Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” Wait, didn’t Peter receive disciple of the month? Isn’t his picture up in the coffee room, reminding the other disciples what discipleship looks like? Moments earlier in this gospel Jesus praises Peter, so why the sudden turn?
Commentator Audrey West notes that we shouldn’t feel too bad for Peter because of the Satan reference. She notes a key distinction in the way Jesus rebukes Satan and how Jesus rebukes Peter. Earlier in the gospel, in the tempting in the wilderness, Jesus rebukes Satan saying, “Get away from me.” Whereas Jesus rebukes Peter in today’s gospel reading saying, “Get behind me.” Jesus puts distance between himself and Satan, whereas Jesus reminds Peter of the place of a disciple as a follower. The disciple doesn’t get to tell Jesus what he should be doing, but rather the other way around. The follower listens to the command of the Word of God.
If we look at the situation here, Peter is showing a typical human response. He is filled with anxiety. He is upset by Jesus’ words prophesying his own death on the cross. Peter wants to have more control over the situation. He doesn’t want Jesus to speak about risk, about the threat of death, but instead wants to take control of the situation. Peter steaks with good intention wanting to keep Jesus, safe. After all Jesus has healed others, so why would be speak about putting his own life in danger. None of this makes sense. Jesus isn’t making sense, so Peter steps up as Jesus’ defender. Except that Jesus isn’t in need of this kind of defence. He needs disciples who follow, who obey his commandment of love, who follow his lead rather than asserting their own will as Peter is doing.
Implicitly we like to distance ourselves from Peter. None of us wants to be rebuked by Jesus in that way. Yet aren’t we a lot like Peter? Today faced by a pandemic we cannot see or predict, we too are filled by anxiety given our own state of insecurity. We follow health protocols whether at church, at work, at school, at home, around town, and we never know whether it will be enough. We want someone to make the threat of the pandemic go away. If we could just push a button that made things like they were before we every about Covid-19 and yet that is not a real possibility.
As a church we are taking the threat of Covid-19 seriously. We are putting protocols in place and doing due diligence and yet we know there are no guarantees. At times we become frustrated, depressed, anxious, upset that this pandemic will not yield to our control. We can only do our best and hope that in due time scientists will discover a vaccine that will effectively counter Covid-19. In the meantime we continue following Jesus, serving as the body of Christ in the world.
If we’re honest overall as people we are not doing okay. We had hoped that after three or four months this whole thing would be over. Instead we’re looking at a much more protracted timeline and see Covid numbers going up following the summer vacation period.
It can be helpful just to name the fact that we’re not okay. That we can’t power our way through it all. Like Peter we are prone to want to be in control and lacking that ability, at times we fall into despair. It’s too much not to be able to do the things we like, including meeting together without masks, having regular coffee hour, going to restaurants, cafes, and concerts, movie theatres, traveling like we did before.
I see friends and colleagues to show grace to themselves and one another. Reminding one another to do something nice for themselves. We might not be able to make the pandemic go away, but we can read a book, take a nap, drink some water and stay hydrated, get a good night’s rest, eat healthy meals, etc. In other words, let’s help one another through this over the long haul and not let our anxiety define our response. On social media people are asking friends to share photos of their dogs and cats. Share a story of something fun or joyful they did lately. Whatever it takes to get through the day.
Part of these conversation is admitting we are also weak and vulnerable. We don’t have to posture how tough or strong we are. In fact Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples his strength is centred in vulnerability. Jesus doesn’t tell tales of how he’ll single-Handedly defeat religious leaders and the Roman guard. Instead he points beyond the worldly power of violence, to the gospel power of resurrection. Jesus knows he will be resurrected after he dies, but that is a truth the disciples will have to discover in their own time. Even when he tries to tell them in advance they either don’t believe or cannot understand this truth.
I wonder if the same is true for us as well. We too need to have our Peter moments, seeking control, trying to power through a desperate situation, only to realize that despite all our efforts we too find our freedom in vulnerability. We need to share stories of frustration and also resistance. While we are upset about situation in which we find ourselves, we have good leadership with the Covid Leadership Team, with Board of Worship, with Church Council, and with the whole body of Christ in the congregation and wider church, that we’re doing our best. Beyond efforts within our control we confess we do not have all the answers. We too need to trust in faith, trusting through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is with us. Our salvation rests in the promise of resurrection, a reality present here and now, not just when we die. It’s about trust that letting go of control, letting go of attachment to power and violence, in order that the dominion of God may flourish in our lifetime.
Contemporary responses of fear
During the time of Covid we’re seeing anxiety and fear play out in different ways in greater society. There is a growing anti-mask and anti-vaxx movement that in part is fearful of vulnerability. Wearing a mask requires admitting we are at risk, whereas denying Covid is real is rooted in the delusion of mind over matter, that through sheer willpower we can defeat Covid. The anti-vaxx movement is also rooted in fear and mistrust of science and medicine, replaced a belief that one can defeat viruses through proper eating, exercise, and a strengthened immune system.
Sadly there is a large anti-mask and anti-vaxx rally planned in downtown Vancouver on September 13 and we saw a mid-size rally take place earlier this summer in Victoria, so this movement is very much here in BC and not just a US thing.
Yesterday evening I had the opportunity to participate in a positive response to fear. Unfortunately an anti-queer preacher from Toronto was in town as part of a West Coast tour. Queer folks and allies organized with a 100+ people at the corner of Douglas and Yates at 6 PM when the preacher was scheduled to appear. Seeing the large crowd he kept driving. A full hour later he began his hate preaching at another part of downtown. About 50 of us joined him and a small entourage for a power walk around downtown. We criss-crossed all around downtown. From what I could see, people were chanting and singing to drown out the hate, but everyone remained civil. Eventually, exasperated the preacher and entourage got into a cab and drove away, only to reappear one block further. So the group caught up with them again and got in a second cab. The gathering of queer folks and allies called it a success, preventing him from reaching a much larger audience in Victoria for about three hours.
Several people thanked me and other clergy for being there. Not that we did anything above the bare minimum, but a sense that the church cares. That we’re willing to show up and stand with them in this ridiculous cat and mouse game. To stand up and say who and what we believe in as a community. In the end it’s about building relationship, building trust, and taking up space in community as church in ways that build justice and grace.
Wrapping up, remember that Jesus loves Peter, which is why he tells Peter to get behind him, rather than to get away from him.
Sitting outside at a café I see a cyclist ride by with a Bluetooth speaker playing the Tragically Hip’s Courage. For those less familiar, this was a rock anthem popular in Canada in the mid-1990’s, which is now considered classic rock. A timely reminder to take courage. And to be vulnerable. Take a nap, drink water, breathe, do something joyful, so you have energy to fight another fight, to make it through this pandemic. We do not measure one another by our strength, but rather meet in faith, vulnerable before a gospel of love. Amen.