Tuesday, 2 September 2014


Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
31st August 2014, 11.00am

You can listen to this sermon here:

Matthew 16.21-28  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." 

Romans 12.9-21  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;  10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  14 ¶ Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."  20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads."  21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Have you ever noticed that good people
            can do terrible things with the best of intentions?
Not everybody who does an evil deed is an evil person,
            and sometimes the worst of deeds
            emerge from a heart heavy with good intentions.
We have a proverb to this effect, don’t we?
            ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’, we sometimes say,
                        unconsciously quoting the twelfth century Cistercian monk
                        Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who said it first.

I can honestly say that most of the people I’ve ever met
            have seemed to me to be good people.
Sometimes they might have been very damaged due to past trauma, yes;
            and sometimes they might struggle with mental illnesses
                        that impair their judgment;
but on the whole, I think it is true
            that most of the people we encounter in this world
                        are normal, everyday people,
            trying to live relatively good and moral lives,
                        not seeking to cause harm or hurt to others.

And yet, there is so much evil in the world,
            as twenty minutes in front of the evening news will easily demonstrate.
It seems that the capacity for human beings
            to harm and hurt others is almost without end.
The abuse of power,
            the recourse to violence,
                        and the dehumanising of the other,
dominate the interactions between individuals
            in ways that shock and dismay us.

So where does this evil come from?

There is a strong tradition within Christianity
            to assign the existence of such evil to an external agency,
                        to some kind of supernatural entity that acts upon humans
                        and causes them to behave in ways that are contrary to their true nature.
Sometimes this entity is given a name,
            such as the Hebrew word satan which means ‘adversary’,
            or the Greek word daibolos which we usually translate as ‘devil’.

Perhaps it is the case, we tell ourselves,
            that the origin of evil lies beyond the human heart,
                        coming to us from somewhere else, from someone or something else.
Maybe this is why good people can do such terrible things,
            even with the best of intentions?
Maybe this is why some people seem to end up
            so consumed by the darkness of dark deeds
                        that it can be hard to discern the flickering embers
                        of the humanity they share with the rest of us.
Maybe it’s all Satan’s fault,
            maybe the devil made them do it?

In some ways this can be a comforting theology,
            as it removes the ultimate responsibility for evil from humanity.
Evil is just out there, seeking its moment to strike.
            All we need to do to avoid it is to be vigilant, to resist temptation,
            to observe whatever practices we have come to believe will ward off the evil one.

So from prayer and holiness, to superstition and sorcery,
            many people, both within and beyond the Christian faith,
            take such daily actions to keep Satan at bay from their lives.

But of course this can also be a terrifying place to live.
            Because what if we get it wrong? What if we let our guard down?
            What if Satan gets in? Would we even know?
I have met people who have spent many years
            petrified that they have let the Devil into their lives;
whether through some misguided action,
            or simply through a profound lack of self worth,
            there are many whose daily routine is paralysed by fear of the evil one.

And here, in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel,
            we meet Jesus using the word Satan to describe his close friend Peter.
Only a few moments earlier,
            Peter has declared Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (16.16),
                        and Jesus has responded by declaring Peter to be the rock
                                    on which the church will be built,
                        which not even the gates of Hades will overcome.
So it is something of a shock to find Jesus calling Peter ‘Satan’.

Particularly so if our understanding of what is meant by ‘Satan’
            is determined by the Christian tradition I’ve just been describing,
                        in terms of an external, personified, spiritual being
            that seeks to take over the lives of the unwary
                        and lead them into deeds of terrible darkness.

So let’s spend a few moments now unpacking something of the history of satan,
            before returning to our passage from Matthew
            and considering why it might be that Jesus uses this term of Peter.[1]

I’ve already said that satan is the Hebrew word for ‘adversary’;
            and the Old Testament speaks in three places of a personified adversary, or satan.

In Job (chs 1-2) and Zechariah (ch. 3)
            we find visionary descriptions of the heavenly throne room,
            which is pictured in terms similar to the throne room
                        of an ancient near eastern ruler
            – with God sat in the place of the king, surrounded by his advisors.
One of these advisors takes the role of ‘the satan’, or ‘the accuser’,
            and seem to have a function similar to a prosecuting counsel
                        in a contemporary courtroom
            – his job is to put the other side,
                        to test the integrity and righteousness of the person on trial.
Here, the satan is not a personal name,
            but a role that one of the members of the divine court fulfils.

The third reference to satan in the Old Testament is found in 1 Chronicles (21.1),
            and it refers to a human being who provokes David
            to take a census of Israel, against the will of God.

In the New Testament, the word ‘satan’ appears rather more often,
            with 36 references in total, all of them to a character referred to as ‘the satan’.

And again, as in the Old Testament,
            the job of ‘the satan’ is to test human piety
                        – to put the opposing view.
The word is still not a proper name
                        – our pew Bibles get it wrong when they capitalise it.
            It’s a description of a role, rather than the name of a person.
It is always ‘the satan’
            in the same way as one might say ‘the prosecutor’ or ‘the adversary’.
It is never just ‘Satan’ the personified being.
            That comes later in the Christian tradition,
                        with the mythology surrounding Satan developing through the centuries.

In the early church, authors like
            Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Iraenaeus, and Origen,
            conflated other biblical characters with the idea of ‘satan’
                        to flesh out the idea of the adversary as a personified divine being.
So, the serpent of Genesis 3,
            the defeated ‘morning star’ of Isaiah 14,
                        and the disgraced king of Tyre from Ezekiel 28,
            all ended up being more closely associated with the construct of Satan,
                        than the actual satan passages themselves!

The identification of Satan with the serpent associated him with original sin;
            the Latin for ‘morning star’, ‘Lucifer’, gave Satan one of his nicknames;
                        and the idea that Satan led a revolution in heaven
                                    before the creation of humanity
                        came into being when the story of the fall of the king of Tyre in Ezekiel
                                    combined with a saying of Jesus in Luke’s gospel
                        to form yet another strand to the emerging mythology of Satan
                                    as a divine character (Ezek. 28.12-19, Lk. 10.18).

Moving well beyond the New Testament for a moment,
            the Faust legend of the middle ages contributed the idea
                        that an ambitious person can make a ‘deal with the devil’ to achieve success,
            while Dante’s Divine Comedy from the early fourteenth century (1308-1321)
                        depicted Satan as large and frightful, but ultimately impotent.
In contrast, Milton’s Paradise Lost from the seventeenth century (1667)
                        created a new era in the mythology of Satan,
            giving him a heroic and sympathetic reading,
                        despite casting him as the incarnation of evil
                        whose agenda is to overthrow God.
While Milton may have portrayed Satan as a flawed hero
            in order to highlight the grandeur of God’s victory over him,
many other more recent writers and artists
            have been inspired to take further this idea of a powerful Satan,
                        to the extent that in the popular imagination
                        Satan has become a kind of evil counterpart to God,
            battling for the control of the cosmos
                        and for the ownership of human souls.

All of which is a very long way from the biblical picture
            of an adversary whose role is to test human piety.
And if we are to understand what is going on
            when Jesus turns to his friend Peter,
                        and says to him, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’,
            we need to set aside our inherited Satan mythology,
            and we need to set aside our inherited idea
                        that personified evil lurks round the next corner,
                        waiting to take control of us if we let our guard down.

The picture that emerges from Jesus’ encounter with Peter
            is exactly the opposite of this.
What we come to realise from this story
            is that evil is not an embodied being awaiting his opportunity,
                        but rather evil is something that can originate
                        from within even the most pious of human hearts.
Evil takes hold in the world whenever and wherever
            people enact a way of being that is contrary to the way of God
                        as revealed through Christ.
Even Peter can take on the role of the satan.

In Jesus, we encounter the one in whom the way of God is made flesh.
            And what we meet in Jesus is one whose life was dedicated
                         to the overcoming of evil in all its forms.

I’ve said before that I think the root cause of all human sin is idolatry,
            and what I mean by this is that whenever God is displaced
                        from the centre of a person’s life,
            the path to hell opens before them.
I think that we each have the capacity to create hell on earth
            when we follow any way of being
                        that is contrary to the way of God.
And we do this whenever we give allegiance to any power
            other than the will of God as revealed in and through Christ Jesus.

This is what Peter does in our passage from Matthew’s gospel,
            and this is why Jesus calls him the satan.
Jesus has just been telling Peter and the other disciples
            that he must now go to Jerusalem to be killed.
He has been making it clear to them that his path is the way of the cross,
            and that the only way to overcome evil
                        is to submit to its power over life
                        in order to defeat it with resurrection.

The Christ-like route to true life
            runs through the valley of the shadow of death.

And Peter, it seems, is right on board with the battle to defeat evil,
            Peter is totally committed to the path of overthrowing the powers-that-be
                        in the name of the coming kingdom of Christ Jesus.
But for him, this doesn’t look like the cross,
            it looks like armed insurrection.
It looks like throwing the Romans out of the city
            and expelling them from the land.
It looks like Jesus seated on David’s throne in the holy city of Jerusalem,
            with his disciples by his side.
It looks like the heavenly throne-room made real on the earth,
            as through Jesus, the reign of God begins.

And suddenly, without meaning to,
            Peter finds himself in the position of the satan,
                        the advisor who tests the resolve of the king,
            the one who argues the alternative path
                        to that which has been chosen.
Jesus is taking the difficult, costly, painful path to the cross,
            and Peter offers him a far more enticing alternative.

Jesus has met this temptation before, of course,
            in his wilderness wanderings,
when his own internal battle with the satan
            held before him the prospect of the kingdom without the cross.
And Peter offers him that same temptation,
            and so encounters the same title.

And it is such a tempting temptation, isn’t it?

To do righteous battle with the forces of evil in the world,
            boldly proclaiming the lordship of Christ over the earth,
                        taking decisive action to make it real in our midst.
It is the path of godly glory,
            it is the path of those who get things done,
it is the path of the activist, the campaigner,
            the revolutionary, the crusader,
                        the freedom fighter, the terrorist…

And that is why good people end up committing acts of great evil
            with the very best of intentions.

As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans,
            ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ (12.21).

The way of Christ is not tit for tat, it is the way of the cross.
            It is not the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Mt. 5.38),
                        it is the way of the cross.
            It is not the path of proportionate and considered tactical strikes,
                        it is the way of the cross.
            It is not military superiority from the air but no boots on the ground,
                        it is the way of the cross.

‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’

The horrific truth is that evil simply compounds evil,
            even when it originates from the best of intentions.
The insight that Jesus grasped,
            which Paul so clearly expressed,
                        and which Peter struggled so hard to understand,
is that evil can only be defeated by good.

In many ways, this is the ultimate choice,
            it is the definitive temptation.
Which path will we choose?
            Which path will Peter choose?

Do we, like Peter, feel the compulsion to take the opportunity
            to do good things by earthy means
            when the opportunity presents itself?
Do we long to use our power, influence, and money
            to transform the world in line with the kingdom of God?
Or can we instead hear the quiet call to join Jesus
            in rejecting all such attempts to make the Kingdom real in our midst,
                        taking instead the costly and sacrificial path of the cross?

The temptation to use coercive means
            to achieve our ‘right’ ends is always before us.
Whether at a personal or international level,
            whether within our families or between nations,
            we need to hear the voice of Jesus calling us to account:

‘If any want to become my followers,
            let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
            and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
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?’ (16.24-26).

The way of Jesus is the path of overcoming evil with good.

It is the way of salvation
            from the hellish and satanic outworkings of human violence.

Jesus did not come to save people from a violent God
            who is looking to cast them to the depths of hell
                        if they fail to comply with his will.
Neither did Jesus come to save people
            from Satan’s attempts to steal their souls for eternity.

Rather, Jesus came to save people from something far more real:
            he saves us from the violence that lurks within each human heart.
He comes to deliver us from evil,
            to save us from satan,
and to lead us through death to life eternal.

[1] See the article ‘Satan’ in Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture, eds M.A. Beavis and M.J. Gilmour, p. 468. See also Satan, A Biography, by Henry Ansgar Kelly, 2006.

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