In today’s gospel (Matthew 16:21-28) Jesus knows the end is near. He has to go to Jerusalem to face the final curtain. He tells the disciples what must happen. As usual, they don’t understand, and Peter reacts. It’s a natural reaction. Peter cares about this man. This is his friend. ‘God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.’
The whole chapter is about who Jesus is. The Pharisees and Sadducees demand a sign from heaven, which is denied them. Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is, and who they think he is. When Peter answers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Jesus says Peter is blessed. But now Jesus turns away from him: ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me.’
What does he mean by this? Jesus sees Peter’s outburst as a temptation to be resisted. He knows the path he is to take, and he reminds the disciples - and us as latter day disciples - that to follow him means to deny ourselves. He is setting the example, showing us the way.
Now most of the time, we can nod eagerly at the messages we’re given in the New Testament - to love one another, to be kind, compassionate, and patient. We want to align ourselves with the teaching and example of Jesus.
But to deny ourselves, to lose our lives for his sake, is tough teaching, as is that in Paul’s message to the Romans, to bless those who persecute them, and to feed their enemies if they are hungry. Paul says that this will heap burning coals on their heads, and that God will repay. What does that mean?
None of us wants to face the final curtain thinking that God will be anything but loving and understanding. We want to be embraced into the joy of heaven. And yet none of us is perfect, so how does that work if everyone will be repaid for what has been done? Surely it’s only people who we think of as evil who should know any discomfort?
None of us can know, this side of the curtain. I wonder whether the hot coals represent the embarrassment and discomfort we feel when we recognise our wrongs. At some point, we all have to face up to what we’ve said and done. We do it when we come to faith, as we repent of our sins and accept Jesus into our lives. We also do it each time we make our confession, when we commit ourselves to trying again to get it right, to get better, to be more Christ-like. As we ask for forgiveness, so it’s given: God is loving and understanding.
When we turn away from our old way of life, we find our true selves. When we do it our way, and our way is aligned with the way of Jesus, it’s the right way.
And the final curtain isn’t the end of the story.