different kind of temptation.

If you were following the readings last week, you’ll know that last Sunday’s gospel left St Peter on a high note: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:18-19)

Even if Peter wasn’t a good Roman Catholic, with visions of 2000 years of the papacy stretching ahead of him, that’s still a pretty amazing promise. You can understand why he might have his head full of notions of glory and triumph, power and success. Peter is going to be one of God’s winners.

Perhaps, as we move on from last week’s readings to this week’s, our Old Testament verses should have come from Proverbs 16 rather than Jeremiah. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov 16:15) Because today, Jesus brings Peter down in the harshest way possible.

Instead of talking about triumph and glory, Jesus begins to talk about suffering, death and defeat. “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.” I suspect that Peter was so shocked by the first half of that sentence that he didn’t really hear the end. All he fastened on were phrases like “undergo great suffering” or “be killed.”

His mind still whirling with the promise of glory and power, he can react in only one way; impulsively – and Peter was nothing if not impulsive – he blurts out “No way, Master, never, not to you.” Jesus is just as vehement in response: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt 16:23) Calling Peter the Prince of Darkness just after he’s made him the Keeper of the Keys is to show both Peter and Jesus on an emotional rollercoaster.

That Jesus actually calls Peter “Satan” shows us, I think, of how acutely Jesus was aware of his temptation: to avoid his calling as Son of Man and Son of God, to look for a route other than the way of the cross. We see it near the beginning of the gospel, in the temptations in the desert. We see it near the end of the gospel when Jesus prays in Gethsemane: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” (Matt 26:39). And we see it here, when Peter’s desire to protect Jesus from this leads Jesus to tell him he, Peter, is doing the devil’s work.

All too often, the church seems to want to protect God, defend Jesus. In practice, that often means defending itself, and its power. That’s what, for example, blasphemy laws and heresy trials were all about. It’s not just a Christian thing. Most people want to protect what’s precious to them, and whether it’s Muslims defending insults against Mohammed, or atheists defending their totally free choice by labelling a religious upbringing as a form of child abuse.

Peter has to learn that the power he is given is not the power to protect Christ. Jesus neither wants nor needs Peter’s or the church’s protection. Indeed, when Peter tries to say he will stop Jesus being harmed, he is doing the devil’s work: only Jesus laying down his life will bring the love and life of God into the darkness of death.

As the Church of England works out what it means to be a minority church in a secular and pluralist culture, it’s awfully tempting to try to want to hold on to power, to status, to the privileges of establishment, and believe that defending our heritage is in some way protecting God, or standing up for Jesus. It’s hard for the church to want to be as vulnerable as Jesus was willing to be, hard for the church to follow where Jesus goes.

Peter’s temptation – so apparently virtuous that he doesn’t even recognise it as a temptation – is to go for glory and save Jesus. Cake – chocolate cake, beefcake or cheesecake. according to preference– is not the biggest temptation in life. Trying to cling to the power and illusion of protecting God – that was Peter’s big temptation, and perhaps it’s the church’s too.

Questions for reflection?

If you can put yourself into the gospel story, do you think you’d have said the same as Peter?

How do you think Peter reacted to being called “Satan” by Jesus? Confusion, hurt, willingness to change?

Can you think of ways the church tries to defend the faith or protect God, which are actually about trying to hold on to honour, privilege and power?


Page last updated: 15th September 2020 9:45 AM
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