Revised Common Lectionary Readings for 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Track 2.
Today’s gospel lesson is all over the place. It begins with the confession of Peter. It’s one of the first moments in the gospel when we’re all able to say that yes, the disciples are getting it! Someone understands who Jesus is! “You are the Christ… the Messiah… the Holy One”
A plus, Peter. You passed that exam with flying colors.
But, what happens next is where things get tricky. Jesus starts talking about death and suffering, and Peter says wait. I think I studied for the wrong test. that’s definitely not how this works.
Imagine. Standing with Jesus and saying that yes, this is the Messiah. This is the one we’ve been waiting for. We got that answer right, we’re dusting off our Christian VIP pass. Then everything is wrong. Wait. Suffering? Death? That’s not how this is supposed to work! The Messiah is supposed to save us from the horrors of Rome, from the bondage of slavery. The Messiah is supposed to be King David incarnate, bringing Israel and God’s chosen people back to life. He’s not supposed… to die?
And here we are, hearing the story of Peter’s best moment, and his worst moment. You are the Christ. Yes! Get behind me Satan. No!
But isn’t it true that sometimes, these moments happen simultaneously? Isn’t it true that we can say the best thing, the most thoughtful idea we’ve ever had to precisely the wrong person? The person who doesn’t want to hear it, the person in our lives who won’t acknowledge the epiphany we just had. Or maybe we think it’s the best idea, and someone shoots it down, and you realize that hey, maybe they’re right.
Or maybe the day has been perfect. The meeting that you were nervous about? Well, that went so much better than you could have hoped. The sun is out. You just got a promotion you’d been hoping for. You had your favorite food for lunch. And then the phone call comes. A dear friend has died, and suddenly the day feels almost worthless. The wave of grief washes over you—it’s harder to notice the sun outside. It’s hard to breathe.
One of the questions that always comes up for me with this text is a question of why the heck did the church choose to honor Peter? From a story perspective, he’s the most flawed character in the gospels. Frankly, we hear more about Peter’s misdeeds and misunderstandings than we do about Judas’ betrayal of the Christ. Why did Christ choose to say that “on this rock I will build my church”. Peter? Really?
I’ve heard plenty of answers to this question, and I’m sure you have too. Well, Jesus calls us, regardless of who we are. Or, Peter redeems himself, that morning on the beach after the Resurrection. Or, Peter’s supposed to be like all of us flawed human beings. And while I think those answers are true, I’m not sure they really get at the heart of the question.
Why Peter—wrong one minute, right the next? Why us—wrong one minute, right the next?
I think the psalmist of 116 brings us closer to an answer. Today’s psalm is only half of Psalm 116, and the verses right after the lectionary ends say that
I have remained faithful, even when I said,
“I am suffering so badly!”
even when I said, out of fear,
“Everyone is a liar!”
The psalmist says that even when it hurts, even when the pain is so bad that you say the wrong thing, have faith. Even when you are depressed by the state of the world, even when it’s all lies and fake news and suffering, the Lord still hears my requests for mercy. The Lord is still compassionate. I can be at peace again, because the Lord has been good to me, to us.
What if the hope of the gospel is that Jesus is still Messiah, even if he’s not the Messiah we envision? Everyone is a liar. Humanity feels hopeless. My friends… family are homeless because of Hurricane Florence. My friend, my brother, my sister is dead.
We want Jesus to be the Messiah we envision. Jesus who raises our dead, diverts our storms, gives our world peace. But as Peter found out, salvation is a messy thing that doesn’t arrive exactly how we want it to. Sometimes Resurrection is taking up our cross, remaining faithful even when we’re suffering so badly that all we want to do is give up.
That’s the tension of the gospel, that the cross is the way to life, that suffering can lead to faith. May we all be wise enough to stand in that tension, saying like Peter that you are the Christ, even in the midst of suffering.
(Sermon recording, with some variation from this text, found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 2018)