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No “I” in Team
Highland Park Presbyterian Church
August 30, 2020
David Hogue, Interim Pastor
How easy it is to misunderstand what God is up to. Truth be told, it often seems a miracle when we get it right. We think God is heading one direction and all of a sudden we get virtual whiplash as events turn a direction we could not have imagined. We’re all set for spring and a worldwide pandemic breaks out. We believe we’re making progress in racial reconciliation and George Floyd is murdered. We’re beginning to feel confident in our financial futures and we lose our jobs. I suspect that’s something like what Peter was experiencing in Matthew’s telling of this story. Right before this event, Jesus had asked the disciples what people thought of him, who they thought he was. They offered a number of alternatives – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. But then Peter declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” I’ve always imagined Jesus was a little surprised at Peter’s sudden flash of insight; he often appeared a little dim-witted. But without hesitating he blessed Peter for his confession and then called him a rock on which he would build his church. It was a moment of divine revelation, of spiritual clarity, a stumbling into solid, joyous truth, a rock on which they could stand. Here was the Messiah – the one whom God sent to save God’s people.
But immediately the tables turned. Swearing his disciples to silence, Jesus took them deeper into his confidence. He predicted that in the days ahead he would suffer and die, only to rise again. He was preparing them for what he knew was to come. Well, that’s not what Peter thought it meant to be the Messiah. His misguided love for Jesus triggered an immediate response: “God forbid it! This must never happen to you.” No, the kingdom he believed Jesus was building on earth required a leader who was alive and energetic, a Messiah who would continue to teach and heal and rule at last. Not one who would die a horrible death and leave his followers floundering. Not one who would become a victim rather than a conqueror, a loser rather than a winner, a criminal rather than a king, one who would experience shame rather than glory. And in spite of what happened next – when Jesus explained the real meaning of discipleship – Peter would still find it difficult to comprehend; he just couldn’t let go of that conviction that the Messiah was to be a conqueror. Flash forward to that scene in the garden of Gethsemane when Peter pulled out a sword to keep Jesus from being arrested. Even then, right at the moment of Jesus’ arrest, Peter still imagined a different kind of kingdom, a different kind of Messiah.
What a jolt to hear Jesus’ praise of Peter turn so rapidly to condemnation. “Get behind me, Satan!” Yikes! Could he not see that Peter’s outburst, even if off base, grew out of a love for him, a desire to protect his life? Could he not see Peter’s intent as well as his misunderstanding? And Satan?! Why would he call him that? From a rock to a devil in no time?
Well, the Greek word interpreted “Satan” here means, more accurately, adversary or accuser. Peter is like a prosecutor putting Jesus on trial, challenging Jesus’ claims. Peter has stepped out of the role of disciple, of follower, and dared to correct Jesus. He has so utterly misconstrued the kind of kingdom Jesus is ushering in that Jesus has to put him back in his place. “Get behind me” means “Give it up, Peter. Don’t go away – but do fall into line behind me. Go back to your rightful place as a follower, not a co-Messiah.” Peter’s rapid, emotional response required an equally forceful rebuttal. Peter had looked at Jesus from a human angle and Jesus demanded that he take a heavenly perspective. Sometimes ultimate victory requires suffering and defeat first.
I’m pretty sure that there can be a little of Peter in all of us – or at least in me. I can get pretty confident about what I think God wants, only to find out that God has a rather different direction in mind. Settling into retirement, one can find oneself called into service again. Eager to find a permanent pastor we can find ourselves in a slower, more deliberate process. Comfortable with the way things have been going for a long time, we can find ourselves forced to try new ways of worshiping, connecting, learning and praying. Healthy and active, we can find ourselves confined to our homes or even worse, ill or injured. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Jesus finally gets more specific. “Look, Peter. Following me is not about winning, about being on top, even about being right. It isn’t about ego or financial security or power. It’s about self-denial. You gotta be willing to give yourself up.” Wait a minute. Self-denial? We’re supposed to have good self-esteem, to be proud of ourselves, to savor our accomplishments, aren’t we? Isn’t self-denial exactly what has been wrong with so many of us? Aren’t we too often down on ourselves, feeling helpless or unworthy, afraid to speak up? And what’s this “take up your cross” business? Are we supposed to seek out suffering or even death to follow Jesus?
Well, yes, too many of us do suffer low self-esteem and need to reclaim a sense of our worth. When our emotional stability depends on our accomplishments or our popularity, we need to find a different source of worth. When our confidence crashes to the ground, we need a renewed sense of God’s love for us even more than we need to love ourselves. And no, we are not to seek suffering in order to earn God’s love or the world’s admiration or a place in heaven. Some of the early Christian martyrs did that very thing, provoking their own deaths, in order to ensure their eternal salvation. Yes, when we speak out for equality, for justice, for a recognition that we are all created in the image of God, we may suffer ridicule or physical harm or even death.
But the problem here was Peter’s misunderstanding of what God is doing, his misread of how the world works. After all these years of following Jesus, he still had to learn that God’s reign doesn’t always look like we think it should. God’s work in the world can sometimes even shake our confidence in our convictions, our sense of reality. “Wait, what? You’re going to suffer and die? But what about your kingdom? What about the liberty and freedom we’ve been promised from the Messiah? Aren’t you a winner?”
Jesus finally gets to the point. It’s not really about us, but about God; as much as God loves us, as abundantly as God wants us to live, there is a higher purpose at stake. Following Jesus is not mostly about feeling OK about ourselves or remaining calm in anxious times, or having physical or financial security, though those are certainly worthy goals. No, following Jesus is about the ability to set aside our own ideas about what God is up to, and listening for what God is doing. It’s not always good news in the short-term; sometimes we will suffer before we are rewarded.
Jesus’ words about self-denial “pair nicely” with our epistle reading. For in his letter to the church at Rome, Paul tells us what self-denial looks like in a congregation like ours; but rather than self-denial, he calls it “genuine love.” He lists at least 29 actions that make love concrete, real, tangible, recognizable. “Love one another with mutual affection” – check. “Outdo one another in showing honor” – check. “Contribute to the needs of saints, show hospitality to strangers.” Check and check. But then the list gets more challenging – “as much as possible, live in harmony with others; don’t be proud but instead hang out with those on the margins; don’t think too highly of yourself.” And here’s the clincher: “don’t seek revenge.” That one can be hard when we’ve been wounded or unfairly judged or cheated. We want justice for ourselves; it’s payback time. But Paul reminds us that that kind of justice is ultimately up to God rather than to us. No, we are not to suffer abuse without flinching or fail to hold others accountable for their treatment of us or of others. We are not commanded to immediately “forgive and forget” when we’ve been wronged. But we are to remember that God’s way sometimes looks very different from our way.
I wonder today what words the risen Christ might be saying to us that would upend our worlds like modern-day Peters? What word comes to us in our Scripture reading, our praying, our singing, that challenges what we already believe, how we see the world? How might Jesus disrupt our views of politics, of race or gender, of wealth and poverty? Rather than allow ourselves to look at Peter with amusement, maybe it is time to allow God to challenge us, to call us back to our place as disciples rather than Messiahs, to embrace the image of sacrificial servanthood rather than ruling magistrate.
A well-worn sports cliché goes like this: there’s no “I” in team. Football teams, basketball and baseball teams often have stars, but they simply don’t win without a supporting cast. The current pandemic has reminded us that we, too, are unmistakably all in this together. We wear masks not to protect ourselves, but each other. Some of us deny ourselves by caring for the sick and dying or showing up for emergencies or attending marches in pursuit of justice. We see the downside of our connectedness in people who disregard basic safety guidelines and spawn “super-spreader” outbreaks.
We in the West have learned a new language in recent years from black African theologians like Anglican Archbishop Bishop Desmond Tutu, leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa following apartheid; it is the Bantu word Ubuntu, meaning “humanity.” When Christianity took root in cultures very different from ours, where community trumped individual achievement, where survival depends on interdependence, Jesus’ words take on ever new meaning. At its heart the message of Ubuntu theology is this: “I am because we are.” Shaped by a society that celebrates the individual, that honors achievement and competition over cooperation, that idolizes self-sufficiency, the words of both Jesus and Paul should shake us. “Get behind me! Remember that you belong to the body of Christ, work as hard as you can to live in harmony, sit or march with the poor and oppressed, outdo one another in showing honor. But above all, give yourself over to the service of God and to the service of neighbor.”
There may be no “I” in team, but there is a “me.” The irony is that we find ourselves in giving ourselves away; in following Jesus, in loosening our frantic hold on life itself, we become our best and truest selves. St. Francis’ famous prayer makes it as plain as day:
“For it is in giving that we receive
And it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”