Jesus, turning and looking at the disciples, said to Peter, “get behind me, Satan!”
Here’s a thought experiment. What would Jesus’ momma have said if she witnessed and heard this whole exchange? It might have gone something like this.
“Gee, Jesus, that wasn’t a nice thing to say! Were you born in a barn? Where are your manners? Don’t you know that a Christian doesn’t disrespect others? I mean, even Martin Luther, who knew his curse words, taught in the Small Catechism that you should always interpret the neighbor’s words and actions in the best possible light. You called Peter ‘Satan.’ That’s just awful, to call another person evil, the devil himself. Did you forget that God made Peter too, and that God don’t make junk? To call Peter ‘Satan’ is like calling another person a vile human being, a pig, a huge cesspool of….well, I’ll stop there. Now hold still while I wash your mouth out with soap.”
Well, if we’re inclined to respond to Jesus in like manner, I must tell you that that word does not mean what you think it means. Let me be clear. Jesus was strong with his rhetoric. He was forceful because the stakes were now very high and the students had to understand rightly. Any misunderstanding of Jesus would be fatal to his mission. Ever the consummate rabbi, at this critical junction Jesus could not overemphasize the point, and his only armament was his words. So, not long after Peter had correctly confessed Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus rebuked Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”
“Satan.” Ha Satan. ‘The Satan.’ It did not mean and does not mean what we thought or think it means. It designates the one who opposes God; one who stands in the way; in short, adversary.
It is understandable that Peter would be adverse to Jesus’ words about his pending suffering, death, and resurrection. Peter loved Jesus. I suppose, too, that Peter saw his own life fully invested in Jesus’ mission and was not keen on the idea of Jesus’ definition of success. The other disciples were implicated in this, too. And the followers of the disciples as well who may have been as committed to what they somewhat understood or were there for the spectacle of it all. Whatever his reason, Peter was the adversary in the moment. He stands between Jesus and the mission he must fulfill.
I can see in my mind’s eye that Jesus’ back was to the red rock of the Caesarea Phillipi resort; springs flowing into pools; wine flowing into vacationing Roman soldiers’ mouths; beautiful multi-religious temples accenting the natural beauty of the area with their priests and priestesses serving all literal and figurative spiritual needs; paeans to the god Pan inscribed on the rock. It was no small matter, too, that in Jesus’ time this place was a favored Roman administrative capital. One can still see the attractiveness of it all today there at the base of beautiful Mt. Hermon.
All this was the stage for the hinge conversation between God and humanity at Club Med. Politics, business, and leisure collaborated there as the backdrop for Peter’s inspired confession of faith and his demurral at Jesus’ mission-statement. This was the backdrop to which Jesus had his own back as Jesus spoke his rebuke; Peter, and the disciples and the crowd facing Jesus, standing between him and the way to Jerusalem. All who stood in Jesus way, whether by their speech or wordless moral posture, were adverse; adversaries even in unwitting collusion with the explicit enemies of Jesus. Jesus saw clearly that despite their best intentions they were preparing the way to his suffering and death. But they would not stop the promises of God made since those first utterances to Abraham and Sarah!
Just like Jesus early in his ministry walked through the crowd that wanted his death at a cliff, Jesus instructs this crowd now to follow or get out of the way. Those who follow he would lead away from the resort to Jerusalem. He would walk his disciples into real understanding and genuine discipleship where true religion is more than a spectator sport, and more than the familiar plea that God would bless their cross-less lifestyles. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter and Jesus’ leading onward nevertheless intends us to ask ourselves who our adversaries have been. And–and!–today he prods us to consider how we also have been adversaries to Christ.
Whoever or whatever keeps us from doing what God created us to do, whoever or whatever keeps us from picking up our cross and following Jesus: these are adversaries. The adversary can be my insecurity, my addiction, my anger,* anything, even my fondness for my 401k, just as much as my adversary these days can be an extremist from left or right who with no truthfulness whatever asserts God-given privileges to one identity over another. These adversaries drink their wine from the hand of Pan, not the God of Abraham Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. It may not be our charge explicitly to remove some adversaries from our way. But it is our call and claim from God to reject them so to follow Jesus through suffering and death to resurrection in selfless love of neighbor. We find our joyful true selves in that way as divine bonus.
But the most important and most urgent truth today is that however halting is my turning to follow Jesus, however much intentionally or unintentionally I stand in Jesus’ way, God persists. Does it look like the collusion of business and entertainment and religion at Caesarea Phillip is winning today? With so much suffering and so much toxicity all around, it may look like the adversaries are winning. But take heart. They are not. God is keeping God’s promises. God’s freedom and beauty will make the lesser pleasures ashen; the loudest claimed so-called rights will be exposed as addictive fetishes. The ever washing promise of baptism will cleanse our worldly springs of their poisons. The friendship and following of Jesus will overwhelm adversity by their sheer and pure grace. Crowds part and turn around. Jesus walks freely and his redeemed followers with him. Amen.
*See Emile Heath, The Christian Century, 1-25-18.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church February 25, 2018