A few years ago I was watching a television interview with the Gibb brothers of BeeGees fame. They were asked about a period in their career when they split up and what had caused the break. Barry Gibb’s response was telling. The essence of his reply went something like this: “It was ‘first fame’. We were suddenly famous, making lots of money, and we got too full of ourselves.”
This is always the problem with awakening to power. It is all too human for us to realise that life is changing, that we are beginning to exert influence, and then to become intoxicated by the power. We begin to throw our weight around and expect others to do our bidding, or at least show us decent levels of respect. And in the process, we lose our souls.
The Church is no stranger to this temptation. The history of the Church is, at last in part, a story of awakening to power, collaborating with empire and losing its soul. Even today, the community of Christ-Followers is tempted by the systems and resources, the power plays and collaborations that can ensure we have influence and even dominance in the world. And, like communities and individuals of the past, whenever we allow whatever power we may have been given to intoxicate us, we lose our souls.
Perhaps this is why Matthew uses Peter as the mage of this journey – and its redemption. As we have seen, Matthew is writing as a Jew for Jewish readers, and seeks to reveal Jesus as the New Moses. That’s why he includes the account of the slaughter of the innocents (echoing Moses’ own deliverance from slaughter), of Jesus walking on water (echoing Moses’ parting of the waters) and of the feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness (echoing the manna which God provides through Moses to the newly liberated, wilderness-wandering Israelites). Matthew also seeks to reveal Jesus’ teaching as the new (or fulfilled) law. That’s why he builds his Gospel around five sermons (echoing the Pentateuch) with the first being the Sermon on the Mount (echoing Moses receiving the law on the mountain). But, Matthew also wants to show that Jesus is not just a new Moses, but a better one – not just a prophet, but God made flesh, Emmanuel, God With Us (1:23). That’s why, starting with the calming of the storm, Matthew has the disciples actually worshipping Jesus.
But, now there’s a new piece to Matthew’s puzzle. With Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Christ (in last week’s Lectionary reading – Mt. 16:13-20), Matthew shows Jesus as establishing a new chosen people (ecclesia – called out ones) of God. And by his declaration, Peter is “chosen” as the rock on which the Church (ecclesia) is to be built.
It’s a heady moment for Peter, and he clearly receives it as an appointment from Jesus, and gift of authority, of leadership. But, this is where it all starts to go wrong. Just as he is awakening to his power, Jesus begins to reveal what it means to be the Christ, and what it means for his disciples to be the Church. And it’s not the triumphal, Egyptian-bashing image that Peter wanted. It includes crosses and death and resurrection (you can almost hear Peter thinking, “whatever that means!”)
So, taking his new-found authority, Peter steps in to set Jesus straight. He knows how things are meant to turn out. If this is God’s reign, if this is God’s people, then the “evil ones” who oppose God’s dominion must be dealt with – preferably by teaching them a good, military lesson. Death is not part of the equation, and to speak of it is not good PR. So, Peter must make Jesus understand. He has an army just waiting for him to say the word. Death does not need to be a part of the picture. God’s kingdom will be established by force, and Peter seeks to reassure Jesus that he has all he needs to make it happen. And in the process, Peter loses his soul, and tempts Jesus to lose his as well. The disciple, awakening to power, has become the embodiment of Satan – the Tempter, the Accuser.
Peter’s attempted reassurance is exactly the temptation Jesus has been fighting since he started his ministry. As he prepared himself in the desert, Satan sought to make the same suggestion. Death and sacrifice were not necessary. He could use his supernatural abilities to win people over by force, and bring them into line with his mission and message. But, then, as now, Jesus resisted, and the words he uses to speak to Peter are almost the same as the ones he spoke to Satan in the wilderness (4:10). As William Barclay describes, back then he simply said “Begone Satan” (Hupage Satana). To Peter Jesus says, literally, “Begone behind me, Satan” (Hupage opiso mou, Satana). It’s like Jesus recognises what is going on, and he challenges Peter to resist allowing the power and position he has been given to go to his head. Though he may have a special function in the building of the new community, he remains a follower of Christ, not the leader. So Jesus suggest rather strongly, but compassionately, that he return to his rightful place, and allow Jesus to continue in his.
All of which sets the scene for the discourse which follows and which defines, not just the mission and ministry of Jesus, but also that of those who respond to his call and follow him. This is not a triumphalist movement. It is not an attempt to overthrow empire by force, or to engage in a battle of arms. This is not an attempt to dominate the world in Christ’s name. It is a self-giving undermining of all of those power dynamics that bring oppression, inequality, injustice and exploitation. It is an upside down winning of the world not through dominance, but through love and service.
The key thought is this simple, but transforming statement: “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (16:26 NLT). Whenever we seek to gain or keep the “whole world” – to retain a place of power or privilege, to maintain our security at all costs, to avoid pain or suffering – we end up losing our souls. Matthew wrote these words to a community enduring persecution, where the quest to save one’s life could mean denying one’s faith – a true loss of soul. Though we may not experience the same level of threat to our physical existence, the danger of losing our souls is no less real.
On the organisational or community level it looks like this: When we allow ourselves to be recruited in order to sanctify party-political movements or nationalistic aims, we may gain the world, but we lose our souls; When we justify materialism and consumerism and use the Gospel to bless those who hoard wealth and blame the poor for their fate, we may gain the world, but we lose our souls; When we use faith as a quest for security and a way to disengage from the real issues of justice across the globe, we may gain the world, but we lose our souls. On an individual level, the same truth applies: When we use our new awareness of God’s grace and love to lead us into arrogant judgement of others and self-righteous exclusivism, we lose our souls; When we see following Jesus as a doorway into special “blessing” and a guarantee of heavenly bliss that is denied to others, we lose our souls; when we strive for financial security, status, protection from life’s pain, or unique influence, and use our faith to justify or enable this quest, we have lost our souls.
The good news is that Peter did learn to “get behind” Jesus in the end. It took a few years, but much later the one who had been called “the Rock” and took the name as a title of authority and power, wrote that he happily recognised that he was no different from others, that he had no role or authority that was denied to any follower of Christ. He was Peter, the Rock, but the entire community of believers, he wrote are “living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple” (1 Peter 2:5). This letter indicates that Peter had had a new awakening to power – to the power of sacrifice and self-giving, the power of love and service, the power of justice and inclusion.
“You were called to this kind of endurance,” Peter wrote, “because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps.” (1 Peter 2:21). The Church, the ecclesia, then is simply the community of those who have learned the power of the cross, and who have committed themselves to following Jesus in a quest to find God’s abundant life – for ourselves and others – through losing our lives daily in a cross-embracing, resurrection-trusting, risky and reckless love.