‘O Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’: Sermon Matthew 16:21-28; 13th Sunday after Pentecost – August 30th, 2020


‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good – o Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.’

You may know this song – it was made famous by the group ‘The Animals’ in 1965, although soul singer Nina Simone first recorded it in 1964.

This song, this line came to my mind when I thought of Peter in today’s gospel lesson – as he tries to dissuade Jesus from following the way of suffering and death. (SHOW PIC ‘GET BEHIND ME’) Here Jesus says the famous words, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ O Lord, my intentions are good – why do you snap at me like that?

Poor Peter. Remember last week? We heard how Peter was the one who got the right answer when Jesus asked, ‘Who do you think that I am?’ ‘O Lord, you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ ‘Simon, good job, from now on you shall be called Peter, the Rock.’

Simon Peter was given the honor – and the responsibility – to be a rock, a corner stone, a foundation for other believers and the kingdom of God.

And today? Ironically, the rock, the cornerstone, becomes a stumbling block for Jesus. Peter’s intentions, his good intentions, become a temptation for Jesus. All Peter wants for Jesus is to not go to Jerusalem, to suffer and die. God forbid! And maybe this is what Peter thinks he needs to do as the Rock – put his foot down, make his position clear: This must never happen, Lord! (TAKE PIC DOWN)

But he, who last week was called ‘The Rock’, is now called Satan. (INSERT PIC ‘PETER’) And I can imagine Peter standing there, saying, ‘What, Lord? I don’t deserve this! I’m just a soul whose intentions are good – o Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.’

Now the thing is that Peter’s intentions are inherently selfish. When Jesus starts to teach his followers about his future suffering and death, Peter sees his hopes and dreams shattered. Had he not given up a life in order and relative security, had he not left his family and his job to follow Jesus? Had he not given his entire life to Jesus, following him through thick and thin? Had the last months not been great, with crowds following and people being healed and receiving a word of comfort and hope and Jesus’ popularity increasing?

All this has become Peter’s life. All this has become the meaning and the purpose for his whole existence. Can you imagine what Peter must feel like now that all this is threatened, that all this wouldn’t last?

Even the notion about Jesus rising on the third day probably doesn’t give Peter much comfort. The status quo would come to an end, in any case. There would be major changes afoot, and changes are always scary.

Peter can’t take it. From his limited perspective, Jesus is headed in the wrong direction. Peter probably also becomes painfully aware that following Jesus means following him through suffering and death as well. Peter’s heart and mind are set on human ways, human fears, human intentions. And how could it be any different? Peter is human, after all. Just like the rest of us.

The beauty of this story is: Jesus accepts Peter in all his humanity. Jesus doesn’t kick Peter out after this incident – no, Peter remains an integral part of Jesus’ ministry. Peter is a rock and will remain a rock, even and especially after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He’s roughly hewn and irregular, no piece of pristine marble – but still a rock. (TAKE PIC DOWN)

So what about our intentions? I guess most of us could sigh this prayer along: ‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good – o Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.’ We’re trying hard, we know we don’t always succeed, and we would like others and God to see that our intentions, indeed, are good. Just like Peter’s. The problem is: all too often, our intentions may look good to us. But we often lose the bigger picture – God’s picture – out of sight. We are prone to stare at our own navel, to be curved into ourselves, as Martin Luther famously says. This is the essence of sin. Curved into ourselves, how are we supposed to gain a perspective that’s much broader than that?

Jesus says that we have to take up our cross (INSERT PIC CROSS), that we have to deny ourselves, that we have to lose our life in order to gain life. It’s a radical concept. What does it mean to give up our lives? Haven’t we been given life by God to be lived to the fullest?

Maybe it means that we need to be willing to question our intentions, as good as they may seem. That we need to be willing to question our intentions and discern over and over how they might compare to the little we know about God’s intentions. That we deny all those intentions about which we have an inkling that they are mainly self-serving.

Martin Luther knew about the struggle to discern God’s will. How would and could we ever absolutely certain about God’s will, he agonized? At some point, he realized: we will never be able to fully fathom God’s will and as to whether our intentions are in sync with God’s. We are sinners, after all. Redeemed sinners, yes, but sinners nonetheless. So we ought to be humble in proclaiming what God’s will is. We should always question our intentions, our thoughts, our actions, and ask ourselves: If I say or do this, could I stand before God and look God in the eye?

God gave a conscience, Luther said, in addition to God’s word as we find it in the Scriptures. But even with a conscience, there is no guarantee that this conscience is clear and always helps us to make the right choices. We still mess up. But at least our conscience gives us some pointers.

And that’s where Luther’s strange command to ‘sin boldly’ comes in. After we’ve made a decision as we discerned God’s will through the Scriptures and checked our conscience, we should go ahead and act without fear, trusting that we can be assured of God’s forgiveness if we only confess our mess-ups. (TAKE PIC DOWN)

So God may call us ‘Satan’ one day – and still love and forgive us and rely on us and our limited perspectives and gifts to build the kingdom of God.

However, we can’t just rest on the laurels of grace and forgiveness and get lazy. We are still called to follow, to pray, to discern, and to check our intentions over and over. We are called to deny ourselves and our emotions and love those who loathe us – and whom we loathe. To do everything in our power to live peaceably with others, to bless to who curse us, and to not give into the temptation of evil, but to overcome evil with good. Which, of course, is immensely difficult. Just think of the political situation in our country right now, with the presidential elections just around the corner. Just think about discussions you try to have with people who lean in a totally different political direction.

But we have to try – try hard. All the things we just heard about living peaceably with one another and overcoming evil with good are guidelines we heard in today’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans – guidelines for living in community and life as the body of Christ. And this can be excruciating. By the way, the word ‘excruciating’ comes from the Latin word crux, which means cross.

We are called to listen, to take ourselves back, to gain a different perspective. And maybe this is what it means to take up our cross, to take up this burden, which is so against our instincts: to lash out, to make our point, to insist that our intentions are the right ones.

However, we are still called to do good. To stand up, to be a rock, whenever we experience injustice. To work for a society that resembles more and more the kingdom of God: a kingdom where all live peaceably with one another, and in which God’s justice reigns.

We have to still show up. Show up as the body of Christ, discern Christ’s intentions in a world that, more often than not, is dominated by misguided human intentions.

So may our prayer be – not so much, ‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good – o Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood’, but rather, ‘Lord, have mercy on us a guide us: today and always.

This post is also available in: German