No Other God Would Do

Message for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (9/3/2023)

Matthew 16:21-28


Could Jesus have died of old age quietly in his bed?[1]

That question, posed by a seminary professor, has stayed with me over the years. For as simple a question as it may seem, it’s provocative. As soon as we begin to formulate a response, we’re compelled to examine our attitudes toward the cross, the crux of our sacred story. And, although we may generally take the cross for granted, I suspect that, upon deeper reflection, we have strong feelings about it.

Peter certainly does. Picture this disciple, reveling in his newfound status as Petros, the rock on which Jesus pledges to build his church. Peter must be flying high in the wake of that affirmation. Why else do you imagine he’d presume to dispute Jesus’ very next teaching? “From that time on,” Matthew reports, “[after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah,] 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.”

Peter’s reaction is knee-jerk; he physically removes Jesus from the rest of the group and sputters, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Apparently, he’s too disturbed by the prospect of Jesus’ suffering and death to hear his reference to the resurrection. In any case, Peter’s confusion and anxiety get the best of him. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus replies. “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter, the “rock” of faith, has immediately become a “rock” that causes others to stumble[2]; Peter, the model disciple, has become like the Adversary of God.

But, can we blame him? The messianic promise is finally fulfilled in his beloved Lord, the magnetic teacher who called Peter to a life of purpose, helped him reimagine the possibilities for human community, and rescued him from his fears. Peter’s excitement builds and builds as he envisions a new era of freedom for Israel and renewed faith in the God who chose them as God’s own people. To Peter’s mind, the future is bright. But, Jesus abruptly dashes his hopes with the news of his impending arrest and execution. Wouldn’t you want to push back, too? “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Could Jesus die of old age quietly in his bed? Peter would certainly hope so. After a thrilling messianic career, after he has reclaimed the land for the people of Israel and reasserted God’s justice and peace, at long last a peaceful death is the least Jesus deserves, isn’t it? But, the Messiah is explicit: He must, must undergo suffering at the hands of the authorities, and be killed.


Theologians over the centuries have landed on various interpretations of the cross, some more helpful than others. Our faith seeks understanding, so it’s only natural that we try to make sense of senselessness. But ultimately, the brutality of Jesus’ execution is beyond explanation. How can we possibly accept the murder of God-with-us? The cross can never be tied up neatly with a bow; it’s a lasting scandal, like a thorn in our side.[3] To quote that seminary professor of mine: “Only grace through faith will join that which is out of joint and cannot be reasoned through.”[4]

Evidently, God’s ways are not our ways. It’s absurd that God, the Sovereign of the universe, would submit to a humiliating and painful human death. Then again, it’s absurd that God would deign to be born to an unwed peasant teenager in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. It’s absurd that God would choose to live among the poor and the pariahs, to embrace the sick and the dead, to rely on the hospitality of strangers. It’s absurd that God would call commoners into the service of God’s peaceable reign, promising them crosses of their own.

The scandal of the Christian confession is that God looks like Jesus. And, Jesus could never have died of old age quietly in his bed because he is destined to dwell in the thick of our fraught existence. On the cross, “God’s solidarity [with the world God so loves] reaches the depth of creation and is subjected to the humility of its most depraved condition.”[5]

And, no other God would do. How else could God meet those who endure absurd suffering except through the absurdity of the cross? How else could God be God for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner?[6] How could God be God for the veteran rummaging for food in a dumpster, the desperate asylum seeker, the drowning refugee, the abused child, the cancer patient, the inmate sitting on death row? Only by sharing their circumstances. “God lets [God] be pushed out of the world onto the cross,” the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. “[God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us…. only the suffering God can help.”[7]

It follows that only the suffering disciple can help, too. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I think this is the real reason why Peter objects to Jesus’ passion prediction; if the cross is Jesus’ fate, then it’s likely to be Peter’s, too. And, who among us wouldn’t prefer to secure our lives against suffering? Who among us wouldn’t rather avoid crosses altogether?

But, since Jesus’ project to remake the world involves sacrifice on his part, we who seek to be part of that project can expect to make sacrifices, too. The Reverend Debie Thomas puts it this way: “To take up a cross as Jesus did is to stand, always, in the center of the world’s pain. [This means we] insist that our comfort isn’t worth it unless the least and the lost can share in it, too.”[8]

Friends, the confounding good news is that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for [Jesus’] sake will find it.” Can we believe that? Can we believe that in dying to ourselves we might somehow discover a more abundant life with and for others? Can we believe that relaxing our self-protective impulses will lead to a better future for everyone? Can we believe that our crosses, borne together in the name of Christ, will ultimately give way to open tombs?

[1] Vítor Westhelle, The Scandalous God, 107.

[2] Mitchell G. Reddish, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, 23.

[3] Westhelle, 47-8.

[4] Ibid. 23.

[5] Ibid. 26.

[6] Matthew 25:34-40.

[7] Letters and Papers from Prison, 360-1.

[8] Sundays and Seasons Day Resources for September 3, 2023,

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“Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song”; text: Les Petites Soeurs de Jésus and L’Arche Community; tr. Stephen Somerville, b. 1931; music: Les Petites Soeurs de Jésus and L’Arche Community; text and music © Les Petites Soeurs de Jésus; tr. © 1970 Stephen Somerville. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.

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