“Get behind me …”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:21-26

In last week’s Gospel lesson, in response to some words from one of His disciples, Jesus said, “This was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” This week, in response to some other words, He tells a disciple, “These thoughts don’t come from God, but from man.” It is the same disciple! Last week, Jesus called him “Peter”; this week He calls him “Satan.” Last week his words were a rock on which the church would be built; this week they are a stumbling block.

I imagine that all of us, at one time or another, can readily identify with Peter. Every day I find myself thanking God for His grace and forgiveness — that’s because every day sin snakes and wheedles its way back into my life. Like Peter, sometimes I sense God’s “Blessed are you,” when I am His servant. Other times I hear, “Get behind me, Satan,” when I am His stumbling block.

Once upon a time, a congregation discussed the possibility of providing two worship services. A good friend of the pastor was upset about the proposal. It was obvious that their building had all the room needed for every member to be there for worship at one service, so having two would mean an unnecessary burden on the pastor. “You shouldn’t have to preach when they feel like coming,” he said. “They should come when you are preaching!” The pastor reminded his friend that they were talking about “services.” The church is to serve God with worship, but we are also to serve others. Sometimes service is at a little cost to self, like having worship at both an early and a later hour. Sometimes the cost is much greater. Jesus says, in this week’s Gospel, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Last week, Peter was behind Jesus — following Him. This week, he tried to get out in front, and Jesus told him to get behind again. When we are following Him, we are rocks on which He builds His church. When we move out in front of Him, we are in the way — stumbling blocks to Him and to others following behind. I can imagine that Peter’s natural response to Jesus’ accusation that he was thinking like a human was probably: “Well, Jesus, what do you expect me to think like! I am a human — of course I think like a human!” Our humanity is what makes the temptation to move out in front so subtle and, often, unrecognizable.

I once read an article that suggested Americans particularly like winners. I think that is human rather than specifically American. On virtually every team in the international soccer competition, players ran around holding up one finger when their team scored a goal. In one case, it happened on a team that was helplessly behind late in the game! They had no more chance of being “number one” than a team that had already been eliminated. The gesture is common on the littlest of the little league teams in pretty well every sport.

Many times, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be number one in sports, in business, in school, in lots of things, but it is always wrong the church! In the church, Christ is Number One, and there must be no exceptions. We give glory to Christ and do not seek it for ourselves. We cannot follow Him from in front.

The whole conversation with Peter started when Jesus said very plainly that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter knew better than that! The One He proclaimed to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, would not have to go through that — He would be a winner, not a loser. Peter thoughtfully took Jesus off to the side to tell Him about it. On that score, we should commend Peter. He disagreed, so he spoke to the One with whom he disagreed. He did not go around talking about Him; he spoke to Him. But what he had to say was still glory talk, not God talk. It was human thinking, not God thinking. He said, “God forbid it, Lord! That must never happen to You!”

Peter wanted a warrior king, not a Servant King — fortunately, he did not get what he wanted — he got what he needed. When we get around behind Jesus, we learn not to be in the way, but on the way, and Christ’s way is that of a servant. It is the way of the real Winner — One who loses His life to win life for others. It is the way of serving by compassion, mercy, forgiveness and love. I once read that three events beginning with the letter “C” are at the heart of Jesus’ story. They are the cradle, the cross and the crown. Celebrating two of those fills most churches, but people tend to avoid the third.

Since the crucifixion already happened, we cannot join Peter in denying its possibility, but we do seem to want to join his human thinking by not wanting to dwell on it! We are especially averse to Jesus’ suggestion that we take up our own crosses to follow Him. People often speak of burdens and sufferings as crosses to bear. I suppose there is nothing wrong with that. It is an apt illustration, but disease and disaster are not what Jesus was talking about. He was talking about the difficulties and sufferings that come our way because we are follow Him. Troubles that come our way because we are out in front of Him do not qualify — that is a good place to get stepped on by a real Big Foot. Similarly, diseases and other sufferings that we use to draw attention to ourselves and get others to feel sorry for us are just another warped way of seeking our own vainglory! In the epistle, Paul would suggest that we shut up and get to work.

Jesus’ cross was not thrust on Him by the Jewish authorities, Pilate, or some Roman soldier. He picked it up on behalf of somebody else — you and I are the somebodies! The cross is the surest sign the world will ever have that God will not let anything stand in the way of His grace, love and forgiveness for us. No amount of untold agony, not even death itself can thwart His love. We who follow Him, follow in service and love for Him and for others.

Sunday’s epistle has very similar directions for us. Paul writes, “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Jesus did the dying; we are to do the living! Paul continues, “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think.” Get behind Jesus, not in front of Him. “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them.” Like Christ, our roles are that of servants. If we have gifts and talents, they are for the benefit of others, not our own glory. Then the Apostle lists some gifts and the way to practice them, improve them and train in them, but most of all to use them for the benefit of Christ and His church! “If prophecy, in proportion to the faith; if ministry, in ministering (serving); if one is a teacher, in teaching; if one exhorts, in exhortation; if one contributes, in generosity; if one is over others, with diligence; if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

The long and the short of it is that we all have some form of service to perform in the church — none of which includes getting out in front of Jesus. When we get behind Him, our perspective clears and we serve for the sake of the others and not for ourselves.

It is not easy; in fact, it is very hard to do battle with sin. Thinking like humans think comes naturally. Selfishness, greed and arrogance are within all of us, pushing us out in front of our Lord. Why He doesn’t put the Big Foot down, God only knows (His peace, mercy and love are beyond human understanding). What is even more amazing is that, no matter how sternly He may say, “Get behind me,” His reason is that He can protect us there, care for us, give us faith, forgiveness and eternal life. Let’s start a new cheer in the church: “We’re number two! We’re number two!”

I am of the opinion that one self-perception should be at the forefront of our thinking. I have often thought about Peter’s bitter tears on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. I have also thought of how stunned he must have been when Jesus was murdered. I can imagine how elated he was at the Lord’s resurrection but, most of all, how amazed he must have been when Jesus restored him to both friendship and duty. He may have been “the rock” when he made his confession, but he was a “little faith” on the Sea of Galilee, a “foot-in-mouth” at Jesus’ transfiguration, a “Satan” in today’s story and a “denier” in the courtyard.

All in all, Peter was a lot like me. And that is why I know for sure how much it meant to Peter that Jesus died and rose again for him — for his forgiveness and eternal life. Knowing how big a sinner I am makes me all the more grateful and joyful about my salvation. The two things together send me into Christ’s mission. The world is full of sinners — just like Peter and me — who also need to know what Jesus did for them.

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