There’s at least two kinds of drivers in this world: those who try to follow the speed limit, and those who don’t even pretend to follow the speed limit. Because let’s be honest, hardly anyone actually follows the speed limit. Still, I like to think of myself as someone who tries. That means I drive just fast enough to feel like I’m making progress, but not so fast that I get pulled over for a speeding violation.
Truth is, many (or even most) of us aren’t that good at following limits. It’s hard to say just how much of it has to do with human nature and how much of it has to do with our particular culture. But one thing’s for sure: we’re not the first people who’ve been known to push the limits. And, that’s not all bad. In fact sometimes it’s really good. Entrepreneurs. New ideas. Self-expression. Progress. These are just some of the things we associate with “pushing the limits.” These are some of the things that set us apart, make us unique, and give our lives a sense of meaning. “Don’t just be a follower, be a leader” - or so the saying goes.
And to be fair, I suppose there are different kinds of limits. Some limits just feel like an obstacle - like the speed limit. We do our best to play along, but really, it’s just practical. When everyone is following the speed limit it makes the roads safer so we do our best (sort of), but we don’t usually think about following the speed limit as something that makes us a better person. And if we get caught violating this limit, well we just put the speeding ticket in our pocket, pay the fine, and try to be more careful next time.
The speed limit is really about how fast we going somewhere, not a limit about where we are going. It has nothing to do with our destination, just our timing. Other limits feel very different. For instance, how far can we bend the truth? How do we know when we’ve crossed a line? I mean if we’re always taking credit for other people’s accomplishments (like claiming that we invented the internet) then after awhile we’re not just overstepping a limit. We start to look like a different kind of person altogether. We become something different: unreliable, dubious, suspect. And really, this is the way most limits work. Even the speed limit. Because think about it, when those speeding tickets start piling up, one after another, it’s not just a nuisance. We start becoming a reckless person.
From today’s Gospel, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16.24). And Peter seems to have a real problem with that. Up to this point in the story Peter has been right there, following Jesus. But today we discover something. We discover that even though Peter’s been following Jesus, he’s been feeling kind of restrained; almost like he’s been following a speed limit. It’s like Peter knew where this journey was supposed to be going. He already knew the destination, and everything Jesus had been doing up to this point - the healings, the teaching, the parables - it’s almost like all of that has just been setting the stage until they could really open the throttle and let this engine roar.
Peter knows what’s supposed to happen. They’re supposed to march on Jerusalem. They’re supposed to take back what belongs to God: temple and land. They’re supposed to take it back from corrupt politicians and occupying armies. That’s what Messiahs were supposed to do in Peter’s world. And Peter knew that he was following the real deal. This guy, Jesus, had the power and they were going to win.
But what does Jesus do? He says, “Yes, we’re going to Jerusalem.” He says, “Yes, my destiny is to march on Jerusalem… and to suffer at the hands of corrupt politicians; and to be killed by occupying armies, and then be raised.” And Peter comes unglued. Because suddenly it’s no longer a story about how quickly they’re going toward the destination he wanted - temple and land. All of a sudden it’s a completely different and, let’s be honest, dysfunctional sounding journey altogether. Jesus seems to be throwing it all away.
Because that little tagline about being “raised” wouldn’t have meant very much. We’re so familiar with this story that we already expect the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. But Jesus’ followers wouldn’t have been looking for that. A lot of Jews may have believed in something like a resurrection, buy only something like a general resurrection for all of God’s people at the last day. So if Jesus is throwing it all away until then - until God sorts it out on some unknown “last day” - then Peter won’t have anything to do with it.
And please hear this because it’s not something that’s easy to pick-up from our Bible translations. When Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”, he’s not just having a shouting match with Peter. He’s not just trying to show who’s the alpha dog in this pack. Jesus is calling Peter back to the place where this story began. It’s really very clear. Jesus looks at Peter and he says, in the Greek, opisw mou, behind me (16.23). And if we look back at the very first call of the disciples, Jesus says the exact same thing. At the beginning of Matthew, As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, [opisw mou]“Follow me,” (4.18-29).
Do you see it? This is the call of Christian discipleship. It’s what this story has been about from the very beginning. It’s about following Jesus. And what Peter needs to learn is that it’s not about fitting Jesus into a familiar story that everybody already knew. Peter didn’t know where Jesus was going - it wasn’t the destination he was looking for. It wasn’t about following the expected social limits just far enough to look respectable.
No. From beginning to end, it was and is about following Jesus; in particular, about following Jesus on a path of sacrifice - even suffering and death. Not because we have an unhealthy self-image or think too little of ourselves. But because we believe that the path of sacrifice is how God’s power becomes most visible, most active, and most effective in this world. It’s how God brings new life. New life doesn’t happen when any of us prove that we’re right and others are wrong. It happens when we put ourselves in a position to let God’s loving, healing, creative power fill center stage. On this journey, sooner or later, we’ve got to give up our power so that God’s power can do it’s work.
For us just like Peter, following Jesus is not about fitting Jesus into a religious story that everybody already knows. “Oh, we already know what religion is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to make us feel good. It’s supposed to be affirming, accepting, welcoming, and encouraging… ”
Well, sort of. But that’s not the main point. Anyone is welcome. But the main point of Christian discipleship is not who gets on the passenger list - or even how fast we’re traveling. The main point of Christian discipleship is where this journey is heading. It’s not a destination we choose for ourselves. It’s not about turning Jesus into a therapist or a kind of motivational speaker. That might be the kind of thing we’re tempted to do if we already knew where this story was going. And whenever the Church finds itself tempted to remake Jesus into our own image, today’s Lesson with Peter is a good reminder that it won’t work very long. And no matter how fast it feels like we’re traveling, we’re actually going the wrong way. In fact we might go so far as to say: the more we make Jesus look familiar (you know, a tolerant, postmodern Western individual) - the more we do that, the less we’re probably following the Jesus of the Gospels.
Jesus is calling the Church to follow, to be his Body in the world. And the more familiar we get with the Jesus of the Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - the more we come to realize that this Jesus is walking a path we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves. It’s a path we hear described this morning by St. Paul:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10...outdo one another in showing honor… 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are... 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God...“if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink... 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12.9-21)
This is the path of Christian discipleship and on this path there is really nothing to gain for ourselves - unless we’re trusting God; unless we’re trusting that God is the one who not only sets the speed limit, the one who not only knows where this journey is heading, but also the one who is bringing us - and all of creation - to a place of abundant life, and joy, and peace. And the invitation we have to join the journey sounds like this: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lost it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Amen.