Stumbling Blocks and Crosses

Sunday, September 3, 2023
Psalm 26:1-8 & Matthew 16:21-28
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

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I’ve come to the point in life when I’ve realized I need to take care of myself better. I don’t bounce back from strenuous exercise as easily as I did in my 20s or even my 30s. It came to a head earlier this year when I was on a run in sunny Arizona and something didn’t feel right in my right hip. So of course I kept going. And it hurt to walk for the rest of our stay with my in-laws that week. This resulted in me seeing a chiropractor and a physical therapist. I did not like what either of them had to say, which was “Take a rest,” or “Take it easy.” But that’s what I needed to do.  I continue to see my chiropractor monthly who does the shifting of my joints to make sure my body is in line with itself. And every time I go back my body needs to be aligned again because it’s inevitable that my joints will always be a bit out of line. 

In the previous passage, Peter and the disciples are in line with Jesus. If you remember Pastor Troy’s sermon from last week, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah. He gets it before anyone else does, but Jesus was quick to point out that this wasn’t knowledge Peter came up with on his own, but it came from God in Heaven. In no time, however, Peter falls out of line with Jesus. Now that the disciples know who Jesus is, Jesus shares with them what he must do next, which is travel to Jerusalem, suffer greatly at the hands of the chief priests and elders, die, and then be raised back to life on the third day. Peter did not respond well. And I have some empathy for Peter’s reaction even if it was the wrong one. “I’m sorry, Jesus, but God in heaven literally just enlightened us that you are the Messiah, and now you’re telling me you have to die?”

The Messiah was not supposed to suffer and die. The Messiah was supposed to overthrow Rome and rule in the Emperor’s place. Plus, what would this mean for the disciples and others who believed in Jesus? The disciples left everything behind to follow Jesus and now Jesus is telling them he is going to essentially abandon them? Surely, you must be joking, Jesus. And Peter then takes Jesus aside and tells him as much.

Peter, whom Jesus gives the nickname “Petras” or “the rock,” upon whom Jesus declares he will build the church, is now called by Jesus a stumbling block. Notice the play on words. He began as a “good rock” that serves a purpose in a strong foundation, to a “dangerous rock,” a stumbling block, on the path Jesus needs to take. Jesus speaks sharply to Peter when Peter declares that he forbids Jesus to walk into a death trap. The other individual in scripture who tries to convince Jesus to not go to the cross is the devil.  Like the devil, Peter offers Jesus a “way out” of the cross. 

I always say the disciples make me feel so much better about my own journey of faith. One moment they’re blessed by Jesus to be called the foundation on which Jesus will build his church and the next they’re called “Satan” by Jesus. The life of discipleship, the life of anyone who follows Jesus, is not a smooth one. There are a lot of ups and downs, not because God is unfaithful, but because we are not responding in faith to God.

All of us are like Peter.  We have strong opinions of who we think Jesus should be and what we believe Jesus should do. We all believe that Jesus should show up in our lives a certain way, that Jesus should lead our ministries in specific ways or perhaps we think Jesus would vote for a certain political party. We have to be careful that what we believe about Jesus is not based on our own ideas and opinions, but on what scripture says about who Jesus is. In the same way that Peter wanted a revolutionary for a Messiah, we have a specific image of how Jesus should show himself victorious over whatever it is we think needs to be conquered. 

Russel Moore was one of the top officials in the Southern Baptist Church. But he left the Southern Baptist Convention in 2021 citing his concerns about how the Southern Baptist Church failed to address sexual abuse within the church and their embrace of Christian nationalism. He shared in a recent interview, how multiple pastors shared with him the reaction of their congregations when they preached Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. This is the passage of scripture where Jesus says: 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

    for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

These pastors shared with Moore that many in their congregations were upset that their pastors would share such “liberal talking points” from the pulpit. The verse where Jesus said “turn the other cheek,” seem to really upset people. When these pastors would say: “I was literally quoting Jesus,” the response from these church members wasn’t: “Oh wow. Guess I should read the Bible more closely.” or “That doesn’t sit well with me, so could we talk about what Jesus said that?” Instead, their response was: “Well, that’s weak and doesn’t work anymore.” Moore went on to say: “When we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.”

You might be thinking, but that’s the SBC, we as Presbyterians are much more thoughtful and forward-thinking when it comes to our theology.  Church family, I hate to tell you this, but I’m seeing this problem across all denominations when I talk to my pastor friends both locally and across the country. They are Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Methodists, non-Denominational, etc. 

I think part of the problem is that we like Peter, are reactive. We get caught up in the feelings of the moment. Peter admonished Jesus, and understandably so, because he was scared of losing his friend, teacher, and Lord. In a similar way, we can get caught up in the spirit of “revolution,” the thrill of “defending” God and God’s church that we neglect to hear God’s word to us. Not just a verse here and there, but the whole story of who God is and why Jesus chose the cross. Not to say that all feelings are dangerous, but our feelings can’t be our sole guide in how we follow Jesus. 

It’s why God spoke through human words to give us God’s word. We need to come back to reading this rather than our favorite Christian living or political podcast. And like Peter, we won’t like what Jesus has to say to us. Verses like “Carry your cross.” That does not sound appealing at all. 

Earlier in chapter 16, Peter received knowledge directly from God about who Jesus truly is. We, too, must be aware of what God is trying to tell us about God’s own self in Jesus Christ. So how can we do this?

By dwelling in Scripture on our own and with others, we get to know the voice of God better. Eugene Peterson said: “All words were once spoken before they were written down” and this is true for the Bible. For centuries the word of God was passed down orally from generation to generation until it was compiled to what we have today. The more we read the bible the more we can distinguish God’s voice from other voices. My husband, Matt, because he knows me, can tell in ways that others can’t when I’m having an off day.

But God’s word was meant to be read in community. God has given us each other to help encourage one another to follow Jesus. So in the context of community, we are to read the Bible together as well as pray together. The early church broke bread and worshipped together – sharing everything they had together. Worship is important, but it’s just a part of what we do to ensure we learn how to hear God’s voice better. 

There are lot of other voices clamoring for out attention. And sometimes we mistake those voices for God. But Jesus’s ways are not our ways. But in order to be able to tell the difference we need to know first the voice of Jesus Christ who let nothing get in his way, not even his own disciples, so he could be victorious on the cross for us all.