When I was in the 5th grade I was once assigned to be the line leader as we were dismissed for the day. There’s a power that comes with being a 5th grade line leader that is unlike anything else and it was a deeply coveted place in the line. As I led my classmates down the 5th grade hallway on top of the world I learned how quickly that feeling of power can change. One second I was walking with my head held high and the next I was face first on the tile floor. To this day I don’t know exactly how I got there, though there is every possibility that all it took was a perfectly level tile floor to trip me up.
Peter learned a little something about a shocking sudden impact in our Gospel reading this week. The theme of identity plays a large role in Matthew’s gospel not only for Jesus, but for Peter as well. In the span of two chapters Jesus first calls Peter “You of little faith” after he rescues Peter from sinking into the depths of the sea. Then, in the verses we read last week after Peter boldly declares that Jesus is the Messiah Jesus names him “the Rock on which I will build my church.” Not a bad place to be in the pecking order amongst the disciples, right? Yet, Peter soon learns some news that is pretty difficult for him to accept. As Jesus informs the disciples about his forthcoming death Peter quite literally says “God forbid!”…and Jesus’ response is a harsh one. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me…” Jesus’ response is quick and the impact of his words I would imagine feel an awful lot like crashing face first into a tile floor.
Why would Jesus call his friend Satan? Well let’s take a look back at Jesus’ last interaction with the tempter. We read a few months ago that after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River he was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. During that time the tempter repeatedly questioned Jesus’ own identity and offered him ways to deny who he was. As we near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry roughly 3 years later Peter echoes those same words. Now Jesus has learned quite a bit in his three years and responds much faster. As it turns out, it got easier with practice.
How does the Rock on which the church is built become a stumbling block?
If Peter’s declaration of faith is the Rock and we become that Rock through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It’s a question we should be asking ourselves. We, like Peter, become stumbling blocks when we stop allowing each other to be who we truly are. Stumbling stones are interesting. They can be large stones on a path that we trip over, but they can also be as small as a stone that gets in our shoe. You can’t comfortably go very far with a stone stuck in your shoe. You have to stop and take it out before you’re able to continue on. The longer you go without dealing with the stone, the more damage it does to the body.
So how do we get the stone out of our shoe? How do we go from being the stumbling block back to the rock on which the church was built? First, the church needs to recognize that the stumbling block exists. There’s a temptation to ignore it and ignore it and just push through and hope that the problem resolves itself. Unfortunately that’s when stones go from being irritating nuisances to inflicting open wounds and ultimately causes more harm. Next, the church needs to acknowledge that there is indeed something that we can do about the stumbling block. This might involve learning more about the issue, brainstorming ways to help, communicating and understanding that what may not be a stumbling block for us may very well be a seemingly insurmountable one to our beloved siblings. Third, we have to…stop…and actually take the time to remove the stone from the shoe. Taking the time to stop is important. It involves removing the stumbling block but also checking in to make sure that we are headed in the right direction in the first place. After all, in our gospel Peter and Jesus were definitely going two different directions. And the final step toward real justice involves removing the stone from the path so that it doesn’t become a stumbling block for the next person who comes along.
This isn’t the only time Peter falls on his face in his life, and the church will stumble again and again, too and that’s okay as long as the community recognizes that we aren’t perfect and do the work to learn from the experience in order to do better next time. It gets easier with practice and with a community to share in the load. Thanks be to God.