By the Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell
RCL Reflection, Proper 17, Year A
September 3, 2023
But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” –Matthew 16:23
Dear fellow preachers. On the surface it appears pretty straightforward what’s going on in this passage. Jesus is rebuking Peter for refusing to believe that Jesus must suffer and die, and asserting that discipleship involves great sacrifice. The message seems very clear: when we follow Jesus, there’s no easy way out. Discipleship is hard work.
Still, the actual words that Jesus uses are stunning. Let this settle in: Jesus is literally calling Peter Satan! And what’s more, he’s calling him Satan very shortly after he’s assured Peter that he’s the rock on which the church will be built (16:18). What’s going on here? Why is Jesus drawing such a sharp parallel between the influence of Satan in the world and Peter’s refusal to believe Jesus must endure tremendous suffering?
There may be lots of ways we could approach these questions, encouraging our congregants to get to the heart of this text as they consider that faithful lives of discipleship will inevitably involve suffering. Here are some of the possibilities:
Who is Satan and how do we feel Satan’s impact in our world? In this passage, Jesus seems to imply Satan is at work when we equate faith with living a life of ease. Satan has sometimes been referred to as the tempter. How are we tempted to believe that our lives will be easy if we simply remain faithful to God?
What is the role of the church in our world? Jesus tells Peter he’s the rock upon which the church will be built, but what does this look like? The church isn’t a building or location set apart above the world. It’s a body of flawed but devoted followers of Christ who bear his light and presence into the world’s suffering. What does it look like for the church to dive headfirst into the world’s messiness?
What are the stumbling blocks that lead us away from Jesus? Invite your congregants to consider when they feel they’ve “gotten it right” and followed Jesus faithfully, as well as the times they’ve faltered and fallen short God’s intentions for them. Give them permission to grapple with the truth that faith isn’t pristine. It will always be intertwined with the messy realities in our lives. Faith requires us to face, head-on, the ways we’ve become stumbling blocks even as we steer ourselves back to God’s intentions for our lives.
My fellow preachers, it really comes down to how we live as devoted stewards of faith that’s intrinsically messy. Jesus is very clear that the pathway to glory and resurrection will be painful. Maybe Paul says it best when he suggests we’re treasure in clay jars: “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:7-9). How will we be stewards of the dual realities of our lives, that we’re both easily broken and also bearers of treasure? To embrace this question is to embrace our role as building blocks upon which Jesus builds his church.
As you encourage congregants to consider the sacrifice that inevitably comes from living with faith, during worship you might include the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” You could invite congregants to consider what it means that God is our fortress. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re protected from the storms of life and faith, but that God enables us to forge a path forward. You might also allude to Psalm 46, on which the hymn is based, asking what it means that God is our refuge and strength, and exploring how God is present when we experience trouble.
Build a tower made of Jenga blocks with youth. As you remove blocks and build the tower higher and higher, it will inevitably fall over. Point out that faith can be like building a tower with Jenga blocks. Sometimes, we believe we’re reaching higher and higher, when what we’re really doing is stumbling. Invite youth to consider how this might be true in their own lives. When have they known about Jesus, but not really followed Jesus? Help them to realize that living our faith isn’t clear cut. It’s messy and involves making a lot of mistakes.
Invite children to consider a time when they’ve gotten hurt. Maybe they fell and scraped their leg, or maybe they did something a bit more dramatic like breaking their arm. Ask them to remember what happened after they got hurt, how their bodies were able to heal. Then, invite them to consider that following Jesus means sometimes we’ll fall and get hurt, but it also means we’ll be healed. Jesus might not always prevent us from getting hurt, but he’ll always be with us as we get better.