Proper 17A: Well That Escalated Quickly!
By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram
For theological nerd types, Jesus’s admonition of Peter—Get behind me Satan! —has become its own sort of cultural slang parlance. Many times I’d hear this said in jest during seminary after a party invitation when a paper was due or the offer of free donuts during a diet or Lent. “Get behind me Satan!” is a dramatic plea, and when we say it glibly, it is easy to forget what it must have been like to have Jesus himself say that to one of us.
I imagine Peter was quite surprised too. Just last week in the lectionary text, Peter was declared to be the rock on which Jesus would build his church. Whether or not these events really happened that quickly together, as readers we see the story shift quickly. While Peter aced the test by declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Peter really flubbed up soon after by questioning Jesus’s prediction of his own death. Talk about whiplash.
As easy as it is at first glance to read Jesus as being a bit harsh to one of his closest friends, when I open myself up to the text, I see Jesus as humanly vulnerable in this story. Jesus is reporting on what he thinks will happen to him, particularly in light of the conversation about who the world thinks that he is. Peter, ever the fiercely loyal friend, protests the conclusion Jesus has reached. It might not be that Jesus is truly aligning Peter with Satan, but instead, he’s recognizing his own vulnerability in the face of Peter saying that maybe Jesus won’t have to die after all. We see glimpses in Jesus’s story that his full humanity meant that he did not want to die in the simplistic way we often talk about in churches. It’s easy to say that Jesus chose to die and did so joyfully. But if we pay attention, we see a vulnerable thirty-some-year-old man that dealt with anxiety even in the face of standing strongly in his convictions.
But if Jesus knew how his life would unfold if he continued living, preaching, and teaching as the Messiah, what might we learn as those who seek to follow in his path? It is here that we have one of the most chilling demands of discipleship: we must take up our cross and accept losing our lives in order to save them. I am most often reminded of this passage in conversations that put our convictions in tension with a vested interest in comfort and security. I often feel as if I stumble across that relationship—I want to be comfortable, I want to be safe, and I don’t want to stray too much from my normal routine. And yet, the discipleship of Jesus demands that I pick up my cross and follow him, even to the very end. It’s not just that he fails to promise safety or security, he actually promises the opposite. He knows that discipleship will cost everything.
And at the same time, I actually do find a sliver of comfort in this passage: Jesus. Is. Human. Jesus himself reacts so strongly against Peter’s confusion because Jesus is tempted by safety and security. We get whiplash seeing Peter called the Rock, and then quickly referred to as Satan because Peter too is human, and he doesn’t totally get what discipleship is going to cost yet. What I am most drawn to in this story is how human both men are, even while Jesus is making mystical predictions about the future. At first read, all I could see were the supernatural prophecies Jesus was making, and I did not see his humanness in the acute way I experience my own. If we look deeper though, maybe we see Jesus of Nazareth, the shy man that often stirred up trouble because of his commitment to the marginalized. We see a man that was anxious about where this all was heading, and we see the writer of Matthew trying to make sense of what Jesus knew and when.
I’ll close my reflection with a hip Millennial reference. In Game of Thrones a few weeks ago, we see the return of a character who is now omniscient, and the instant reaction online was one of ridicule for how unrelatable this character now is and how obnoxious his newfound know-it-all-ness is. The character spoke in a monotone pitch, simply reporting what was, what is, and what is to come. It’s easy to read mystical Jesus in this same tone, apathetically reporting on his pending death with no concern for those around him because of the way pop culture examples like Game of Thrones highlight the eeriness of prescience. This week, with this text, I’m going to refrain from seeing Jesus like Bran Stark and instead see him as something different—as someone human, for better or worse.
The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram is the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She and her partner Kyle just recently moved back to the state of their youth after eight years away collecting experiences and degrees.