Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!  Amen.  In last week’s Gospel lesson, we heard Peter’s bold confession of faith that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:17, ESV).[1]  In response to this statement, Jesus declared: “…You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (v. 18).  But in today’s Gospel, the rock of Peter becomes a stumbling stone to Jesus.

In the chronology of Christ’s ministry, today’s reading comes immediately after last week’s reading.  Jesus says things Peter doesn’t want to hear—things that we don’t want to hear!  As soon as Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, Jesus began revealing to them the cruciform nature of his messiahship.

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (v. 21).  This is the first of Jesus’ three famous Passion Predictions in the Gospels.  Three times before Jesus died on the cross, he told his disciples it was going to happen.  Three times!  He gave them his entire playbook by spelling out everything ahead of time.  So when Holy Week finally came, they should have expected it.  Why were they dismayed when he died?  How were they surprised when three days later he rose again from the dead?  They should’ve seen it coming because he kept telling them about it early on.  Nevertheless, it’s not something that they wanted to hear or could even bear to hear.  They probably got so tripped up by his mention of dying that they didn’t even hear the part about him rising again.

Jesus’ disciples would have none of it.  Peter would have none of it, so as the spokesman for the whole group, he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.  Can you imagine?!  Peter rebuked Jesus.  Peter questioned Jesus’ plan.  Peter told off the Son of God.  “Far be it from you, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!” (v. 22).  Jesus’ talk about suffering and death were incompatible with the Jewish expectations for Messiah.  Like most of his Jewish countrymen, Peter expected a conquering king who would drive out the Romans and reestablish the throne of David.  The Messiah was a victor, not a victim.  He was a roaring lion, not a sacrificial lamb.

Yet Jesus claimed he came to suffer, die, and rise again.  How could he say such things?  How did such queer ideas come into his head?  Clearly, he wasn’t thinking straight and in danger of losing the plot.  Something needed to be done.  Peter needed to shake up and wake up Jesus before it was too late.  My friend, Pastor Robert Harmon, refers to this story as the time that “Peter tried to save the Church from Jesus.”  Peter had a different strategy for how things should happen.  He didn’t like Jesus’ plan.  So he reacted strongly against it, trying to keep Jesus from taking the path to the cross.  He gets more than just a little crossways with Jesus.

But Jesus recognizes Peter’s speech for what it is: a demonic attack.  Through Peter, Satan is trying to tempt Jesus away from the path that leads to our salvation.  The devil doesn’t want Jesus to die.  He doesn’t want Jesus to save the world.  He wants us to die in our sins and be doomed and damned to hell forever.

Christ will not endure this upbraiding.  He sees it for what it is.  “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus declares, employing almost the exact same words in Greek as he does in an earlier scene when he was tempted by the devil for 40 days in the wilderness.  “Be gone, Satan!” (4:10).  You can’t hear it in English, but the Greek verb is the same (u{page, hypage).  This is the language of exorcism.  Peter is not the devil incarnate, of course, and I sincerely doubt that he is possessed by Satan (although that very fate would come upon Judas later in the Gospels).  Yet Satan speaks through Peter, and Jesus must rebuke him.

“Get behind me, Satan!”  Go away!  “You are a hindrance to me” (v. 23).  Hindrance is skandalon in Greek.  Our English word “scandal” is derived from it.  Skandalon can mean a “cause of offense” or a “trap.”  In its most basic meaning, skandalon simply means a stumbling stone—a rock that causes you to trip and fall.

Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus said he would build his Church, has become a stumbling stone.  He’s getting in Jesus’ way, so he must be cast aside and told to get back in line.  Why?  Because he is not thinking the things of God but the things of man.  Peter is trying to protect Jesus from harm, but in so doing, he threatens to undo the very mission Jesus came to accomplish: our salvation.  And this could only happen by Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.  That’s why he said that he “must go” to Jerusalem (v. 21).  It was necessary for Jesus to die.  The way of the cross for Christ is death, but for us it is eternal life.  There can be no other way than the way of the cross.

Unfortunately, the same is true for the disciples of Jesus.  The way of the cross is our path also.  Jesus says:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul.  Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matt. 16:24-26).


If we would follow Christ, then we must become like him in his suffering.  If we want to be disciples of Jesus, then we must be willing to suffer for his name.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him, ‘Come and die.’”

In order to live forever, first we must die.  Die to self.  Die to sin.  Die to the pattern of this world, which is passing away.  In John’s Gospel Jesus says that we must be “born again” and “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:3, 5).  To be born again, first you must die.  That is why Baptism is described as a spiritual drowning in Romans 6.  When we are baptized into the name of Christ, we are “buried… with him… into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead… we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:4-5).  In order to live with Christ, we must be willing to die with Christ—and for Christ.

Clinging to this world with all its empty promises, temptations to sin, and death can only result in eternal death.  That is why Jesus says if we try to save our lives, we will lose them.  We will lose everything if we forfeit our souls.  But if we are willing to give up every claim that this life has upon us for the sake of Jesus, then we will gain everything in the world to come.

The call of Christ is an invitation to suffer and die for the one who suffered, died, and rose again for us and our salvation.  This is not a welcome call to many so-called Christians today.  We would rather believe in the false gospel of prosperity instead of the cross of Jesus.  We would rather believe in spiritual empowerment and self-betterment than in denying ourselves.  We would rather live than die.  Yet only in dying to self can we live for Christ.  The Christian life is one of suffering and death.  It conforms to the same pattern as the cross of Christ.  The Christian life is cruciform.

It is common in our vernacular to speak metaphorically about suffering.  We often refer to our troubled relationships, financial distress, and poor health as supposed “crosses” that we all have to bear.  But by treating the cross as a symbol of all suffering, we turn it into a symbol that means nothing.  Even today in many churches, pastors will fall for this lie and proclaim from their pulpits about the many and diverse “crosses” in our lives.

But for the Christian, the cross can mean only the suffering that comes precisely because we are Christians—because we belong to Christ the crucified. The cross is not a universal symbol of human suffering. It the very means by which God used Christ’s suffering to save us from our sin.

The first disciples of Jesus did not understand the cross in a purely symbolic way.  For them, the cross was an ever-present reality in their world as the way in which Rome threatened the local population to deter political rebellion by false messiahs and to punish criminals.  The cross was a blunt force instrument imposed on the Jewish people.  The cross was ugly, gritty, gruesome, and grotesque.  Crucifixion was always terribly bloody form of torture.  It would prove so for Jesus.  Jesus’ disciples can never consider the cross to be only a symbol of the so-called “human condition.”  That kind of talk empties the cross of its power to save and to shape our lives.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

“The cross is neither misfortunate nor harsh fate.  Instead, it is that suffering which comes from our allegiance to Jesus Christ alone.  The cross is not random suffering, but necessary suffering.  The cross is not suffering that stems from natural existence; it is suffering that comes from being Christian.”


Did you catch that?  The cross is the suffering that comes from being a Christian.  The crosses we are called to take up in order to follow Jesus are the crosses called persecution, self-denial, radical non-conformity, and other such things.

Jesus died on a cross to save us from our sins.  All but one of the apostles died for the name of Jesus.  Peter was crucified upside down because he durst not dishonor the cross of Jesus by dying in the exact same manner.  Andrew was crucified sideways (that’s why we sometimes call the letter “X” St. Andrew’s Cross).  Every time that people mock you, exclude you, dishonor you, persecute you, or deprive you of life, liberty, or property because you are a Christian, then you are bearing your cross.

The cross is painful and shameful.  It is for us, and it was for Jesus.  Nevertheless, Jesus gladly and joyfully died for you and me.  He willingly “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2).  He did that for us.  Christ died and lives again for us.  And now he calls us to die for him.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).  Do you hear the call?  Will you heed?  Will you answer?  Will you follow in faith?  For the Christian, there is no life except first there be death.  Anything less than this is satanic.  Do not be ashamed of the Gospel or the cross of Christ.  They are foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, they are the wisdom of God.  In the name of the Father and of T the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.