Rising From the Ashes

For Sunday, August 30, 2020: Matthew 16:21-28

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."

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."

In the Gospel reading from last week, Jesus praised Peter for his spiritual insight in correctly identifying his rabbi, as “the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Not only that, Jesus declared that Peter’s confession of faith would be the very rock on which the Church would be built, against which even “the powers of death would not prevail” (Matthew 16:16-18). High praise indeed! Today, however, only three verses later, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” and declares him an obstacle, a “stumbling block.” It is confusing. What gives?

There is a canticle we sometimes pray at Morning Prayer from the prophet Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). It was this truth that Peter was demonstrating in setting his mind on human things rather than divine.

Peter was so much opposed to what Jesus was saying that he attempted to correct Jesus in the Christ’s assertion that he must undergo great suffering, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Not only that, Jesus goes on to say that even his followers must deny themselves, take up our crosses, and journey on the path that he walks. Now, like Peter, I welcome the victory, the resurrection part of Jesus’ words, but the denial, suffering, and death that must come before is much less palatable. And yet, it is impossible to deny that pain and suffering and death are normative parts of human life and the world about us. Jesus is saying that Good Friday and Easter Sunday are inseparable; that the agony of the cross precedes the glory of the resurrection; that we can resist suffering or allow it to transform us into the people God wants us to become.

When I was growing up, my family took a trip to Tahlequah, Oklahoma one summer to visit the Tsa-La-Gi outdoor theatre. In those days, the Cherokees staged a play titled Trail of Tears that told the story of their forced removal, their painful, deadly, and disease-ridden journey to a new land, and their rebirth as a people in Oklahoma. The story is compelling, tragic, and a shameful stain on the pages of U.S. history. One thing that stood out for me and something that has stayed with me from that production, was the name of the newspaper the tribe established in their new home. They called it the Cherokee Phoenix. Phoenix. I remember expecting something that sounded more Native American or at least reflected part of their culture, but they chose a creature from Greek mythology to represent their common voice in a new territory. Why? It makes sense. The Phoenix is a mythological bird that is reborn and renewed by rising from the burnt ashes of its predecessor, just as the Cherokee people hoped to do from the ruins of their past. Today they are the largest tribal nation in the United States.

Jesus tells us that if we really want to find our lives, we need to first lose them. Although it is counter-intuitive, when we lose our lives, when we give ourselves in service to God and those hurting in the world, we discover that which truly brings joy and purpose. It is true that God’s ways are not our ways, but the Holy One is able to bring forth rebirth and renewal out of the ashes lingering from the flames of devastated lives. What will you give in return for your life?

Michael G. Smith, OblSB, is a bishop of the Episcopal Church, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and holds a doctorate in preaching.

The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.