Sermon for Holy Communion

September 3, 2023 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A
Matthew 16:21-28

Rev. Misa Furumoto

Sometimes Jesus speaks very harsh words to us, so harsh that we might doubt if they truly came from Him. Do you recall the Gospel reading from two Sundays ago? Jesus said to the Canaanite woman who sought His help, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He likened the woman to a dog. And this time, to Peter, He says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” We wonder if Jesus was born that short-tempered? However, simultaneously, this also reveals that He was very human, understanding our human emotions.

Anyway, why was Peter called Satan? What had he said to Jesus? I believe his behavior was quite typical. The conversation was initiated by Jesus. He disclosed to His disciples what would soon happen to him: He would go to Jerusalem, be greatly tormented by elders, chief priests, and scribes, and then be killed. The disciples must have been just shocked. Their thoughts probably froze in disbelief, speechless. But Peter, ever impulsive, quickly responded. He went up to Jesus and said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Imagine that. This response is quite natural. If I were a disciple deeply loving and admiring my teacher, hearing of his imminent death would make me react similarly.

Yet Jesus rebuked Peter, saying, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Excuse us, but we are human; our minds predominantly consider human matters. It’s almost our natural response. But one can also imagine Jesus’s sentiment at that moment. Of course, Jesus would not have wanted to undergo such extreme suffering and death. He was human just as we are. But as the Son of God, His heart was aligned with divine purposes. This was His agony— possessing human emotions while fully comprehending the divine plan. It’s probable that Jesus wasn’t really denouncing Peter as Satan, but rather the human sentiment within Himself that Peter voiced — commanding “Satan, get behind me.”

But Jesus knew what lay beyond the suffering and death: the resurrection. He mentioned to His disciples that after enduring immense suffering and being killed in Jerusalem, He would “rise again on the third day.” But the disciples completely missed this, overwhelmed by the shocking news of His death.

Now, We Christians living today, unlike the disciples back then know the meaning of the cross. We have it as a symbol of Christianity and the church. Some might even wear it constantly. Not only us but even those unfamiliar with the Bible or Christianity wear the cross as an accessory. Why this profound love for the cross? It once represented one of the cruelest execution instrument in Rome. Now it’s widespread. Do we gaze upon the cross in churches to remind ourselves of just Jesus’s suffering on the cross? Do we wear it to remember just our own mortality?

I don’t think so. We look upon the cross to remind ourselves that no matter the suffering we face in life, hope always exists. Death isn’t the end but an entrance to a new life, a new beginning. Jesus overcame the terrifying death we all must face, and gifted us the path to eternal life. The cross is a symbol of this hope and our sole instrument to praise God. And Jesus says, ” If you want to become my follower, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”

If the cross symbolizes hope, then what does it mean to carry our own crosses? Surely it doesn’t mean merely choosing a life of suffering. Rather, it signifies bringing hope to those in darkness. What’s your cross? It’s about using the special gift given by God, not for yourself, but for God, for others. This is the essence of denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following the Lord.

In Japanese, there’s a word “使命” (mission or calling in English). It’s written as using one’s life. Using our lives not for ourselves, but for God and for others, perhaps it means living to realize God’s hope — the kingdom of God. Let us continuously ponder how we can bring hope to our world today and practice, starting from tiny little things with the gifts given upon us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.