A couple of weeks ago, a little boy about 10 years old asked me to play a game of Jenga with him. If you’ve never played Jenga, it’s a game where you take turns pulling wooden blocks about the size of your finger out of a stacked tower of alternating trios of blocks and playing blocks on top, one at a time, until someone’s move brings the tower crashing down. The name Jenga comes from a Swahili word meaning, “to build.”
We work really hard to be friendly and welcoming to the kids in need coming to the Children’s Advocacy Center where I work for my paying job (I’m a bi-vocational priest), so I said to myself, “I’ll pretend like I’m really trying at this game, so I won’t beat him too fast, and that way it will be more fun for him.” I needn’t have worried. A couple minutes into the game, this kid was giving me tips on how to play, and I needed the help. This kid I thought I was going to have to go easy on was slowing down to wait for me to catch up. And not only that, I could tell that he was holding back so he wouldn’t beat ME too fast. Talk about the shoe being on the other foot. The best part was that he taught me his best Jenga strategy, which was very nice, because there’s one person in my house who has two mechanical engineering degrees, and it isn’t me. (It’s my husband.) This really smart kid taught me that instead of using my technique of eyeballing the tower and trying to guess from its form where to pull a block out, while hoping the tower didn’t crash down, it worked much better if you tapped gently on the end of the blocks until a light movement indicated a loose block that was much safer to move. His technique worked so well that we ended up playing the longest game of Jenga I’ve ever played. The best part was that through the whole game, we kept helping each other instead of hoping the other person would mess up and lose. That wasn’t quite playing by the rules, but we were more excited about building the tower than we were about winning the game, and that made the experience much more fun.
“From that time on…” This is our opening phrase in today’s Gospel reading, and with it Matthew is giving us a large signpost that we’ve entered a significant turn in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Now that the disciples have finally understood Christ’s divinity and his kingship as God’s Messiah – now that they know WHO Jesus is, they are going to begin in these next Gospel readings to learn WHAT he is, what his purpose is in relationship to who he is as the Messiah.
For the people of Israel, the concepts of both an atoning sacrifice and a prophetic Messiah would be very familiar to them. What would not be familiar to them, what they and the disciples will witness and struggle to understand, is the combination of those two concepts into one Messianic atoning sacrifice. Jesus has come to save his people not by overthrowing a government, not by defeating the Roman Empire and stopping the oppression of the Jewish people, but by giving himself to be turned over to those same Romans, so that in dying he would overcome evil and sin and death for all us, and become our doorway to eternal life.
This is what Peter couldn’t face, no doubt because he couldn’t see past the pain of swinging from his God-given revelation of Jesus as triumphant Messiah-king to the next revelation Jesus has just begun to teach his disciples: their same Messiah, the prophetic hope of the people of Israel, is the same Jesus destined not for an earthly throne, but for a Roman cross.
That last, critical part – the Resurrection, Jesus rising to life again on the third day – seems to escape Peter’s attention. The keys to the kingdom are still fresh in Peter’s hands when he hears from Jesus that he is destined to lose his friend and mentor, and more than that, his Savior, in a terrible death at the hands of the Roman rulers they were hoping he came to conquer. We can probably all identify with Peter’s fear, and sympathize with his struggle at the same time to remember that if Jesus truly is the Son of God, then what he says about his own destiny is a God-ordained event, despite how hard it is for Peter to accept.
It is important to note that the disciples following Jesus as Messiah likely assumed at this point that his mission was to restore Israel to power, with Jesus on the throne as their Davidic King. They did not yet understand the Kingdom that Jesus was sent to save was much, much bigger – that he is the Savior for the entire world.
Just last week, Peter was a building block. This week, he’s a stumbling block. This same Peter that Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom to, this same rock on which Jesus is going to build his Church, is the same disciple who Jesus sternly holds accountable for his actions, naming in him his fall into the temptation of Satan to turn away from godly discernment and to tune in to the devil’s fear and anxiety, and for Peter allowing himself to be used by the devil to try to tempt Jesus away from his mission by feeding into the fear and anxiety that he was vulnerable to in his humanness. We will later see him struggling with anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Peter and the disciples are struggling to make the turn with Jesus toward Jerusalem. And Jesus honors that struggle with truth. He loves the disciples too much to give them anything less than a full picture of the reality of following him: to be a disciple of Jesus means to share in his suffering. To follow Jesus means to give up what they want for what God wants. To follow Jesus is to give up earthly values for what the world sees as God’s upside-down values – where the sick and poor are first in the kingdom, widows are loved and cherished, people in prison are remembered and visited, the needy are given food and care, and everyone is loved. Those and the values that God honors. But the world doesn’t honor them, and sometimes the world, or the worldliness in others, like the devil working in Peter, attacks us with the temptation to fall prey to fear and anxiety. That’s when we can call on God to give us strength, to be like Jesus and turn away from that temptation and look toward the cross. Today, we have the blessing of looking at the cross from the other side, of knowing it has been used for its purpose, and is now in its emptiness a source of strength and hope in the Resurrection for all of us.
Rarely in our part of the world will we be called as Christians to lay down our lives for our faith, although there are places where Christians do just that every day. We pray for them every week in our Prayers of the People. Here in our day-to-day life we rarely face death for our faith – but we are often challenged to die to self. To take up the cross of Jesus means to do the difficult work every day of laying aside our personal, fallible human mission so that we may work together on the mission of Jesus by working through the Church he established – to bring all people into relationship with God and each other through the love of Jesus.
Finding our way in God’s mission is like feeling for the right pieces to move in that Jenga tower. It’s hard to know what the right move is until you’re willing to get our hands on it and get a feel for it. But the good news is that we don’t do it alone – God has given us lots of brothers and sisters united in Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to act together as the Body of Christ, to be the hands and feet, the ears and eyes, the heart of Jesus in the world. Jesus has left his Church the keys to the Kingdom. When he returns, we will be held accountable for how we’ve continued the ministry he started.
That is a pretty intimidating thought. But as we go forward in our ministries, serving this community, let’s keep the truth of Jesus in front of us: the beauty that comes from a life lived for God is not about how easy or how perfect it is – it is never easy, and it is rarely perfect. The beauty of a life lived for God is based in the rich spiritual life found in our deep relationship with him and each other through the love of Jesus. That is our mission. Anyone remember their Catechism? I see some worried faces! Don’t worry, this is not a pop quiz. But that’s what our Catechism says is the mission of the Church: to bring everyone together with God and one another through the reconciling love of Jesus Christ. If we are working together to build on that mission, and can stay more interested in that mission than in anything else, then we can focus on having a great time together in ministry, and trust the outcome to God’s guiding hand.