In gaining a better understanding of our text, I’d like to set the scene by describing what happened in the previous verses. Jesus and the disciples had gathered at Caesarea Philippi, which was a resort community; Jesus and the twelve had gone on a retreat. He asked the twelve followers, “Who do you think I am?” Answers included John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.
And then Jesus made the question personal by saying, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
The impetuous Simon, the one who had the reputation for speaking before thinking, said, “Why, you’re the guy we’ve been waiting for. You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
With a smile, Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, you’re absolutely correct. You did not get this from a book or any earthly source; indeed this is a divine revelation. I’m proud of you, so proud that I’m going to change your name to Peter. Your faith will be foundational for the beginning of the church, and nothing will be able to overcome it.
And then with the verses I read from our New Testament Lesson, Jesus made a dramatic shift. Simon’s confession was a highpoint, one of those instances when you feel you have impressed the teacher, been singled out by the coach, or picked first in kickball. Simon had made an astute observation based on what he believed. But then in our text, Jesus began to talk about his own death. He was headed to Jerusalem, the capitol city, the religious nerve-center of Jewish life where he would encounter the same type of people who had been persecuting him in the outlying areas. The elders, chief priests, and scribes in Jerusalem would see Jesus as a threat to their very existence because he received and accepted everyone, even those who were different from him. They would extinguish his witness; these religious zealots would kill him . . . but he would rise again three days later.
Now, let’s think about the mindset of these disciples, specifically Simon. This guy had left his family fishing business to follow this itinerant preacher/teacher/healer. As they traveled, Simon realized that Jesus was the real deal, the One of whom the prophets had promised for centuries. Simon was banking his life on this. Also, the understanding of the Messiah by the average Jew was that that person would lead Israel to prominence once again. Perhaps, Simon thought he might become a general in the new regime or at least have a cabinet position. So when Jesus started talking about being persecuted by the religious elite of the day, that they would kill him, Simon fixated on the idea of how. I wonder if he even heard Jesus speak of resurrection. Instead, he wondered how a Messiah could die. How would the Son of God get executed? It simply could not happen! The Messiah was to be powerful; certainly a divine person with Almighty strength at his disposal could prevent this, if he chose to do so. Simon had seen Jesus do the unthinkable; miracle after miracle indicated that Jesus could do anything, so how could a person with that kind of power be executed?
Simon Peter took Jesus aside. “Uh, Jesus, could I have a word with you. In private? Now listen here, Messiahs don’t come a dime a dozen. Our people have waited more than four centuries for your arrival, and you say you are going to do what? You’re going to Jerusalem … to die? Why do you have to go to Jerusalem anyway, if that is what will happen to you there? Can’t we stay here in this nice, plush resort area and enjoy the good life here? How could the Son of God die? Your Father in heaven wouldn’t permit it; my God wouldn’t allow it! Since you’re the Messiah, you have the power to make things different. Don’t you see? That’s the beauty of being who you are; you don’t have to die. Besides, look what kind of following you have amassed in such a short amount of time. Your polling numbers are on the rise. The twelve of us wouldn’t let it happen either!”
And then, reminiscent of his temptations recorded earlier in Matthew’s gospel in chapter 4, Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan. You’re in my way. You’re not thinking about heavenly matters; your focus is the here and now. You’re not with me with that kind of talk.”
With one comment, Simon had gained the approval of the Master and had been given a new name. Within minutes, with another remark, he had felt the wrath of his mentor and was called another name. The name Peter actually meant Rock. Jesus employed a play on words; the Greek word is ‘petros.’ He said, “From now on, your name will be Peter, and upon this petros/rock, I will build my church.” The name “Satan” actually means enemy, adversary, one who obstructs or opposes another (Watson Mills, editor. Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. Macon: Mercer University Press. 1990. p. 797). Jesus gave Simon the name rock and referenced how his faith would be foundational for something later to be called church; Jesus then called Simon “Satan” when his words were contrary to why Jesus came.
In one moment, Simon was given a place of leadership; now he was being ordered to the rear. No longer was he a constructive block, lying in a significant position as a massive foundation stone for the church. Instead, Simon was now like a stone quite out of place; his comments reflected that he didn’t understand why Jesus came to earth. He wanted Jesus to be a conquering hero of political might. Simon’s words reflected a roadblock across the path which Jesus must travel, and it was a path that led to his death on the cross. Simon had become a stumbling block, and he didn’t even know it.
All of us, to varying degrees, have acted like Simon Peter in this brief scenario. We come to church and participate, even lead by teaching Sunday School, serving as a deacon, being an active committee member, participating in mission efforts, working with children or youth, the list goes on and on. At that point, we have done the right thing. We have acted in line with the work of Kingdom of God; we have served God by investing in the Body of Christ, the church. But then, when the circumstances change, after leaving church on Sundays when real living takes place, when our backs are against the wall, when faced with a critical decision, when staring at the unknown or listening to unwelcome news, we try to take matters into our own hands. We seek the consolation of well-meaning folks who soothe our angst with comforting words about the pleasure of safety and security.
Yet all of us have been called to join Jesus on this road to the cross. If we have been called by the name of “Christian,” we have joined ourselves with the one who said, “If anyone would come after me, that person must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus’ words to the disciples in that plush, safe environment of Caesarea Philippi brought them back to reality. The disciples knew that the cross was an instrument of execution reserved for the vilest of criminals.
Jesus said they had to leave the fun; they had to say goodbye to the leisurely pace of vacation; they had to abandon the safety and security of Caesarea Philippi, and they must go with him to Jerusalem; they must place the futures in his care; they must take up their own crosses and follow him.
For many, that is the season we now experience in church life. With school starting back, summer, which offered periods of refreshment, relaxation, and vacation, is now over for many families. With the resumption of Wednesday night activities, it is time to get back in routine of regular attendance for Sunday School, worship, and Wednesday night discipleship. Many are now resuming the rhythm and routine of life and work at school, in college, at the office, or in the home. Many are now getting back to routines, back to school, and back to regular uninterrupted work habits.
But on another level, with a deeper understanding, we are being called to join Jesus every day on this road to the cross. Vacations are not bad; having fun is not wrong, but that should not be our focus in life. Most of us live for safety and security; we don’t like it when the apple cart is upset, when the plans change, when we are pushed from our comfort zone.
While most of us enjoy trips to the beach or lake, excursions to theme parks or sports venues, we have chosen not to live there, but only to visit those locales for a season. Like Jesus and the disciples, we cannot stay at the Caesarea Philippis of this world; our lives are not meant to be spent on vacation, retreating from daily duties, pressures, and responsibilities. Instead, Jesus continues to call us to follow him, carrying our crosses, even if it means going to Jerusalem, even if it means following him all the way to the end.
We have a daily opportunity to leave the safety of rest and be about the Kingdom’s work. Either we are a building block of the Kingdom, or we are a stumbling block seeking our way instead of God’s way. We have a mandate that if we would be a disciple of Jesus, then we are to take up our cross too.
Jesus shared with his disciples that he MUST go to Jerusalem where he would be killed; notice that Jesus said “I MUST go.” It was an imperative; He knew he was facing his own cross. Simon dared to pull Jesus from his destiny. Jesus in turn told him that he would do well to face his own cross and to bear it while following. If a person was going to follow him, Jesus said that person had to deny him/herself by laying aside personal wishes, safety and security, and then that person had to take up his or her own personal cross. Discipleship is an individual matter; those who call themselves “Christians” are to follow Jesus, which means getting behind him, not in front of him where they become stumbling blocks.
Discipleship is serious business. Jesus did not die on a cross so that we could live any way we wanted, for that is what has been called “cheap grace.” Instead, his death on the cross was costly grace. About the difference between cheap grace and costly grace, the famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship wrote these words, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance; Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship; grace without the cross; grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it, a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy, which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. Above all, it is costly, because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone. 1959. p. 45)
Jesus asked his disciples who people thought he was. And then Jesus made the question personal by saying, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Every day, Jesus again and again makes it personal by asking what type of block are you? Are you a building block or a stumbling block? Simon Peter did not know he was a stumbling block; at times, neither do we. That is why personal reflection and inventory is important. Are you seeking to further the Kingdom of God, or are you hindering its advancement? Are you helping or hurting? Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Are you following Jesus, by walking behind him while carrying your own cross, or are you standing in Jesus’ way blocking God’s love that is intended for every person, no matter their skin color.
Some people have told me, “You don’t understand; that’s just the way I was raised.” Well, here is something I learned when I was small, and I’m guessing that most all of us sang this when we were little: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world: red and yellow, black and white, they are precious is his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” And everyone is a child of God, no matter their age, and if we call ourselves “little Christs,” if we claim the name of “Christian,” then we are to love all people, just like Jesus did. Are you a stumbling block or a building block? What kind of block are you?