Sermon by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson for August 30, 2020, the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One way of thinking about how Matthew structured his Gospel is to see the dramatic events of the life of Christ as structured around two narrative arcs.

Along one arc, it becomes clearer and clearer who Jesus is: that he is the Messiah, although his Messianic mission is entirely unpredictable and nothing like what most people at the time imagined.

Along the other arc, it becomes clearer and clearer that powerful forces are arrayed against Jesus, and they will do anything possible to stop him from completing his mission.

These two narrative arcs collide in today’s passage, which in many ways is a kind of climax point in Matthew’s story. The New Testament scholar Don Hagner in fact calls it the “Turning Point” of Matthew’s Gospel.

Everything so far has been happening in Jesus’s home territory, Galilee, where he has performed many miracles and healings and taught large crowds of interested people.

Now he is headed south to Judea and Jerusalem, where he is not at home and where he will confront the hostile religious authorities. From here on out we will not hear much more about crowds of people. Instead Jesus will focus on teaching and training his twelve closest followers. From here on out we will not see many miracles or healings.

Instead the theme will be Jesus’s eventual earthly fate. In Matthew’s words: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…and be killed and on the third day be raised.” That’s four things that Jesus “must” do, as if by divine imperative. It is necessary that he go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the religious authorities, be killed, and then be raised from the dead. All of this is definitely happening.

And even though the eventuality of the resurrection has already been mentioned to the disciples, apparently the shock of our Lord’s impending death overshadows that stunning promise, so much so that Peter is literally scandalized by what he hears.

So he takes Jesus aside for a private word: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

We can appreciate that Peter is shocked, but this flatly contradicts what Jesus has just insisted upon as being necessary for him to do. And that is why Peter, who has tried to rebuke Jesus, gets seriously rebuked in return.

Even our Lord’s body language intensifies his words; he turns to Peter and squares up against him, calls him Satan, and says Peter is a hindrance to him.

The word translated “hindrance” here is a funny one. In Greek it is skandalon, from which we get our word “scandal.” Peter, I said, was scandalized by what Jesus has promised about his mission, and I meant that literally.

You know how in the cartoons when somebody sets a trap by propping a box up with a stick? The idea is that you put some bait under the box and an animal comes along to take the bait and in so doing bumps into the stick so that the box then falls on them and traps them inside. Well a skandalon is that stick that holds up the box. The same word can also refer to a stone or rock outcropping, which is why some translations have Jesus call Peter not a “hindrance” but a “stumbling block.” Either way, the point is that Peter is trying to trap or trip up Jesus. He is in the way of his mission, and that is why Jesus tells him to get behind him. He needs Peter to get out of his way.

The irony here of course is that just a few verses before, in last Sunday’s Gospel, Peter made the breakthrough realization that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus said then that Peter was blessed and that he would build his church on the rock of Peter’s faith. Now he’s calling Peter not blessed but Satanic and not a rock of foundation but a stumbling block.

Things have turned around very fast, and I think I know why. We also saw last time that Jesus told his disciples—for some reason—not to tell anyone else he is the Messiah.

Now I think we know why. There is a great gap between knowing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and knowing what it means to be the Messiah, the Christ.

Jesus told his disciples to keep that knowledge to themselves because if a guy as close to Jesus as Peter is can get it this wrong, can inadvertently be squarely in the way of Jesus Christ’s mission, can be a trap and a stumbling block, then how much more will the crowds get it wrong. Before rumors that the Messiah is here start to spread, it’s essential to be clear about what kind of Messiah we are talking about.

That process is just beginning. We have just heard it said plainly by Peter that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God, and now Jesus tells only his closest disciples that being the Christ and the Son of God necessarily entails suffering and death. We have also just heard it said plainly by Jesus that to resist this necessity in any way is to stand with Satan in opposition to the Son of God’s divine mission.

I said that one way to look at Matthew’s Gospel is that it is structured around increasing clarity about who Jesus is and what the forces of evil will do to stop him. I also said that both of these narrative arcs converge here. In fact they converge not only in the same moment but in the same man.

Peter, the one who sees who Jesus is but in failing to understand what that means unintentionally stands in his way.

Perhaps Peter is torn within himself. Perhaps he intimates where all this is going. Because Jesus has not yet told us the worst. In verse 21 all he said was that he was going to be killed in Jerusalem.

Now in verse 24 he very subtly lets it slip how he will be killed and what that means for Peter and for anybody else who believes that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. No longer speaking only to Peter, Jesus turns toward all the twelve: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

A cross. So not only will Jesus be killed, he will in fact be crucified. This subtle addition does nothing at all to soften the blow of his new teaching but rather in fact doubles down on it, compounding the shock.

Is it possible that Peter resisted this terrible necessity at first because he already suspected that Jesus’s fate was to be his own as well? For where the master goes, so too must go the disciples. “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you, because I definitely don’t want it to happen to me.”

Jesus subtly reveals that he will be crucified in the course of warning his disciples that they too must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him on that same path to Jerusalem and what awaits there. Not only must they get out of Jesus’s way; they must follow Jesus on his way.

That way is the way of self-denial and death, but it is also the way of true and unending life. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what they have done.”

There is much we could trade away our true life for: wealth, security, safety, prosperity, power. In fact the first time we met Satan himself in Matthew’s Gospel he offered Jesus all these things and more—the whole world in fact—but Jesus turned them all down, because our true life, what it means to be truly human, is found in none of these things. It is found only in those things that we do that will rejoice the heart of Jesus Christ when he comes in the glory of his Father. Because his way leads through death, through resurrection, and finally to the glory of the heavenly kingdom. And so too does our way. Then the whole world will know who Jesus Christ is, and it will be perfectly clear to all that no evil has stopped him from achieving his mission.

Amen.

Sermon by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson for August 9, 2020, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Over 25 years ago I was in Italy, my first trip to Europe. I took a boat trip from Bari to Patras, Greece; it’s a long ride, and you can go overnight. As it got dark I stayed out on deck and watched as the last distant lights on the coast winked out. I realized that it was completely black. Only the stars overhead. And I thought about the world before electricity, when night was very dark indeed and how much darker still it must have felt to be at sea. Then I realized with a sort of cold horror what must have been so terrifying about being adrift in the dark. How frightening it must have been to be afloat in the midst of a vast ocean without a single light visible on land to guide your efforts to rescue yourself from drowning.

No wonder the disciples were terrified.

Jesus has just fed the 5,000, an extraordinary miracle, and no sooner is this over than he immediately dismisses his disciples and the crowds he has just fed. He wants to be by himself in order to pray.

And he wants to be alone for some time it would seem. Evening has fallen, and the disciples have been struggling against an unfriendly wind for hours. Matthew tells us that it is in the fourth watch of the night that Jesus appears on the water.

The fourth watch, as the Romans reckoned time, is the final of four three-hour blocks of time that ends the night, from 3 AM to 6 AM. So the multitude was fed yesterday in the late afternoon, and now it’s probably almost dawn, which explains why the disciples can see Jesus at all by the early light of the rising sun.

Still, the sight of him walking on the water is a terrifying one, and naturally they assume they are seeing a ghost. A ghost after all could appear on water, while a flesh and blood person would obviously sink.

The sea was a dangerous place, and the Hebrew Scriptures speak of it often as not just a place of literal danger but also a place of chaotic evil. It would have been quite possible to imagine that the ocean harbored evil spirits or perhaps even the spirits of those nameless thousands who had drowned in its waters.

But Jesus immediately dispels the disciples’ fear: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”

The commands to “take heart” and to “have no fear” bracket the reason why we should “take heart” and “have no fear”: Because “it is I.” It is Jesus, the man whom the disciples recognize at the end of this passage as being none other than the Son of God.

One commentator put this incident in the same category as the Transfiguration, which the church marked this past Thursday; both reveal clearly, to a few close disciples, the divine nature of Jesus. Only God himself is depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures as striding across the sea; that Jesus can do it too means only one thing, that he acts with the same mighty power as God himself.

But this story is not yet over. Matthew’s version alone tells the part of the story about Peter.

Convinced it would seem that this really is Jesus and that he really has divine power, Peter appeals to him to join Jesus on the water.

The reasons for his request are far from clear.

Does Peter want to take part in yet another miracle, like the feeding of the 5,000, which just happened yesterday?

Is he being impulsive, which we know he can be?

Does he just want to be close to Jesus, having been sent away by him not long before?

Hard to say, but the important part is that he could have stayed in the boat. But Peter chose to take a risk.

And at first it works. Peter is able, like Jesus himself, to walk on water. What this shows is that a faithful follower of Christ, empowered by Christ, is able to do wondrous things.

But when that same follower’s faith falters, then like any of us would, Peter begins to sink.

Now Matthew tells us fear comes back into the picture. In verse 26 the disciples “cried out for fear;” then in verse 27 Jesus “immediately spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear.’” Now in verse 39, “but when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid.”

When Jesus saw that all his disciples on the boat were afraid, he “immediately” spoke to them. And now again, that same word comes up when he sees that Peter is afraid. “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”

When he sees his disciples afraid, Jesus immediately speaks, and Jesus immediately acts. The same Christ who has compassion upon and feeds thousands of hungry people, who has power over nature and walks on water, also saves from danger and death.

“Have no fear.” Should that not be the message for our time? I don’t think we have heard these words nearly often enough in the past few months. It seems to me every Christian should have these words on their lips and in their hearts, perhaps especially our church leadership.

One great church leader of the recent past made this his theme. “Have no fear” was the message of Blessed John Paul II, who preached a sermon on the day of his coronation as Pope, October 22, 1978. That sermon returned again and again to this phrase: “Have no fear.”

In a development that surprised the Pope himself, this became a sort of rallying cry for his entire papacy.

The words resonated because John Paul II was a man who had confronted plenty of genuinely frightening situations. His mother had died when he was only 8 years old, and his only sibling at age 12. He grew up under first Nazi and then Soviet occupation. As an ordained priest in Communist Poland he was under constant threat of being imprisoned or executed, but he was instrumental in overthrowing this unjust and oppressive regime. He recovered from being shot four times by a would-be assassin and finally was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease that slowly eroded his abilities. Yet at no time did John Paul II fail in his obligations: to God, to his enormous global flock, to his many pastoral duties.

He could have stayed in the boat. But if he had, his exhortation to us to “have no fear” would have had far less credibility. He earned the right to preach this part of the Gospel message by the fearlessness of his own life.

We hear a great deal these days about safety. The life of faith however is not a safe life. What we do here in this church is not safe. Receiving the body of Christ is not a safe act. It has never been safe. We come here not to seek safety but to express our faith in Jesus Christ. And as Fr. Anderson reminded us so eloquently last week, Jesus Christ is a lion.

Approaching Christ the lion means stepping out of the boat and out onto open waters.  

We are promised that by faith in Jesus Christ we can do amazing things. We can minister to one another, we can soften human hearts, we can defeat injustices, we can survive disease and death—all miracles no less wondrous than walking on water.

We are not promised that we will never sink. We are promised that Jesus will catch us when we do.

To lose faith in this promise, to lose faith in the command to “have no fear” is ultimately to lose faith in the presence and power of Jesus Christ the Lord. That we must never do. For to lose faith in him is to drown for sure.

Amen.