Familiarity breeds contempt, the old saying goes, but to my mind the greater and more dangerous occasion of familiarity is indifference. When we come to a text and we have read it so many times or heard so many sermons preached on it, that we lose not only the freshness of the text but its edge, its blessing, as well as its judgment.
Part of the task of preaching or teaching is to shake the dust of familiarity off the text, to open a reader or listener’s ears and let a text speak again. Matthew 16: 21-28 is such a text in point, we know (part) of it well “If any one would come after me, they must deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me” but do we allow the edginess of Jesus words fill our lives? And how do we react to the angry exchange between Jesus and Peter?
Over the past few years I have led a membership class each year and used the Methodist Church’s membership material. As I have done so I have become more and more disillusioned by the course. Yes it does what its says ‘on the tin’ it makes people members but does it make them disciples? Are we so focused on membership of a nice cosy organisation, so concerned about not putting people off lest our membership numbers drop even further, that we forget to begin peoples journey of discipleship with its many challenges – deny, take up, follow.
As a young student I attended the Hall of Residence bible study group when we studied this passage from Matthew someone said, “I don’t like the conflict, and I don’t mean between Jesus and the authorities, the rulers and such. I don’t like the conflict between Jesus and Peter, the argument between Jesus and the disciples.”
Indeed, it is most uncomfortable to read of Peter speaking harshly to Jesus, and of Jesus speaking harshly to Peter, to see them on different sides of an issue. Just moments before all their words were blessing words, each for the other: “Thou art the Christ,” Peter said to Jesus; “Thou art the Rock,” Jesus said in return. Now the blessing has become cursing, a mutual rebuke, Peter barking at Jesus, “You don’t know what you are saying!” and Jesus barking right back, “You don’t know how you are thinking!”
Jesus is often at odds with his followers, of course. That is another aspect of discipleship we don’t often advertise. Sometimes, because of overfamiliarity with our texts, our traditions and practices, we don’t realize that we, too, have our minds set on earthly things. We don’t always see how we, who are called to help convert worldly culture, are instead converted by that culture and so much so that we do not talk about crosses or suffering or the evil powers of this world.
In our churches we can be so seduced by the theology of glory (which is a part of the gospel, but only a part, lest it become triumphalism) or, failing that, the theology of success (one writer notes that many churches study and master their ABC’s—attendance, buildings, cash—and nothing else) that we are as reluctant as Peter to embrace the cross. But when we empty discipleship of the cross we empty the cross of its power and thereby exchange discipleship with membership in our church. Jesus speaks sharply to those of us who set our minds not on heavenly things.
I, too, find it very uncomfortable to see Jesus and Peter at odds, and to know that Peter represents me, all of us, in the church, but how wonderful that although Peter misunderstands, Jesus does not abandon him. Yes, they are at odds, but they are still friends. Jesus corrects Peter; he does not excommunicate him. Having loved him, having called him—having loved and called us—Jesus will keep us in the fold, keep correcting and teaching, keep showing us the way till our minds are finally, fully, always set on heavenly things.
God bless and stay safe.