A new blockbuster movie is being released, called Tenet: A CIA agent, participates in an undercover Russian operation to steal an unidentified object during a terrorist siege on an opera in Kiev. After retrieving the object, the agent sends part of his team out with it through a secret exit. He rejoins the Russians, who realize that they have been tricked and torture him. He bites on a suicide pill. Upon waking, the agent learns that the pill had been fake; ‘welcome to the actual world’ he is told. He visits a facility where he learns that technology has been developed that allows objects to have their entropy reversed and move backward through time, and that inverted bullets, are being brought back from the future and sold on the black market.
Its a long and involved story, and film critics have suggested that movie-goers see the film three times, in order to get the story, as it moves back and forth in time in a bewildering manner. It is not about life as the world knows it.
Studying the Bible can be a bit like that. We celebrate Christmas and three months later Jesus is crucified. We need to revisit the Word of God frequently, to make sense of it, and often, each time we read it, something else stands out.
‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Oooo, that’s harsh, isn’t it? Jesus didn’t say that with a groan, clasping his head in his hands, he looked Peter in the eye and rebuked him.
Today, I’d like us to look at these two men, Simon, or recently renamed Peter, and Jesus. And then at discipleship.
Peter first. The one disciple with whom we can easily identify.
Jesus’ ministry is entering a new phase, and he spends time with his disciples, instructing them. He has confirmed that he is the Messiah, that he must go to Jerusalem, that he must suffer, die, and rise again.
‘Peter took him aside, and began to rebuke him’. Having so recently been confirmed in his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, Peter cannot understand this dramatic news. He has heard Jesus say ‘killed’, but obviously didn’t understand the significance of ‘on the third day be raised.’ We can’t fault him for this, because the cross became understandable only after the disciples saw the risen Christ.
Peter takes Jesus aside so that his rebuke is private rather than public. He must surely feel that Jesus is just having a bad day. Surely Jesus’ strength and optimism will return shortly, but Peter feels a responsibility to reassure him. ‘Come on Jesus, the Jewish authorities have it in for you, so what’s new? You are God, you have said so, surely they will not harm you, this cannot be right.’ Peter wants the Messiah to succeed. As he is God, how can he not do so?
This disciple who has so recently deified the Lord (16:16) now defies him. ‘God forbid it Lord, this must never happen to you’. No rabbi would tolerate such defiance. Disciples are expected to follow their rabbi. However benign Peter’s motives, he has gone too far.
But we should not be surprised that Peter fails to understand. Paul will later describe Christ’s crucifixion as ‘a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks’ in his letter to the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 1:23). We know that, as Paul also wrote, ‘there is power and wisdom at the cross’ (1 Corinthians 1:24), but that is with the gift of hindsight. It is too much to expect that Peter can see that until he sees the resurrected Christ.
‘Get behind me Satan’. Is Jesus addressing Peter, or Satan, who is using Peter? Remember that Peter has just declared Jesus the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Because we are not Jewish, we may fail to understand the earth-shattering, astounding nature of that declaration. The Jewish nation have, since the time of Moses, been in expectation of God coming to them again to establish his kingdom here on earth, in Jerusalem, the city of God. From that time to now, every year at Passover their hope for the Messiah is expressed: ‘L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim! – Next year in Jerusalem!’
Because of this understanding, Peter has put himself in the firing line of Satan. Peter is so often seen by us as the impetuous disciple, the bold one. Jumping out of the boat to walk on water; he believed that Jesus was God and wanted to show that to Jesus and his friends too. Then there is that other story we know so well of Peter, where he denied Jesus, not once, but three times. Could you understand this better if Peter was put to this test not to expose his weakness, but because his was the strongest faith? Jesus could see this, that is why he named him Peter, the rock on which the Church would be built.
Standing in front of Jesus, the Rock becomes the Stumbling Block. Even worse, he becomes the mouthpiece for Satan. ‘Satan is any force which seeks to deflect us from the way of God’ is how William Barclay describes it, and that is what Peter is doing—trying to deflect Jesus from his God-given path to the cross. This is what particularly struck me when I re-read this passage; Satan was using the one singled out by God to lead the Church, his Kingdom here on earth. We need to note that there is a warning here for us today: the one who seems to have the surest faith may be the one to trip up. But be reassured. Sister Mary David, in her book ‘The Joy of God’ says: ‘Peter shows us that the hour when following Jesus was even more difficult, the moment of his denial, was not a moment of giving up. It was for him the moment of a new maturity, the moment when he determined to follow Jesus even to the end of love.’ (p37)
Let’s now look at Jesus.
‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Strong words, like a slap in the face! But in this incident, Peter becomes the tempter. Just as Satan tried to persuade Jesus to take the easy way (turn these stones into bread—make a spectacular display of yourself—bow down before me and I will give you the world), so now Peter calls Jesus to abandon the narrow, rough road that leads to the cross. ‘You are a stumbling block (Greek: skandalon) to me.’ The rock becomes a stumbling block. Skandalon meant a trap or snare, but came to be used also for a rock left in the road that would cause people to stumble. The idea of a stumbling stone was particularly vivid in that part of the world, where the land was rocky, many of the roads rough and uneven. These people have experienced stumbling over a stone. At best, the person who stumbled would suffer a fall, but it could prevent further progress.
Jesus sees Peter’s intervention as a spiritual stumbling block. Jesus cannot ignore a threat of this significance. Jesus, the human Jesus, shied away from the knowledge of the suffering path he was to tread. On his travels during his ministry, he and his disciples would have seen crucified men on the highways and at crossroads, for the Romans made sure the populace throughout the empire were reminded of this retribution. Would he not have considered such a diabolical ordeal with dread? Jesus, Son of the Triune God, also knows the agony he will suffer in his separation from the Father, as he bears the sins of all humanity. As man and God, he knows this; that understanding had him weeping in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest: ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but want you want’. Matthew 26:39. This is a dreadful ordeal ahead.
‘For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.’ Jesus says, because Peter cannot see that. Peter understands that Jesus is the Messiah, but is simply unable to see that the part that he must take is one of suffering and death. Peter’s vision of the mission is skewed, and he is trying to superimpose his vision over God’s vision.
And now discipleship.
Jesus calls the disciples to a disciplined life. ‘If anyone desires to come after me’ (v. 24b). These disciples earlier left everything to follow Jesus. Now Jesus invites them to reassess their decision based on new information. They thought that following Jesus would be the road to glory, but he tells them now that it is the road to self-denial and a cross.
The meaning of discipleship is slowly unfolding. The disciples did not fully understand it when they signed on. If the first disciples were slow to understand, we need not be surprised if we too are also slow to comprehend. Spiritual growth takes place slowly and painfully. Our spiritual journey takes a lifetime. Even as we near the conclusion of that journey, our understanding is less than complete. Paul says, ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). That is not an excuse for complacency, but does acknowledge our humanity.
‘Let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me’ (v. 24c). The self-denial of which Jesus speaks is not easy to grasp. It is one thing to deny ourselves today so that we can splurge tomorrow, but Jesus is not explaining the benefits of compound interest so that we can enjoy an affluent retirement. Denying oneself involves sacrificing our own interests in favour of serving Christ.
Self-denial is just the beginning. Jesus also expects disciples to bear a cross. A cross is where a person dies. ‘For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it (v. 25). From the very beginning of his teaching in this Gospel, Jesus taught the Great Reversal. His very first words in the Sermon on the Mount were ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ The kingdom of heaven is an upside-down place where the value system of this world no longer applies. It is a place where God rewards self-denial and cross-bearing. God’s purpose is not to deny us life but to give it, or as Bruner puts it: ‘Jesus is not anti-our-life; he is anti-preoccupation-with-our-life’.
‘Discipleship is difficult’, you may say, ‘am I doing it right? How do I know what to do? It can sound so complicated.’ Consider what Paul says to the Ephesians: ‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.’ (Eph 4:32) That is a beginning.
In his book, Being Disciples, Rowan Williams writes this: ‘what keeps us going as disciples? Self-awareness and stillness, growth and joy….are the building blocks of a life of discipleship that can stand up to anything around us, in the Church and in the world and in ourselves’. Take strength from the knowledge that Jesus has won the battle for us; what we need is stamina to win the skirmishes.
Satan will use us if he can, so we need to return again to the Word, to prayer and to fellowship, to help us in our journey, to identify the stumbling blocks in our way, and give us the confidence to say ‘Get behind me Satan.’