It is hard to get past the suffering. This is true for all people. Most of us have learned that life—even Christian life—involves anguish and affliction. But the knowledge does not make the experience of suffering any easier, and it does not make the desire to avoid suffering any less intense. For this reason, Peter stands again this week as a model Christian. He is not the type of model to emulate, however. Rather, he puts on display our shared determination to avoid suffering at all costs—both for ourselves and for those we love. This does not sit well with Jesus.
Part of what makes Peter a helpful model in this text is what he said in the preceding verses. In last week’s reading, Peter spoke for the rest of the disciples (and for all disciples) by confessing Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God. Jesus commended this confession, identifying the Father as its source and its truth as the foundation of the Church’s endurance. In other words, Peter got Jesus right.
But then five verses later Jesus calls him the adversary (Σατανᾶ). What changed? The promise of suffering. Peter’s resistance to suffering is so strong, and so natural, that he is willing to rebuke the very Son of God he just confessed. In addition to contradicting Jesus (which is never a good idea), Peter’s opposition to Jesus’ death prevented him from considering the resurrection. Jesus was clear. Not only would He suffer and be killed, but He would, “…on the third day be raised.” But Peter found no comfort in the resurrection. He was too disturbed by the suffering.
But Peter found no comfort in the resurrection. He was too disturbed by the suffering.
Is that not how it works for us, too? Not all of us suffer the same way or to the same degree. But when we do—when the night is upon us and despair darkens our vision—the promise of resurrection seems far off. The fact that death always precedes resurrection does not help at such times. Our aversion to suffering is too strong (Jeff Gibbs notes our description of this text and others like it as “passion predictions” is part of the problem. We do not, after all, call them “resurrection predictions”).
In his letter to the Philippians, Polycarp points out the suffering of Jesus is part of the bigger story. But it is only part: “For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an anti-Christ, and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the Cross is of the devil: and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord for his own lusts, and says that there is neither resurrection nor judgment,—this man is the first-born of Satan.” Jesus incarnation, cross, resurrection, and return for judgment; all go together. Take out one and you are no longer with Jesus but against Him.
At this point, we should remember that the other disciples were there to overhear this exchange. They (like us) heard Jesus’s commendation and condemnation of Peter’s words. In verse 24 Jesus turns to them (and us) and speaks about what it means to be a disciple. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (vs. 24). With this, Jesus gets up close and personal with all who call themselves Christian. While there is a great variety of types and extent of suffering among Christians, we all should be prepared for trouble.
While there is a great variety of types and extent of suffering among Christians, we all should be prepared for trouble.
This is counterintuitive. It is an upside-down way of thinking about God and those who are faithful to Him. It is the cruciform nature of Christian life. In today’s North American context, shaped significantly by what Christian Smith and Melinda Denton call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it is a message that needs to be preached clearly and fully.
The cross of Jesus and the cross of the Christian—that is the challenging part of this text. Jesus suffered, and so will we. The connection between the two is strong and warrants consideration as you prepare for this sermon. To that end, I recommend Jeff Kloha’s exegetically careful and thought-provoking article “’Carry On’: The Cross in the New Testament” in Concordia Journal (Summer, 2019, 15-30). In what may be surprising to Lutherans who emphasize the suffering and death of Jesus, Kloha demonstrates how often and how strongly the New Testament speaks of the cross of those who follow Jesus. When Jesus calls us to take up our cross and to suffer for others with Him, He means it!
This is the Law, of course. It is good, but it does not create or strengthen faith. For that, we need the promise. Which brings us back to Jesus’ words about the resurrection. After His suffering, Jesus promised to rise. Likewise, after we suffer and die with Jesus, we will also rise. That is the promise to proclaim to your hearers this day. After helping them consider THEIR cross as a follower of Jesus, hold out for them the promise of THEIR resurrection in His name.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 16:21-28.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 16:21-28.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 16:21-28.