Thirteenth Weekend After Pentecost (A/RCL): "That Others May Live"
Matthew 16:21-28; Romans 12:9-21
September 2-3, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
In Fellowship Hall, right by the door to the sanctuary (next to the defibrillator), there’s a shadow box containing a folded American flag, a Bible, a thank you note and a certificate saying that the flag was flown on helicopter combat rescue missions by the 46th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron in which John Kosequat served. John, the son of Karen Kosequat, the head of our Altar Guild and adult choir member, was active duty in the United States Air Force, serving as a PJ, a paramedic who parachuted out of helicopters to aid and extract the wounded.
John fulfilled his Air Force commitment and became a student at Columbia University, from which he just graduated. Since his discharge from full-time military service he has been serving in the NY Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing, which was deployed a week ago to Texas as part of Hurricane Harvey rescue efforts. On Wednesday night Senior Airman Kosequat and fellow Guardsman, Sergeant Ryan Dush, were on CNN, an interview accompanied by footage of their dramatic rescue of children and infants, including a one month old, from a flooded apartment complex. They kidded about being part of the Dad Squad, since each of them is a father. (Karen’s grandson Brody turned 2 years old in the spring.) The Guardsmen reported that over 3 days the 106th Rescue Wing rescued about 100 people by air and another 100 by boat. John had to swim across a street, which the floodwaters had turned into a river, in order to perform one of his rescues, in which he placed a harness around the child, clipped the child to himself, and then held on tight as both were hauled upwards into the safety of the helicopter.
The interviewer asked, “Why do you do this?” Sergeant Dush quoted their motto, “That Others May Live.” They said their goal is to help others in their time of greatest need, beginning with the most vulnerable: the youngest, the oldest, those with special medical needs. They didn’t say anything about the risk they run to their own life and safety. All in a day’s job….
This weekend’s lesson from Romans includes this advice:
Let love be genuine… love one another with mutual affection… extend hospitality to strangers… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-10, 13b, 21)
In the Gospel Jesus tells His disciples where the path of love that He follows will lead:
…Jesus began to show the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:21-23)
That word “rebuke” is harsh. Jesus rebukes evil spirits; Jesus rebukes wind and waves – and now, amazingly, Peter who had just affirmed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16), rebukes Jesus. Why? Why does Peter react so immediately, so strongly, so viscerally, to Jesus’ first Passion prediction?
1) Peter pictured a different kind of Messiah than Jesus had in mind. Peter was a first century Jew who assumed the Messiah would be a military leader who would overthrow Roman rule and restore autonomy to the Jews. In contrast, Jesus understood Himself to be a Suffering Servant, obedient to His Father’s will, destined to rule over a kingdom “not of this world.”
2) Peter loved Jesus. He didn’t want Him to come to harm. He was protective of Him, as we are of loved ones. Maybe at some point you realized in retrospect that you lobbied a child, a spouse, a parent, a friend, to veer away from danger and toward physical safety, though duty or God called them to go in a different, riskier direction. Then maybe that person reminded you that certain things are more important than life and some other things are worse than death. Again, from today’s Gospel: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:25) I was listening to the radio the other day and the interviewer commented that a highly regarded military man now involved in politics risks damaging his legacy. The historian who was being interviewed had a stronger opinion: “I think he’s been selling pieces of his soul.” “For what will it profit [him] if [he] gain the whole world but forfeit [his] life?” (Matt. 16:26)
Peter rebuked Jesus and Jesus rebukes Peter right back in what one commentator has called “the Great Rebuke.”
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matt.16:23)
So why does Jesus react so immediately, so strongly, so viscerally, to Peter’s “God forbid”?
Hellooooooo. It’s not like Jesus Himself hadn’t been tempted to envision an easier course of action, a less risky agenda, a much less costly price to pay. The loyal, spiritually insightful fellow whom Jesus nicknamed “Rocky” (“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” – Matt. 16:18) had morphed into a stumbling block, an occasion for sin.
After the temptation in the desert before His public ministry began, Jesus had told Satan, “Begone!” (Matt. 4:10). “Beat it!” Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” sure echoes that closely. But – it could also mean, “Peter, get behind Me so you can follow My lead, walk in My footsteps, become a disciple (literally, a follower) and not play a wannabe leader.”
This takes us back to Jesus’ command that those who want to be His disciples need to take up their cross and follow. To truly be followers of the Lord of Love we need to love, as Paul invites us in his letter to the Romans. To truly be followers of the Crucified, we need to take up our own cross, daily, and walk the path of self-sacrifice that He trailblazed for us. When temptations loom large, we need to get back to spiritual basics and ask how the decision we’re about to make squares with holy commands to love God above all else and our neighbors as ourselves. Living a joyful and sacrificial life of faith-active-in-love is the “cost of discipleship.” If we’re following Jesus, we’re making precious, costly investments of time and talent and treasure as He did.
If our faith never inconveniences us, we have to consider whether we’re taking it seriously enough. If we only worship on the odd occasion when nothing more exciting or enticing is happening, our commitment is lukewarm. If the offering we put in the plate (regardless of the amount) is a casual afterthought and not a firm commitment, we aren’t investing enough. If we pray only when we have a favor to ask, the Lord is longing to hear from us more often, to be in deeper communion with us, to be our “all in all” and not simply our fall-back position. We become members of the body of Christ through holy Baptism. We become disciples of Christ by following His lead, getting behind Him, day in and day out.
The motto, “That Others May Live,” would be a fitting label on the base of the cross or on the titulus that usually reads INRI over the Lord’s head. Rescuers in Texas came across a three-year-old girl clinging to her mom, who had not made it. The child told the rescuer, “Mommy was saying her prayers.” We know that mother’s prayer would have included, “Lord, above all, save my child.” The bravery of first responders, the unconditional love of an earthly parent, the unconditional love of our Father in heaven, the sacrifice made by a Savior: “That Others May Live.” In today’s Gospel the Savior tells us, and not just Peter, to get behind Him and follow, daily bearing our own cross in whatever labor of love presents itself.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham