Matthew 16:21-23; Blessings; Delivered September 10, 2017

This week I am pulling us back to the lectionary. By the end of today’s service, we still won’t be in sync with the lectionary cycle, but we will be closer to being in sync. It may make no difference to you at all, that we have been out-of-sync, actually, but it makes MY life complicated and I could use less complication in my life.    

So, today we are studying last week’s lectionary passage with a backward glance at the week’s lectionary passage before that, and then maybe next week, although no promises here--the state of our world being what it is—with hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis—then, maybe, we will finally, finally, be back where we are supposed to be!  Got all that? Or are you right now thinking, Lectionary Smectionary?  Let us at least be thankful that we are not Episcopalians.  If we were Episcopalians, the Bishop would have shut us down by now!  

As you heard, if you listened to our text read, the passage we are studying today is about Jesus’ prediction of his future suffering and death.  And Peter rebukes him.  Rebukes—that is a Biblical word.  You never hear that in conversation.  To rebuke means to express sharp disapproval or criticism—Peter criticizes Jesus, which is a bold thing to do.    

It’s bold, yes, but Peter’s reaction, makes sense. No one wants to hear about suffering and death, especially the suffering and death of a loved one.  But it makes even MORE sense when we read what comes immediately before this passage.  And here I share with you again, what I have shared with you before.  When we study our Bibles, it is always a good idea NOT to read a scripture passage in isolation.  Read a little before it and a little after it.  That way you get a sense of a scripture passage’s context. 

So, looking at the passage immediately before the one we are studying today:  THAT passage, which was in fact, in our lectionary passage three Sundays ago, has to do with Jesus’ identity. Jesus asks his disciples who people says he is.  Jesus wants to know: “Are people beginning to recognize me yet?”  

But no, the disciples give him a variety of answers: “People say you are John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other prophet.”

Jesus must have sighed and shook his head--lines of worry crawling across his forehead. “So much to do, so little time!”   Then, Jesus thinks, “Surely my disciples get it.”  So he asks again, “but who do YOU say that I am?”  And the scene as it is played out, is funny, at least I think it’s funny. Not ha, ha funny, but at least humorous.  NONE of the disciples answers Jesus.  So what are they doing?  Are they looking at each other as they shrug their shoulders?  Are they studying their toes?   

Here I should remind you that the disciples are all very young—probably they do not yet have beards or leg hair, despite how they are depicted in church plays. You know, middle to old-aged men wearing bathrobes so you can see their hairy legs—and maybe with construction paper beards glued to their chins?   

Scholars think the disciples were in their teens—all except Peter that is.  So maybe being that young, the disciples are a little intimidated to give an answer.  Peter, though.  Rabbis like Jesus, often had a second-in-command to look after the needs of their students.  The disciples were probably teenagers, --your age--but Peter, Jesus’ second-in-command, is probably in his 20’s. 

Peter has more chutzpah than the other disciples, then.  He speaks what’s on his mind and in his heart.  Although Ancient Greek doesn’t have any punctuation marks, I think Peter says what he says with an exclamation point at the end.  That is,  emphatically—THIS IS WHAT I KNOW TO BE TRUE.  YOU ARE THE MESSIAH, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD!  (exclamation point)

The younger disciples, who have been studying their toes, look up to see Jesus’ reaction.  If this had been a game show, there would have been lights flashing and bells ringing—ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.  As it is, Jesus’ face relaxes and he actually smiles.  Maybe the young boy disciples actually exchange high fives, or whatever it was in those days that served as high fives.   A relieved Jesus tells Peter—“YOU get the keys of the kingdom!”

Happy day for Peter!  Happy day for the other disciples, too.  Their two years of wandering around the countryside with Jesus—it has all paid off, handsomely it has paid off.  Jesus is the Messiah—the one the nation of Israel has been waiting for, forever, or at least since the death of King David!  Of course, Jesus will need a staff, presidential advisors, so to speak.  They will reign with Jesus in his new kingdom on earth!  Their faces are flushed with excitement, and Peter’s face most of all, when Jesus turns their dancing into mourning.  He lays out the future for them:  “Yes, I am the Messiah and I am going to suffer and die.”

What?!  Lay on the breaks. Stop the train. Hang up the phone, turn off the lights and close the door.  This cannot happen. And so, Peter rebukes Jesus.

 Peter and the rest of the disciples should have known.  Jesus has been leaving hints, breadcrumbs, a trail of post-it-notes about this upside down kingdom from the very beginning of his ministry. The first shall be last.  You have to lose your life to save it.  Give and you shall receive.  And my goodness, the entire beatitudes, —blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the persecuted.  And yet, apparently, they hadn’t really understood anything.

And that’s where I want to stop in our study of scripture for today and turn to us.  Because this is where OUR understanding—or probably better, our lack thereof-- intersects with THE DISCIPLES’ understanding or better, their lack thereof, regarding Jesus’ message.  Like them, we want to walk with Jesus.  We want to walk with Jesus because we think that it will make our lives better—and easier—We think that when we walk with Jesus we will win, in some existential sense—win at life, I suppose.  We didn’t sign on to Christianity thinking it would lead us down a path of suffering and death. Really, who among us would have agreed to have our children and grandchildren baptized, if we embraced the upside down notion of Christianity and the kingdom?  “Here, baptize my baby so that one day she may suffer and then die just like Jesus?” 

How could the disciples, how could WE have missed it? The message of the cross?

Jesus was jstating a truism—one that we ignore or maybe outright reject because it is so off-putting.  We want to believe that we can lead lives that are pleasing to God AND also avoid suffering, and persecution and all the rest—but it’s not so. Sometimes we can, for a short while.  But it catches up to us.   In order to achieve happiness, or maybe not happiness, exactly—in order to achieve a deep down satisfaction with our lives, that which we call joy, in order to achieve THAT, we can’t avoid suffering. Joy is in fact, part of suffering and all the rest.     

As one of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor has said, “The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words …is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not really living at all.  The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to have abundant life is not to save it but to spend it; to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and saved any more than a bird can be put in a shoebox and stored on a closet shelf.” 

It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t seem fair, and yet we know it is so.  You can’t save your life, you can only use it up and wring out of it the very last drop, doing, giving loving.  Our hope is that while we are doing, giving, loving, God steps in and saves our lives, our souls for us. We can’t do it for ourselves, so why try?  Just as only God can make a tree, only God can save our lives, our souls. 

And now, before I close here, I want to give you a quick French lesson.  I already gave you an English lesson—you know that word, rebuke.  So now we are moving on to the French language.  I majored in French in undergrad.  What I am going to share with you has perplexed me for decades, since college, and now maybe it will perplex you, too. 

There is this curious verb in the French language. It is blesser.  Blesser is the French infinitive for the verb “to wound.”  It is spelled BLESSER.  The root is b-l-e-s-s.  Of course, you know what the French root means in English.  There is this connection, then, between woundedness and blessedness.  What’s that all about?  It’s like some sacred code—isn’t it?  Did some French monk with a working knowledge of English, borrow the English word “blesser” and drop it into the French language and change its meaning as he did so?  

Or, was it the other way around? An English monk with a working knowledge of French, dropped “bless” into the English language—(shrug) whoever it was, however it was, those who know some English and French, that’s all of us now--can appreciate the connection between woundedness and blessedness.  It’s another in a series of hints, bread crumb or or post-it-notes, that we discover as we move and breathe and have our being in this wounded but nevertheless blessed world we live in.  

No, we can’t stuff our lives in a box and put it on a closet shelf for safekeeping.  We can only live our lives, sometimes suffering, but for we who are Christ’s followers, living all-in-all joy-filled lives. That is what Jesus teaches us in last week’s lectionary passage. Almost in sync!        

May it be so for you as for me.  Amen