Pushing For a Better Hope

He just couldn’t stop there, could he? Why couldn’t he be satisfied with what had been said already? Wasn’t that enough? Wasn’t that what the Father had revealed to Simon Peter? He’s the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Why does Jesus have to keep pushing?

Just before this passage, in the story we read last week from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples two questions: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am?” To the first question, the disciples answer that people think Jesus is a prophet. To the second question, Simon Peter responds with a confession of faith, a gift from the Father: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praises Peter, promises to build his church on Peter the rock, and gives to Peter and the church the keys to the kingdom of heaven. It is a glorious moment—but Jesus just won’t stop there. He keeps going. His work is not done. His teaching is not complete. Matthew tells us that “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.” Jesus does not rest content, not even after praising Peter.

That is what Jesus is like. It’s a part of him many of us would like to forget about. He’s an agitator, a troublemaker. He likes to stir the pot—and then give it a good shake or two. He’s “that guy,” the person you wish would just leave you alone, or drop it for five minutes already!, or find something else to talk about!

It’s not like Peter’s confession was easy to make or some kind of half-truth. It came straight from the Father. And calling Jesus Messiah and Son of the Living God meant that Peter was willing to reorient his life around this person Jesus, more than he had already done by following him. Still, it is not enough for Jesus. He presses on.

And to be clear, Jesus is doing more than predicting the future. He’s not saying, “Look, things have been pretty good around here for some time, but they’re about to get bad—real bad. Don’t worry, though, everything turns out in the end.” I read somewhere recently someone who said that if that’s what Jesus meant, then Jesus isn’t worth following. Thankfully, that’s not what Jesus meant, and Jesus is worth following every step of the rest of your life.

Jesus isn’t predicting the future. He’s completely changing what it means to be the Messiah and the Son of the Living God. I don’t know what Peter and the other disciples hoped to hear from their messiah, but it clearly wasn’t that he was going to suffer, be killed, and “be raised,” whatever they thought that meant. There have, over the ages, been lots of messiahs and so-called messiahs. All of them promise deliverance. All of them cast a vision for a future that is better than today. All of them make promises to their followers. All of them have a cause. And at some point, most of them say, “This cause is not just something worth dying for. It’s something worth killing for, too.” It happens so often, we notice when they don’t say so. Gandhi in India; Martin Luther King, Jr., in the U.S.

By talking about his suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus is telling his disciples, “None of those categories fits me. I am not just another messiah, not just a very special messiah. I am completely different. My kingdom is one of peace: you must never kill for it, of course. And you might be called to die for it, one day. But it is my death, not yours, not the death of your enemy, that matters most for this Great Cause.” Other messiahs can become martyrs for their causes, but only the Messiah Jesus creates a cause based on his death. Only Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah, dies “for us and for our salvation.”

If this is not earth-shattering today, it is because most of us live comfortable lives in comfortable places and can’t imagine seriously being part of something that risky. Or it is because we have sometimes followed, or wanted to follow, would-be messiahs who ask us to sacrifice others as well as ourselves. But it was earth-shattering to Peter and the other disciples. And Peter—it’s always Peter, isn’t it—poor Peter, he summons up his courage to speak out again, and he rebukes Jesus.

We don’t rebuke people any more. So it might be easier to understand that Peter spoke out against Jesus. But really, Peter swears at him. “God forbid it, Lord!” he snaps, but I invite you to hear another god-word that might come to mind, or any other four-letter word I’m sure none of you has ever spoken aloud or dared to think. The Greek word at that point literally means, “Mercy!,” but you can say, “Mercy!” and mean a lot of other things that are captured by the colorful language Christians like to pretend we’re too good to say.

But Peter has gotten me thinking: What could Jesus say that would make you swear at him to his face? What buttons could he push that would make you say, “Mercy, Lord!”? And don’t try to hide behind something like, “Oh, I would never say anything like that to Jesus.” Yes, you would. I would, too. Peter clearly stands in for all disciples: the twelve at the time and every other one since, including you and me. And Peter is p-o’ed. When you’re mad like that, there’s a lot you will find yourself saying that you thought you’d never say.

And Jesus keeps pushing. When someone gets mad like Peter and you and I get mad, most others will try to calm them down, talk them out of their anger. Jesus calls Peter Satan and tells him to get out of his way. And still he keeps pushing: if you want to be my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. Follow me to suffering. Follow me to death. Follow me to resurrection.

Earlier this summer we learned from Jesus that the cross tests everything. Every relationship, everything we do: it all must pass the test of the cross. Today Peter helps us discover that the cross even tests our hopes. If we hope for a life of following Jesus without going by the way of the cross, Jesus says to us, “Get behind me, Satan!” Hopes that are not tested by the cross, or hopes that are tested by the cross and found wanting, are demonic. They are Satanic, no matter how appealing they may be to our desires.

And the thing is, every day we hope for things that have nothing to do with following Jesus along this cross-shaped path. We hope for success. We hope to be secure. We hope for more stuff. We hope for an easier life. We hope to get by without difficult choices or conflict. We hope to avoid pain for ourselves and for others. These are false hopes, but they are what we want. And we work to get them, we make decisions because we think they’re good, we dedicate our time to fulfilling them. We put our stock in people who promise great things that speak to our hopes, and we even give them astonishing freedom to say and do despicable things because we believe they might fulfill some or all of our hopes.

Maybe hearing something you hope called false and Satanic might make you swear at Jesus to his face. But Jesus offers a better hope. And it is not simply to hope for the opposite of our false hopes: hoping for failure or insecurity or a difficult life or conflict is not a better hope. No, the better hope is Jesus himself. He alone is worthy of our hopes, because he is completely different from all others. He alone will come in the glory of the Father, to act according to the justice of God.

Hope in Jesus means desiring him, wanting his way and no other. But it also means changing our lives: deny our old hopes, our old selves; take up our cross, our new hope; and follow him. Hope comes to life in how we live each day.

Jesus is still pushing buttons today, challenging us, prodding us, never stopping where we get comfortable. Let him push you, let him stir you up, get mad at him if you must, and then put your whole hope in him and follow him.

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