Sermon For 31st August: Spiritual Health

I won’t be preaching for the next three Sundays, so here is one I’ve prepared for the end of the month.

Matthew 16:21-28

Doctors told an American named Craig Boyden, who was just thirty-two, that he was suffering from Crohn’s disease and had three months to live. Perhaps understandably, he decided that if he only had three months, he’d better make the most of them. He went back to his job as a credit manager at a carpet company in Elliott City in Maryland, and embezzled $30,000. He the used the money to live it up – dining in the best restaurants, throwing parties for his friends, buying drinks for everyone in every bar he went into.

But the funny thing was that as the weeks went by, instead of feeling worse and worse he just felt fine, if anything, even better than he had done. So he went to a different doctor for a second opinion. There he discovered that he wasn’t suffering from Crohn’s disease at all, but just a hernia. He’d suffered an allergic reaction to the gloves that the surgeon was wearing during exploratory surgery, and that had led to the misdiagnosis.

But that left him with another problem: the firm had found out that $30,000 was missing. Fortunately for Boyden, when he explained everything, the court was understanding, and gave him a suspended sentence, on condition that he paid the money back at the rate of $5,000 a year.[1]

With sickness, it’s important to recognise and interpret the symptoms, make a diagnosis and from that basis prescribe the appropriate treatment. In our reading today, I want to suggest that Peter is suffering from a sickness of the spirit, even if he doesn’t realise it (at least at first). It’s a spiritual sickness that leads him to misunderstand the will of God. We need a healthy approach to discerning the will of God. Today’s sermon attempts to explore what a healthy approach to finding and following God’s will might look like, based on Peter’s symptoms, Jesus’ diagnosis and his prescription.

1. Symptoms
We find the symptoms of Peter’s sickness in his rebuke to Jesus:

‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ (Verse 22)

We can examine the symptoms by looking at the language Peter uses here.

‘God forbid it, Lord’ is an abbreviated version of a Jewish expression: ‘May God be gracious to you.’ It means, ‘May God mercifully spare you this,’ hence why Peter says, ‘This must never happen to you.’ It’s very emphatic, containing a double negative.

It sounds like Peter thinks he’s being kind to Jesus. In the previous few verses, Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah. Now he seems to say, ‘We can’t let this happen to the Messiah! That isn’t what’s supposed to happen to the Messiah! He’s meant to triumph over the enemies of God’s people, not suffer!’

On this reading, Peter is kind and well-intentioned. He is sincere. We like sincerity. The alternative is hypocrisy, and who wants that? It is common to say in our society, ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere.’ I once talked to the son of a deceased church member who said he was sure his mum had gone to heaven, because that was what she sincerely believed would happen after death. If you believed something else, then that was what would happen to you. He didn’t pause to consider how illogical this was.

But in any case, sincerity is not enough. Many years ago, there was an inquest held when a person died in a hospital operating theatre after the wrong anaesthetic was administered. The coroner told the anaesthetist, ‘ I believe you sincerely thought you were giving the correct anaesthetic. But you were sincerely wrong, and it cost a life.’

We can be sincerely wrong. Peter was. He had a faulty concept of the Messiah’s mission. Sincerity on its own made him sick. He missed God’s will for Jesus.

And he missed God’s will for himself. Because he could not or would not see that the true destiny of the Messiah would shape his own. If Jesus were to go to the Cross, then the cross shapes the destiny of all disciples.

Now if that’s the case, then Peter’s symptoms may be more than sincerity detached from truth; they may also be about letting personal ambition get in the way of hearing God’s voice. He wouldn’t have been alone among the disciples: in just four chapters’ time, James and John will want preferential seating at the Messiah’s banquet in the kingdom of God. How easy it is for us, too, to baptise our own preferences and ambitions as the will of God.

Our son will keep asking for something, even when we say ‘no.’ When we get to the point of saying to him, ‘It doesn’t matter how many times you ask, the answer will always be no,’ he often replies, ‘But I want you to say yes.’ That can be like our ambitions trying to distort the will of God. We are desperate for the answer that suits us. But God won’t give it – unless he chooses to give us up to our desires, and that’s a worrying development.

Peter, then, displays possibly two dangerous symptoms of spiritual sickness. One is sincerity divorced from truth, the other is the baptism of personal ambition. Do either of these ring bells for us?

2. Diagnosis
When I was a child, we once had a family doctor who was writing the prescription on his pad almost within seconds of a patient entering his surgery. You wouldn’t really say he had a bedside manner.

And neither did Jesus. Peter might have expected affirmation or encouragement in the wake of his statement, but what happens next is this:

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.’ (Verse 23)

So much for ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’! Let’s take a moment to think through this devastating diagnosis, that will have crushed Peter by asserting so aggressively that he is against the will of God.

We start with ‘Satan’. It couldn’t be worse, could it? The very least this means is ‘adversary’. Peter, you are not my supporter, you are my opponent, my enemy.

If by ‘Satan’ Jesus doesn’t simply mean ‘adversary’ but the Devil, then we link back to chapter four of Matthew’s Gospel, where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness in order to sidetrack him from the Father’s will. This is what Peter is doing. Rather than correcting Jesus, he is sidetracking him.

And he is a ‘stumbling block’: Peter, the ‘rock’, becomes a ‘rock of stumbling’. It’s the same word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 1:23 to describe general Jewish offence at the idea of preaching Christ crucified. The Cross is a stumbling block to people finding faith, and Peter is a stumbling block in the way of Jesus going there for the salvation of the world.

Summing Peter up, then, Jesus diagnoses him not as a friend and disciple but as an opponent who wants to sidetrack him from the will of God. He is a serious obstacle to Jesus’ progress in bringing salvation.

Do we ever become the opponents of Christ? Do we get in the way of him fulfilling his purposes? I do. There are times when I don’t like his will. It might be something general from Scripture, like his insistence that the way to glory is through suffering and rejection. I’d rather it came through ease and popularity.

Or it might be that he wants me to do something in particular that isn’t congenial to me. I have been dragged kicking and screaming into his will on some occasions. I have heard him say ‘Yes’ and I have tried to persuade him that he really meant ‘No’. It is by his grace and mercy that he has faced me down as he did Peter, in order to put me in places where I might be fruitful for him.

Being healthy in the life of the Spirit entails saying ‘yes’ to Jesus.

3. Prescription
So how does Jesus set about making a sick Peter healthy? His prescription starts with the words, ‘Get behind me.’ The first thing Peter has to do is clear away the obstacles. Rather than standing in front of Jesus as a rock of stumbling, he should get behind him. How is he to remove the obstacle? By dropping his objection to the Cross. We have to stop seeing the Cross as an offence and embrace it. The path to spiritual health is like the words of the hymn, ‘In the cross of Christ I glory’. Yes, the Cross may lead us to weep for our sins that put Christ there, but we cannot stop with such emotions. Healthy spirituality rejoices in what Christ has done for us.

But ‘Get behind me’ may mean something else, too. ‘Behind’ is the proper place for a disciple. Disciples followed teachers: logically, that meant standing behind them. Jesus is telling Peter that the key to spiritual health and participating in the will of God is in following him – not in debating his words, but in doing them. John’s Gospel records Jesus saying something that sheds light on this:

‘Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.’ (John 7:17)

It’s no good treating the words of Jesus as theory, or just praising them as the greatest wisdom ever given to the human race. We can’t be bystanders. We need to be what James in his epistle called ‘doers of the word’ (James 1:22). We shall only have spiritual health when we commit ourselves to walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

We see another part of the prescription implied when Jesus tells Peter, ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’ (verse 23). Surely the implication is that we need to set our minds on the things of God. It’s similar to what Paul tells the Colossians:

‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.’ (Colossians 3:2-3)

If we want spiritual health, we focus on God’s ways and God’s agenda. When we set our minds on human things or ‘things that are on earth’, we lower our vision and we tend to become self-centred. That is the way of the world, and it is the way of death. It is the approach that says your well-being is defined by your money and possessions.

Jesus is quite explicit in what follows about what constitutes setting our minds on divine things: it means denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following him (verses 24-28). We let the Cross shape our minds, hearts and actions.

When we set our minds on divine things, we are committed to spiritually healthy minds. But it cannot remain theoretical: if the brain doesn’t send signals to the rest of the body, there is something wrong with us. So too in the spiritual life: setting our minds on divine things is accompanied by the signals travelling to our hands and feet so that our cross-shaped thinking is complemented by cross-shaped acting.

Jesus’ prescription for spiritually healthy people who embrace the will of God, then, is to glory in the Cross and put his teaching into practice. This means letting our thoughts and deeds be shaped by a discipleship that is willing to suffer for following Jesus.

Just one last thing to say: I am on two repeat prescriptions from my doctor. We fall into a trap if we think that Jesus’ prescription is a one-off. It’s a repeat prescription. Spiritual health means we keep taking the tablets.

[1] Simon Coupland, Spicing Up Your Speaking, p 221 # 213, adapting Bill Bryson, Bizarre World, p 13f.

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