The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Comedian George Burns once said that the secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible. I think I may just follow his lead this morning.
It’s kind of a strange, even funny Gospel, isn’t it? I think a humorous story is in order. The wife of the pastor of a very fundamentalist church has just come home wearing a brand new tight red dress. “What is this?” her husband yells. “It’s my new dress. What do you think?”
“Didn’t I tell you no more fancy dresses and when you are tempted to buy one you have to say, “Get thee behind me Satan!” “Well,” she said. “I actually did just that.” “And what happened,” the pastor asked her. “He said it looked good from the back too.”
And the strange part. Peter has just responded to this probing question Jesus put to the twelve, “Who do people say that I am?” “You are the Messiah,” he proclaims. You may recall that, almost anytime Jesus asks the group a question, it’s Peter who can’t wait to answer. Then Jesus unpacks just what it will mean to be “the Messiah,” and Peter loses it. He took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. Jesus responds with a stinging command: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Mind you that people were very curious about this person called Jesus. Who wouldn’t be wondering who he was? He ran out demons, performed healings of all kinds, told lots of interesting stories, challenged the religious leaders of his time, and shocked them all with behaviors like eating with people who were considered outcasts. That label Peter used in response to that loaded question Jesus asked signified a whole host of expectations for the Jewish people. Messiah comes from the Hebrew word that equated to the Greek Χριστος or “anointed one,” a term that could be applied to kings and prophets. In the Hebrew scriptures, however, Messiah most frequently meant “deliverer.”
Peter and the Jews who followed Jesus saw in him the expected deliverer, the one who would rescue them from the oppression of Roman authority and the ritual-obsession of the Pharisees. They were looking for a successful, conquering messiah, one who would take charge by power and force. They were to be greatly disappointed.
Jesus wants Peter and anyone else who is listening to be clear about this: “Yes, I’ve come to be your deliverer, but it’s not just the Roman Empire from whom you need delivering. It’s your determination to put God in a box and to say, ‘This is what I need God to be, so this must be who God is.’”
Jesus is expanding their narrow understanding of God, so that they will recognize that not only can God transform our circumstances, but He has the power to transform us, our very lives, and give us new hope, new meaning, and new resolve.
In the end, I don’t really think Jesus is too concerned with how we answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” But I do think he is concerned about how we live our life and how we care for one another. I do think he is concerned about what the world says about Christians—those who are named after Christ, the anointed one, based on their behavior and how faithful they are to the Gospel.
We all have our little demons – our “Satans” we wish we could get far, far behind us. Sometimes we succeed and other times we think we look good from the back too.
“Get behind me, Satan.” No red dresses for me, but maybe I should try that strategy the next time I’m about to reach for my second or third brownie—or just be silent when I’m inclined to say something I shouldn’t—and hope I have better luck than that pastor’s wife.