Jesus' Passion and Ours: Reflections on Matthew 16:21-28

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Lectionary Reflections
Matthew 16:21-28
August 28, 2011

Jesus Predicts His Passion
Last week we noted that Peter's confession and commissioning as recounted in Matthew 16:13-20, are also our own. This week the text centers on Jesus' prediction of his passion. We'll see that his loss and gain of his life is also ours. In Matthew's gospel, Peter's confession serves as a springboard from which Jesus makes his first prediction of his passion (Mt. 16:21-23). The reader learns through Peter that Jesus is the Messiah and then from Jesus what that Messiah-ship will mean for his future.

For both Matthew and Mark, this passage is the hinge between the Galilean ministry and the Passion. It is a turning point. From here on out, Jesus' focus is on preparing his disciples for his death. He repeats this announcement in 17:22-23 and 20:17-29. In verses 24-28, we find that Jesus' announcement is not just a prediction of his personal future. It is an invitation to his readers, including us, to find their identity by participating in that future. In a real sense Jesus and Peter name each other. And in that mutual naming, they challenge us as to our allegiance and identity. We can no longer plead ignorance. We too, know who Jesus is. The question now becomes, will we follow him, knowing where the winding path will lead?

If Peter had not just been praised and entrusted with great future authority by Jesus, his rebuke (v. 23) might not appear quite so harsh. From "holder of the keys" to "mouthpiece of Satan!" From Rock to stumbling block? In Peter's defense, Jesus hasn't yet helped him understand the "why" question—Jesus has affirmed that this grim future must happen, but has not backed that strange statement up with reasons. None of us wants pain and suffering to befall a loved one. We understand Peter's impulse perfectly. In fact, shouldn't Jesus have been flattered that a key follower cared this much about him? Why doesn't Jesus thank him and then gently explain and correct?

Perhaps resistance to his own future had been percolating in Jesus' thoughts. When Peter puts it into words, Jesus recognizes their source: his old nemesis from whom we have not heard since chapter 4. Since Satan couldn't get anywhere with Jesus, he is now trying to erode the devotion of his disciples. Peter's sentiments must be sternly condemned, because they lead people to choose not just to let Jesus go it alone, but to actively oppose his mission. The lack of trust Peter shows in Jesus is doubly disturbing in light of the tremendous trust Jesus has just placed in him.

This is the first inkling we get of Peter's complex character and of troubled waters ahead. Peter fulfills a unique role in the early church, and at the same time, he represents all of us would-be disciples. For we too combine the potential to believe and serve with the potential to abscond and abandon. In this moment we look ahead to Peter's threefold betrayal the night of Jesus' trial. We also see ahead to the faith and leadership Peter embodied for the early church. Whatever our past relationship to Jesus, there is forgiveness and a fresh start. A high calling beckons and severe trials lie ahead. Like Peter, the good news we offer to others is also the good news we live by: that Christ offers us strength and joy to accomplish the most difficult of ministries.

Teaching about Cross Bearing
Jesus' teaching on cross-bearing as the substance of the disciple's life is addressed to Peter, to the disciples, and to us. We can also assume that Satan is invited to listen in!

This teaching answers the "why" question. Why are you going to suffer and die? The answer is basically this: because of the risky way I choose to live, because of my commitment to be a doer and not just a hearer. Jesus' chosen way of life is summed up in one of the wisdom sayings he coined to edify his followers. "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Mt. 16:25).

This saying is in direct contrast to traditional wisdom like that found in the Book of Proverbs. There young people were taught how to preserve and secure and extend their lives by hard work, moderation in food and drink, avoiding foolish people, knowing when to keep quiet, and planning for the future. The reward promised them was long life, health, many children, and a good reputation among their peers (Prov. 16:17).