Welcome to the beginning of our program year! It is great to be here with you all. Even though I have actually been here for a couple of months today feels kind of like my first day of school. This past week has been hectic for many of us. We likely started some new things and made decisions that will affect the rest of our year. It can be hard to draw a connection between our busy lives and this morning’s Gospel reading that I am nicknaming “Peter’s Bad Day.” But this morning’s Gospel is really about identity and lifestyle, and these are definitely two good things to think about as we start up a new year together.
There is a lot going on in “Peter’s Bad Day.” I am calling this lesson “Peter’s Bad Day” not only because Peter plays a central role in the narrative but also because it helps me dive into the text by imagining myself as Peter. This story really has three parts. In the first Peter is just strolling along with his friends in Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks them who they think he is. The other disciples offer up all the wrong answers but Peter gives the right answer. However instead of being praised for his insight, Peter is quickly rebuked and told not to repeat this to anyone. This was probably not what imagined Jesus’ reaction would be.
In the second section Peter is listening to Jesus teach the crowds that are following them. It starts out like a normal parable session and then all of the sudden Jesus starts saying all this stuff about how he must suffer and die. Peter is so surprised – isn’t this friend Jesus speaking? What is he talking about? Peter has never heard any of this before. When Peter pulls Jesus aside and asks him what he is talking about, Jesus rebukes Peter by calling him Satan and telling him that he is thinking only about the human and not the divine. Geez- that’s some tough love. Peter is not being cut any slack here. Would you want your friend and mentor to call you Satan? I certainly would not.
In the third part of the story, Jesus continues his rebuke of Peter and now includes the whole group. I am sure they were very pleased that Peter opened them all up to this lecture. I can imagine that Peter was getting some dirty looks at this point. Jesus’ speech is confusing, he tells his disciples that to follow him they must deny themselves and take up their cross. Then he tells them that they must lose their lives to save their lives. While Jesus’ message is somewhat cryptic to us, it probably made sense to the disciples because they left their lives and families to follow Jesus. Now that we have followed the journey of “Peter’s Bad Day” you may wonder what this story has to do with identity and lifestyle.
For me, this Gospel is really about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. The crux of the story is the question; “But who do you say I am?” Jesus’ identity as our Messiah is important, as Peter learns in our Gospel this morning. Just like Peter, there is often a gap between who we want Jesus to be and who He really is. Peter wanted a strong leader who would free Israel from the Romans. But instead he got a Messiah who allowed the Romans to kill him. This was not what Peter expected. And this is something we can understand; we have all been surprised by people we know very well.
And I think this is something that happens with Jesus too. We may have a certain vision of who Jesus is, but it may not be complete. Who do we really say that He is? Many of us think of Jesus as the comforter and we forgot about Jesus the challenger. It is much easier to think of the Jesus who gently carries sheep than the sharp tongued Jesus we find in this morning’s Gospel. For me, it’s easier to think about the Jesus who calms me down when I am scared than the Jesus who pushes me to consider my values. This is why I relate so easily to Peter, and why you might relate to him too.
And this is why we have to keep asking the question; “who do you say that I am?” We have to constantly be asking ourselves who Jesus is because he may not be exactly who we remember or expect. He is constantly at work in our lives in unexpected ways. Peter learned this and we will too. Following Jesus does not always take the form we think it will. And this is why the final part of this morning’s Gospel is so hard to digest. If we encounter the unexpected Jesus, then what does following Him mean? Peter thought following Jesus meant glory and triumph but it really meant watching Jesus die and rise from the dead. And this is what I think it means to lose our life to save it. Following Jesus means being ready for our lives to change in ways we don’t exactly wish for.
And this is what I heard this morning’s Gospel say. Peter learned that his Messiah wasn’t exactly who he thought he was and that following him was going to be very different than he anticipated. The same is true for us, our Messiah may not be exactly who we usually think He is, so to follow Him we must be prepared for some unexpected things. So we must keep asking the question: who do you say that I am? Hopefully our answer to this question will prepare us to be ready for the unexpected of Jesus. Amen.