Lectionary for Sept. 3, 2023
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8;
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and felt shocked at the sudden reversal of a character? Severus Snape was a good guy all along! Amy Dunne was alive the whole time! Malcolm Crowe was dead the whole time! Dr. Houseman (not Baby or Johnny) was the hero all along! This week in the lectionary readings, we have a series of surprise character reversals.

Unsurprisingly, we need to read Matthew 16:21-28 in light of the preceding verses. Remember, Jesus had taken his disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi to the famous Gates of Hades. This area was a cultic site where Hades and Pan, among other Greek and Canaanite deities, was worshiped (the well-preserved ruins are part of many Holy Land tours). It was in this context of people pleading for a longer life from the gods of death and chaos that Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Peter is a hero in this passage. Jesus said he would build a church on this rock (Mount Hermon) and not even the Gates of Hades (at the base of the mountain) could threaten it.

But then, in the readings appointed for this week, Peter and Jesus both undergo shocking character changes. Jesus began to say that he would be tortured, killed and raised to life again. To Peter, this sounded much too similar to the story of Persephone and other myths in which characters descend to the underworld for a time only to rise again. Peter, ever the humble disciple, took Jesus aside (rather than challenge him in front of the other disciples) to remind him that he was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus wasn’t supposed to die and return like the gods that were worshiped at Caesarea Philippi! I wonder if Peter remembered the words of Jeremiah:

I did not sit in a circle of revelers and celebrate.
Because of your hand upon me I sat alone,
for you filled me with indignation (15:17; New American Standard Bible).

Peter was filled with indignation that Jesus could be anything like the gods worshiped by the crowds in a literal panic-frenzy. (“Panic” comes from the name of one of the principal objects of devotion at Caesarea Philippi, the Greek god Pan. Prior to its renaming as Caesarea Philippi, the town was known as Panius to honor Pan).

But Jesus wouldn’t be swayed from his God-given mission. He told Peter to get behind him since he was acting like an opponent (“Satan” doesn’t have to be a proper name and means something like “opponent” or “adversary”). Peter wasn’t thinking about godly things, but the concerns of human idolatry that surrounded them both.

In this week’s readings we have stunning character reversals among Peter; Jesus, the Son of the Living God; and (at least some of) the people who worshiped worthless gods of death and panic.

Instead of writing off the humans engaged in idolatrous worship to the gods at the Gates of Hades, Jesus called out to them to repent and worship the true God. To those asking to be spared from death, Jesus challenged them to embrace a difficult life: take up your cross and lose your life to find it! What good is a blessing from a counterfeit god if it causes a person to forfeit their soul? Jesus issued a stark and unapologetic call for people in Caesarea Philippi to turn from their worshiping gods of the dead in order to gain their life. Instead, they should follow the Lord of Life to die to themselves and truly live.

Flipping the script and changing the paradigm and expectations of devoted worshipers of Pan and Hades would seem to be a difficult task. Yet, Jesus liked his chances. He told his disciples that truly some of those engaged in idolatrous worship at the gates of death would not taste death until they saw the Human One entering his kingdom. I wonder if Jesus remembered other words from Jeremiah:

Therefore, this is what the Lord says:
“If you return, then I will restore you—
you will stand before me;
and if you extract the precious from the worthless,
you will become my spokesperson …” (15:19).

Jesus insisted to his disciples that some of those who worshiped at the nexus of death would find true life in him.

This week we have stunning reversals. Peter, the outstanding disciple and visionary of the messiah became a stumbling block. Jesus, the Son of the Living God, described how he would die and be raised to life. And (at least some of) the people who worshiped worthless gods of death and panic didn’t taste death until they witnessed the advent of the kingdom of heaven in the ministry of Jesus and his followers.

Cory Driver
Cory Driver is the director of L.I.F.E. (Leading the Integration of Faith and Entrepreneurship) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His book on wilderness spirituality, Life Unsettled, is available from Fortress Press.

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