I find it a bit serendipitous that today's Gospel reading falls on this particular weekend. In our country we hold up two events. One is Labor Day when we hold up workers and their work. It is a day that celebrates the people and tasks that provide livings and the things we utilize. The other big event is the opening of the College football championship and the pursuit of winning enough games to be bowl eligible at the least and winning the football championship at the most. One celebrates taking on the duties that make the manufacture and distribution of goods go. The other points to what it means to be the ultimate winner in your level of competition on the gridiron. This morning with the encounter between Jesus, Peter, and the gathered disciples we see the interplay between the life task and the common understanding of what it means to be a winner.
The lead in to this morning's exchange between Jesus and Peter does not give an obvious clue as to what occurs. Jesus had asked his disciples what people were saying as to who he was. The answer is various prophets. Then Jesus asks the key question for all or us, "Who do you say I am?" Peter boldly states, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus gives Peter the strongest affirmation. "Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it." Peter is especially blessed for being selected as the recipient of this revelation, and it is the foundation for God's people to come. I will give you the keys of the kingdom, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." What Jesus says to Peter would be one of the great peak experiences of any Christian disciple's life. The biggest and shiniest college bowl championship trophy would appear as a certificate of participation in comparison. Reading it I am ready to put a big foam "I'm number 2" finger on Peter's hand for being the first of Jesus' closest followers to realize "Jesus is number 1" like no other. I can picture Peter filled with a loving awe within after hearing this. It is a great moment.
Now Jesus shifts the tone dramatically when he tells Peter and the other disciples what it means to be "the Messiah, the Son of the living God". Matthew describes it best. "From that time on, 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", whatever being raised meant.
This is a shift that does not make sense. Unlike the many 'greatest' college players who proved to be professional busts the disciples have seen up close and personal that Jesus is the greatest. Jesus has taught and preached with an authority that no one in living memory had ever heard. No one could heal all types of illness and demon possession with a word so frequently. He could feed multitudes with the most limited resources. Even natural forces could be stilled or walked on with no apparent effort. Someone like that should be sought out for advice and honored by the elders, chief priests, and scribes of the people. Maybe King Herod and the Roman governor should step down, because no more capable leader could ever be found. Peter has to say what some of the others must also have been thinking. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him with a strong "Are you out of your mind" pair of sentences. "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you."
We can read and hear how strongly Jesus knows the priority of such a mission on earth. Normally, we might expect Jesus to say something like, "I appreciate your loyalty but you do not understand it really has to be the way I have described. My mission will not have the everlasting effect it is supposed to have for you, this generation, and the generations to come." Instead he turns to Peter with stronger language of his own, "Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things." Peter is placed in the camp of the people who wanted to make him king because he fed a multitude. He is a stumbling block who is unwittingly tempting Jesus to follow the path of the temptations laid out by Satan in the wilderness after Jesus' baptism: Wow the crowds, rule the kingdoms, and make our lives materially more comfortable. Messiah does not equal that kind of victory people expect. I do not want to hear any more of that from you. Earlier my picture was of an inwardly beaming Peter, now I see him with the 'deer in the headlights' look.
Having their attention, Jesus just shifts to teaching his disciples the essence of what it means to live with him in the lead. Matthew's narrative says it better than me. "If any of you 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 lost 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?" He lets them know that his way is linked to his eternal power. "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father and he will repay everyone for what has been done." If Jesus handed out a big shiny trophy it would probably say 'Servant Hood' or 'Altruism'.
Jesus way of sacrificial servant hood as the standard fot success sounds odd today. On the surface we seem to operate on two poles. On one there is the ‘whatever it takes to succeed’ that brings applause or envy. On the other there is the desire for safety from just about everything. Deep down inside we are most moved by the people that make the special effort for others and the people who weather life's storms. The current flooding in Texas and Louisiana and the people I encounter with very difficult conditions make me think of Bob and Jeanette outside Yuba City in the Sacramento River Valley. They had been flooded out twice in their lives and Bob developed a major disorder that affected his muscles and nervous system. They exuded faith, grace, and appreciation to God and the people they encountered. I thing of them and in servant love feel both one in tall in comparison and very grateful for the model and goal of being more Christ-like they still provide me.
This weekend focus on Jesus' labor of divine servanthood and responding to his call to that kind of discipleship. Amen.