Caught between a sentence now and in the future?

The lectionary invites us this Sunday to ponder Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death in Jerusalem, Peter’s reaction, and Jesus’ response. It reminds us we’re caught between a sentence now and in the future.

The passage is Matthew 16:21-28. Most bibles split it in half and supply the headings “Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection” and “Take up your Cross and Follow Jesus.”

The passage begins “from that time Jesus began to …,” but includes “Peter took him aside and …” This means Jesus spoke many times about what he was going to experience in Jerusalem. And finally, Peter, probably voicing what all the Twelve thought, could take it no more.

Peter forcefully says, in effect, “No way! That can’t possibly happen to you! How could God, the God of mercy, allow such a thing to happen to the Messiah, the expected one, the Son of David, the liberator from Roman Oppression, the new King? No way! NO WAY!”

Matthew chooses to be terse. Short. Snappy. Jesus’ response is horrific. Scary. He says “Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me.”

It’s as if Jesus recalled his temptation by Satan, right after he received baptism at the hands of John Baptist. The temptation was clear: avoid suffering, pain, humiliation. Don’t do what God wants. Choose safety.

Recall that in the preceding verses (see Why did people say Jesus was Jeremiah), Matthew tells us Jesus gave Peter an ovation, changed his name, and used it to speak of the Twelve as foundation of the church. And now, Jesus calls him something worse than a four-letter word: Satan!

Why? To make a startling point. What? That the most-to-be-feared tempters are well-meaning friends who care more for our comfort than our character.[1]

The controversy in Jerusalem would result in a sentence of awful death for Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection would open the eyes of the twelve and others. They would preach Jesus. They too would be shamed, tortured, killed.

But that sentence would be way less severe than another sentence.

What other sentence? The sentence at the court of God at the final judgment. Because the question asked then will be “what did you make the centre of your life?” And there’s only one correct answer: God’s will. Which, ironically, is “my neighbour” (see Matthew 22:34-40).

Matthew doesn’t tell us what the sentence is, precisely.[2] He just tells us Jesus said those who choose earthly safety will forfeit their souls.

Reading the gospels, I get the sense that the Twelve had a great sense of peace, satisfaction, fulfilment, when they were with Jesus. They felt they were in the centre of God’s will. They felt in their souls that they were in step with God. Those who lose their souls will lose that peace.

Reading the rest of the New Testament – the letters, and the book of Revelation – I get the sense that any who centre their lives on Jesus and their neighbours will have the same peace. I know it to be so. When I say, “peace be with you,” this is what I wish for the person to whom I say it.

Before I end, I must touch on one other thing.

What to make of this portion of the passage:

27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Is Matthew expecting us to understand that Jesus spoke about the parousia, his second coming and the end of the world as it was then?

Well, the world we see around us is populated mostly with people who are ethically and morally just like the world of Jesus’ day. So, clearly, the parousia didn’t happen while those who heard him were alive.

So, what does the portion mean?

The meaning lies in the fact that verse 27 speaks of the end of the world, while verse 28 speaks about the beginning of the kingdom with Jesus on the throne.

Verse 28 refers not to the parousia, but to transfiguration – an account of which Matthew puts immediately after his account of Jesus’ talk of “coming.”[3]

Peter himself makes this connection, in his letter “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours” (1 Peter 1:1), when he writes in 1 Peter 1:16-18

16 … we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son] with whom I am well pleased”, 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

Why do I say we are caught between a sentence now and in the future?

Because if we choose the will of God and the good of our neighbour as the aim of our lives – as Jesus and the Twelve did – our fate is likely to be the same as theirs: a sentence now, for “disturbing the peace.” (But in reality, for challenging injustice perpetrated by those in authority.)

If we don’t choose the will of God and the good of our neighbour as the aim of our lives, we will receive a sentence in the future: a sentence of eternal separation from the peace which comes of being with Christ.

What have we chosen? What will we choose? Peace be with you.

[1] I’ve paraphrased a comment attributed to Bible scholar A B Bruce.

[2] We know from other scriptures that it’s an eternal separation from God.

[3] Some scholars suggest that it could also refer to the Pentecost, see Acts 2. Others suggest the resurrection of Jesus.

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