SERMON from 8-7-11: “What If…”

Having injured my pinky in a zucchini-slicing incident late in the week last week, I could not finish my sermon last week. So, I decided to present one of my favorite story sermons instead. To give credit where credit is due, it is from a book called Dinner with Jesus: and Other Left-handed Story-sermons by Donald F. Chatfield. I hope it makes you think.

Matthew 16.13-28:

Peters Declaration about Jesus

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, Who do people say that the Son of Man is? 14 And they said, Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. 15 He said to them, But who do you say that I am? 16 Simon Peter answered, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. 17 And Jesus answered him, Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his 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. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you. 23 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.

The Cross and Self-Denial

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

I am Simon Peter. Some of you will remember me. I was Jesus’ right-hand man for many, many years. You’ve probably heard the story about how Jesus picked out his followers, and you certainly know all the glorious things he did through through the thirty years that he was head of our nation of Israel. But not all of you know that his illustrious career is really largely owing to me. That’s right! If it hadn’t been for my reasoning with him that day at Caesarea Phillipi, none of this would have happened.

That day he took us, his disciples, on a kind of retreat to the far north. Later, in a pretty isolated spot, he sat down with and began talking about what people thought of him. Well, I told him straight out, “Jesus, I think you’re the Messiah, the Christ, the one that everyone’s been waiting for, the one who’s gonna change things and make things better for us; the one who’s going to really turn this nation around.”

Jesus listened carefully to what I said, he praised me for it, and then–I know you’ll find this part hard to believe–then he told us that his idea of being the messiah was that he was going to go down to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and even be crucified! Then he added some nonsense about rising from the dead on the third day, but everyone knows that’s impossible.

I took him aside, away from the others, because I didn’t want to embarrass him by having them hear this, and I really scolded him. I said, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall ever happen to you.”

He lashed out at me! He said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are not on the side of God, but of man.”

I said, “You can call me names all you want, Lord, but you’re just not thinking clearly here. There’s something morbid about this idea. Why is it that you want to die?”

“Peter,” he said, “I have studied the scriptures and I believe that I am the Messiah, and that it’s God’s will for me to die for all people.”

I said, “Now think about it for a minute, Jesus! You’ve got a following that is now numbering in the thousands upon thousands. Every place you go the whole area is jammed with folks who have come to see you. You’ve got a bigger following than anyone I’ve ever heard of. With that kind of following, Lord, you could do some truly great things. BUT NOT IF YOU DIE! What use will you be to anyone, then?”

He said, “I mustn’t think of my own selfish desire to great things or live.”

“But Lord,” I protested, “it isn’t selfish to desire to do what is best when helping people. You’re not going to help anyone by dying. The people who are following you are beginning to put their hope and trust in you, they would just feel betrayed. They’ll drift away, and all the good you’ve managed to do so far will all be forgotten. And what of us, your disciples? Like the rest of them, I left everything to follow you because I believe you are the one we’ve been waiting for, the one who’s going to make a transforming difference in the world.

“Besides that, I have to admit it: I love you. We all do, all your disciples, all the women who follow you, everyone. We’ll be heartbroken if you should die–die for nothing–and leave us to pick up the pieces and bear the burden.”

“I believe that it’s God’s will,” he said.

I answered, becoming very angry at his stubborn thoughtlessness, “Lord! Your thinking is pretty messed up. Here, you’re planning to go down to Jerusalem and make some grandstand play to die on a Roman cross, so everyone can call you a martyr, and leave the rest of us alone and leaderless. All we have worked for would be for not.”

We talked about it for quite a while, until I could see he was beginning to listen to me. So, we went back to the others to talk about it, and they were as shocked about it as I had been. Finally, I suggested that we put it up to a vote. So we did, and everyone unanimously voted against Jesus going down to Jerusalem and dying on a cross.

“Well,” he said (as I suspect he felt pretty relieved), “all right. I’ll submit myself to the will of the majority. So…what do we do next?”

We talked most of that day, and finally we came up with a plan which you know all too well. We worked for a few more months building up an immense following in Galilee, and then went down to Jerusalem for the Passover, with thousands and thousands of followers. We made a triumphant entrance into the city with Jesus riding on a powerful warhorse and everyone shouting, “Hosanna,” the ancient greeting to a king. The authorities were really impressed, and they watched carefully as Jesus sat in the temple teaching and gathering new throngs of people from among the residents of Jerusalem as well as from those who had come from other areas, and even from among the Jewish pilgrims who had come from all over the world.

While he was doing that, we disciples split up. Some of us went to the Sadducees, the temple authorities; some of us went to the Sanhedrin; some went to the leaders of the Pharisees; and some went to the most important scribes. We tried to achieve a working coalition. We convinced them that the people would follow Jesus and listen to him; that Jesus’ message would be one of reconciliation and peace, and that he could bring together our whole nation. That way we would be able to have some influence with the Romans and improve conditions for everyone.

Well, it took two or three days, but we got the coalition put together. The throng that was gathering around Jesus got bigger and bigger. We went to see the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (some may remember him). He’d become quite nervous about the large crowds surrounding one man, and was thinking about taking some sort of police action, but we convinced him that Jesus was reasonable and would listen to the viewpoints of others (just as he did with me).

I put it to him straight. I said, “Pilate, you know it’s almost impossible to govern this region. You know the trouble you’ve had–the rebellions, the passive resistance, the demonstrations, the generalized hate of the Roman authority–but Jesus is one who teaches peace; and when he teaches, the people listen! He brings everyone together, and if you’re willing to make some concessions, this whole area would be at peace. And you will get the credit from Rome.” Well, he was impressed, and after a good deal of cautious discussion, he went for it.

We got a lot done during those years. The roads were improved; taxes were reduced; better care for our children; medical care improved; new synagogues were built; education prospered. So many things that make life better for people became reality, and all because of the influence of Jesus. After this had been going on for a while, people were so impressed with Jesus’ leadership that we reworked the plan.

As you know, Jews hadn’t had a king for generations, and Rome had always denied us the right to have one from the time they took power in the region. But we thought they might accept Jesus as king, since he was obviously no threat to their empire, and that way we could get even more accomplished. Well, Rome was interested, but unfortunately they still wouldn’t buy the idea of a king–as they were afraid some successor would rise up in the future and cause problems for them. But we got the next best thing. Jesus was named Prince! it was only for his lifetime, of course, but it was magnificent. He moved into a palace with lots of servants. Some of us moved in with him, not for our own advantage, of course, but to be close to him so we could do even more good for the people.

Well, I don’t have to recall the wonderful history of of those years for you. I’ll just say that sometimes I think back with pride and remember that in a sense really, I was the one who made it all possible. Without me, Jesus would have died a martyr’s death and been forgotten in six months. I sit here now sometimes by his tomb–a magnificent tomb it is–and look at the great stone rolled against the door. (It’s sad to think that that stone will never move–never move again.)

I look at the inscription on the front of the tomb JESUS OF NAZARETH: PRINCE OF THE JEWS; and I remember. I remember the day they brought word he was dying. he was in his sixties. Bad heart, I guess. I went to see him, and he looked up at me a grasped my hand.

“Peter,” he said softly, “I’ve been wondering.”

“Just rest yourself, Lord,” I said.

“No, Peter,” he said, “my time has come. I must tell you this. I’ve been wondering. Do you remember that day years ago? You persuaded me that it was not the will of God for me to go to Jerusalem and die and be raised from the dead?

I smiled at the idea once more. Resurrection! It’s still so absurd! “Yes, Lord, I remember.”

He gripped my hand even tighter and tried to raise himself off the bed. “Peter, I can’t help but wonder: What if…?” And he died.

Ah, it was a magnificent funeral! Everyone was there. There were huge throngs of people there to mourn hid death and celebrate his life.

I must admit that in the years since he died, many of the things we worked for while he was here have sort of begun to fall apart. But I guess you can’t have everything. At least he was a success while he was here. For thirty years, he ruled our people well in Jerusalem. There were even a few Gentiles who came to consult with him and hear his teachings. He told people many, many stories. (We collected them into a two-volume set. Some of you may even have them on your bookshelf.) But I sometimes, like now, when I sit here and look at his silent tomb…I too wonder, as he did in his dying moment: what would have happened if he would have gone down to Jerusalem, died on a Roman cross at the age of thirty-three, and rose from the dead?

But I’m awfully glad he didn’t.

Aren’t you?

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