Course Correction

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 22
September 3, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Our passage is about a time when Jesus showed Peter a "course correction" he needed to make. Had he not made that correction, Peter would have continued "setting his mind not on divine things but on human things." The good news for us is that Jesus is patient and willing to help us make course corrections as we follow him.

When we were in math class, we learned about protractors and angles, and in some cases, compasses. While our eyes may have glazed over, the teacher taught about the importance of angles. Angles, it turns out, really are important. Ask anyone who has ever navigated a ship or an airplane. With no landmarks to guide them, they learn to rely on compasses and instruments (which depend on angles, compass headings, and today, GPS and various electronic devices) to keep them on course. Being off course even one degree will, depending on the distance they're traveling, take them far away from their intended destination.

There is even a group of sports, commonly called "orienteering," that require "navigational skills using a map and compass to navigate from point to point in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain whilst moving at speed."1

Jesus often presented his followers new paths to follow and new ways to look at the people and the world around them. It was, and is, important to take Jesus at his word, following and doing as he said while we travel through sometimes unfamiliar "terrain" and while "moving at speed."

Peter the rock

To better understand our text today, it's helpful to go back just a few verses. Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" After several answers were given, including "John the Baptist," "Elijah" and "Jeremiah," Jesus asked a follow-up question.

"But who do you say that I am?"

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."2

It's hard to imagine that Peter realized the immensity of what he had just said about Jesus. One of the common assumptions is that when Peter made this statement he had in mind a warrior-king like David. A king who would defeat the Romans and make Israel a free state. A king who would drive the occupiers from this beloved land.

One commentator said, "The problem with Peter's expectation is not that it's unreasonable, but that it doesn't change anything ... Rome is there by force and by violence. [Even if Jesus] uses greater force and violence to drive them out, eventually, someone with even more force ... takes over yet again."3 It's a vicious cycle.

At this point Jesus said to Peter, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!" Jesus continued this blessing saying to Peter that this was a heavenly revelation to Peter from Jesus' Father in heaven. Further, Jesus said, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven ...."4

It's unlikely that Peter realized the immensity of what Jesus had just said to him. While Peter was probably imagining a warrior-king, Jesus was certainly not thinking that. Jesus was leading his followers to a new and superior reality that did not depend on violence and force. Instead, it relied on forgiveness and sacrifice and mercy and love. We see Jesus' description of that in our text for today.

From "rock" to "stumbling block"

Our passage for today says, "From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."

Peter took Jesus aside and blurted out, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you."

We can understand Peter's assertion -- in fact, Matthew describes it as a "rebuke." What would you have said if someone you loved who was in good health, told you, "I am planning to suffer and die"? Certainly Peter's rebuke was spurred by love for his master, but in this case, if Peter was, indeed, expecting Jesus to be the promised warrior-king, then what Jesus just said made little sense to Peter. How could Jesus endure suffering and death and still be victorious?

But Jesus responded sharply, "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."

Peter must have been reeling. Jesus had just affirmed him for his statement that Jesus was the Messiah, and had said, "Upon this rock I will build my church." But now, Jesus calls Peter Satan and describes him as a stumbling block! Can you imagine how painful that must have been?

Nowhere else in scripture does Jesus address anyone other than Satan himself by that name. But unwittingly, Peter was speaking for, or was being used by, Satan. Jesus' response implies that he was being tempted once again to turn from the plan of his Father, just as Satan had tempted him in the wilderness. There Jesus said, "Away with you Satan!" Here he said the same thing, "Get behind me, Satan!"

Did Jesus suddenly stop loving Peter? No. Did he no longer want him as a disciple? No. But we can also understand that Jesus was demanding a course correction from Peter. If Peter was going to be both a leader among the disciples and the rock upon which Jesus would build his church, then he could block the path the cross.

The good news is that, rather than pushing Peter away, the course correction would eventually pull him even closer to his master.

Following Jesus

Jesus' message that day, of course, was directed at all his disciples, not just Peter. So, he continued talking with them and showing them what it means to be his follower. "If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me," he told them.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was eventually executed for his resistance to Hitler, said that when Christ calls us, he bids us to "come and die." He went on to say, "Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ."5 Or, to put it another way, preacher Timothy Keller said in a sermon, "You want to find yourself? Climb the steps to the gallows ... Walk out before the firing squad."6

Jesus said that those whose greatest goal was to "save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

Even today, it's not hard to see why Peter in particular, and people in general, take offense at Jesus' words. They are hard words indeed.

Following Jesus today

Probably many of us, at one time or another, have had a "better" plan than God for how things ought to be in this world we live in. We think, "If God would just listen to, and act, on my plan, things would be so much better." And we mean it.

But would things really be better? Even taking everything we've ever learned in life and giving it our best "shot," we see only a tiny portion of the big picture God sees. While we could map out a scenario that would probably suit us well, we can't see how that would affect someone else.

To go even further, when we've experienced tragedy in our lives, we're still called to remain people of faith. When we're tempted to tell God that he has everything all messed up, he may very well need to do a "course correction" in our thinking and in our faith.

Sometimes that may be in the form of a gentle nudge from a trusted friend.

Sometimes that may be a hard word spoken to us through God's word, through a Christian leader or through circumstances. But if or when that happens, we have Peter to look to, remembering how he questioned everything. But Jesus stuck with him and he, ultimately, stuck with Jesus.

It's fitting to hear some words attributed to Peter himself, from the first epistle of Peter: "Come to ... [Jesus] ..., a living stone, rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."7

It's hard to imagine that these powerful words of faith come to us from the same man to whom Jesus said, "Get behind me, Satan." But that's what can happen when we are open to Jesus' loving course corrections in our lives.