Yesterday, at our retreat, which Alex led with great wisdom and wit, we “played” a few games, and after each game our facilitators had us debrief our experience. We talked about how felt and what we learned, with a special focus on what these experiences said to us about the way the church works. We actually did this several times, and each time we would talk about our feelings and our insights about the way we communicate with each other and as a church. One of the important lessons learned had to do with listening, and to listen we have to stop talking! For some of us, that’s not easy to do! But as the Psalmist wrote: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).
Jesus would debrief his disciples on occasion, especially after a big event, like feeding a few thousand people with a couple of loaves of bread and a few fish. He would also gather them up after a teaching session.
So, as Jesus was closing out his Galilean ministry, he gathered his disciples together at a spot near the northern Galilean city of Caesarea Philippi. The town lay at the base of Mt. Hermon, in what is today the Golan Heights. You might think of this as a mountain retreat, a good place to stop and reflect about where they’d been and where they were going next.
Jesus began the conversation with a question: You’ve been out among the people for some time now, what are you hearing? What are they saying about me? One disciple said, “well I heard a few people suggest that you might be John the Baptist risen from the dead.” Another disciple said, “I was talking to some people and they were wondering if you might be a prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah.” And Jesus said, “hmm, that’s interesting. But what do you think? Do you agree with them, or do you have other ideas? After all, you’ve been with me from the beginning of this ministry. Whom do you think I am? This is where a debriefing gets dangerous – when you have to answer for yourself!
But Simon was willing to offer his assessment. And you know what he said? Of course you know. He gave the Good Confession, the statement that we give when we join the church: “you are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”
Now, in the church, when we make that confession, we can usually expect a visit from the chair of the nominating committee to sign us up for a committee assignment! But Jesus had something even more important in mind. He said to Simon – I’m going to give you a new name. From now on you are Peter. You are the Rock, and you Chevy lovers know what that means! You are the one on whom I will build my church. You are the foundation stone, and not only that, you get a set of keys, the keys of the kingdom.
What a day that was for Simon the fisherman. Now known as Peter, the Rock, he had reached the pinnacle of success. Jesus had just appointed him to be the first head of the church of Christ on earth. What greater honor could be bestowed on a person than this. Of course, the higher you climb, the farther you will fall!
The next day, as Jesus opened the morning session of this retreat, he told them he had new orders. They were going south, to Jerusalem. Although the Galilean campaign had been a great success, it was time to head into the Lion’s Den. Yes, it was time for Jesus to suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders – you know the ones who worked for the Empire.
Well, you know how you can be the hero one moment and be the goat the next? Let’s say you’re Miguel Cabrera, and you come up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied and two outs; oh, and you’re playing the Cleveland Indians. Well, Cabrera hits this monster walk off home run and the team and the town celebrates him as the big hero. The next night, Cabrera comes up to bat, it’s two out in the ninth, the bases are loaded, and the Tigers are down a run. They need one run to tie, and two to win. This time, however, the previous day’s hero strikes out on three straight pitches. In fact, he watches that last strike go by without a swing.
And so it was for Peter. He went from being “like a rock” to the “stumbling block.” You see, Peter knew what a messiah was supposed to be like. Everyone knows what a successful messiah is supposed to be like. He knew it, you know it, and I know it. A successful Messiah is a conquering king! So Peter isn’t prepared for what Jesus had to say. Just the day before, after much thought, and with divine revelation guiding him, Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, and he didn’t mean that Jesus was going to be a dead one. He didn’t sign up for that kind of duty! And so Peter grabs Jesus by the lapels. He shakes him and shouts at him: “God Forbid!” Yes, I’m not going to let this happen!!
After all, you said I’m going to be the rock on which this church is built, and I went to a church growth workshop and I even did this webinar on the six ways to promote the messianic kingdom, and not once did I hear any thing about suffering and death. I did hear about handing out free I-Pads, but none of this suffering and death stuff. You have to be mistaken!
So, how did Jesus respond? He yells right back at Peter and says: “Get behind me Satan.” Now isn’t that a bit harsh? But Jesus wasn’t finished – he said – remember that name I gave you? I called the Rock, well now you’ve become the stumbling block. You’re standing in the way of the kingdom. And the reason why is that you’re listening to human voices instead of God’s voice. You’re listening to your culture and not to me.
Yesterday, we talked a lot about communication. And as we know, good communication requires listening, and listening requires us to stop talking. Alex had the participants pair up during lunch and talk about five people who had influenced them and six emotions they had experienced in their lives. And the instructions were these: You have to listen to the person, until their done sharing their story. You can’t hear unless you listen, and you can’t listen if you don’t stop talking. That goes for interpersonal communication and communication with God.
It does help if God comes to us in a burning bush and speaks to us in an audible voice. That worked, as you know, quite well for Moses. But I’ve not seen too many burning bushes that talk. I have a couple of those burning bushes in my back yard, which get really red in the fall, but they never talk to me.
Peter thought he knew what it meant to be a messiah, and Jesus seemed to be that person, but suffering and death – that didn’t make sense. But Jesus said to Peter, and to us: If you want to be my disciple, then take up your cross and follow me. If you want to find your life, then you must lose it. This is, Jesus said, what the voice of God is saying to us. This is the way of the kingdom, for the kingdom requires of us that we lay down our lives for others. And that’s not easy, especially when the other is a stranger.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known to many of us for his opposition to Hitler, which led to his eventual execution. In the mid-1930s Bonhoeffer wrote a book called the Cost of Discipleship. In this powerful book, Bonhoeffer called on the German Christians, who he believed had become beholden to their culture, to heed the call of Christ instead, even if that led to death. As I’ve read Bonhoeffer’s books and biographies through the years, I’ve always wondered which path would I have taken? Would I have taken the difficult path, the one that leads to suffering and death, or would I just go along to preserve my life? Would I allow myself to be coopted by my culture? As I look at my life and its comforts, I wonder, how would I respond?
As the Psalmist put it: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Buddhists speak of mindfulness, which as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, is: “to know what is going on within and all around us.”* To be mindful is to listen for the voice of God. Am I mindful of the things of God? Am I listening for that still small voice that often calls us to take a narrow path? Indeed, if God doesn’t normally speak to us out of burning bushes, how am I to know if I’ve heard the voice of God?
And Jesus said:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, "Love others as much as you love yourself." All the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets are based on these two commandments. (Mt. 22:37-40 Common English Bible).
This is the way of the kingdom, which the Messiah of God will inaugurate.
*Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), p. 14.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2011