Are you a stumbling block or a stepping stone? Jesus and Peter give us advice on what it means to follow Jesus.
This morning we are going to play a game. I am going to give you a scenario and you are going to tell me if it is a Stumbling Block or a stepping stone. Now I guess I need to give you a bit of background.
A stumbling block is something that gets in your path or the path of another that prevents one from following Jesus.
A stepping stone is something that assists you or another to carry out the Gospel.
Ok, ready to play?
- There is a monetary collection taken at church for victims of Hurricane Harvey. You only have $5 in your possession, which you save for your Sunday morning Trip to Starbucks. You decide to keep your $5 for coffee, after all what difference is $5 going to make? (Stumbling Block)
- You attend a congregational meeting. A new parishioner comes up with an idea to hold a Bible study in the church for homeless people from the community. You object because we don’t know if these people will steal something. (Stumbling Block)
- Even though you don’t agree with a person’s lifestyle, you welcome them with open arms to worship. (Stepping stone)
- You don’t agree with another’s political views but you decide to sit down and talk about your differences and agree to disagree because we are all children of God (Stepping Stone)
In our Gospel lesson for today, we hear Jesus call Peter “Satan” because he was a stumbling block by rebuking Jesus for talking about his death. Poor Peter, I am sure none of us would have acted any differently. We never want to hear our friends and family talk about their death.
Although, imagine if Jesus had entertained Peter’s words … “You know, Peter, you are right. That shouldn’t happen to me. That’s not really fair. I have never sinned. Why should I die for the sin of the world? Maybe I will call on the angels to deliver me. Humankind can deal with its own problems!”
I seriously doubt that Peter could have ultimately stopped Jesus from his journey to the cross, stopped him from living out what he was called to do, to be the savior of the world. But humans are a different story. We can be manipulated, shamed, and sometimes even bullied into doing things we know we shouldn’t do. Sometimes we unknowingly do that to others, even with the best intentions. We can be the stumbling blocks put before others along their faith journey or their calls to live out their lives as Disciples of Christ.
Peter looked at the death of Jesus in the terms of how it would personally affect him, not how it would affect the world. Peter was selfish. He didn’t want Jesus, his close friend, to die. He didn’t want to lose that relationship. It’s easy for us to understand, especially those of us who have had loved ones die. It’s hard to let loved ones go when they are terminally ill, sometimes trying every avenue to stop death from taking them away from us. We view death as a stumbling block to our earthly relationship rather than as a stepping stone to God’s triumphal kingdom.
We can also be a stumbling block when it comes to other’s carrying out their calls. Parents often tell their kids to search out careers that are financially rewarding, not necessarily spiritually rewarding. Our culture values highly paid athletes, musicians, actors. When kids are young and they are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up? It is usually a major league baseball player, a singer along with the occasional princesses and tv or movie characters. Not many would answer – I want to teach in the inner city, I want to be a social worker or I want to be a missionary.
As parents, we can begin to build those stumbling blocks when our children are young, encouraging them to steer away from certain careers, a career that may actually be a calling from the Holy Spirit. Even Martin Luther’s father wanted him to become a lawyer rather than enter the monastery – fortunately, Luther decided to answer the call to ministry.
There are many, many more stumbling blocks that not only get in our way of following Jesus, but also get in the way of having relationships with our family, our parish and our communities. We don’t have to look past the political realm of our society. We have a country that is divided over political parties and policies. Republicans vs. Democrats, conservatives verses liberals. Even Christians are divided when it comes to political views and policies. Two sides use the same scripture to argue for and against a policy. Both sides believe that God is on their side. We have become right fighters to the exclusion of listening to each other and the Holy Spirit. We have seen the results of this type of behavior; name calling and slander, retribution and violence, the decay of community; a community that should work together for the good of all people. So, what do we do in this type of environment?
Maybe when Jesus called Peter Satan and rebuked him to get behind him- maybe that was Jesus’ way of telling Peter to follow him from behind – I will take you where you need to go. In other words, Jesus was offering Peter stepping stones in which to follow.
The good news is that we can remove those stumbling blocks that inhibit us from Discipleship and we have the ability to take back those blocks which we put in front of others. If a stumbling block is placed in our paths, the responsibility to ignore the stepping stone or to change direction falls squarely on our own shoulders. The burden remains on us to discern, confront and press past that stumbling block no matter who introduces it and no matter what it is.
This past week we have heard countless stories about a major stumbling block and its effects – Hurricane Harvey – a stumbling block which blocked millions of people from their homes, food, water and family; A stumbling block which may take years to completely remove; A stumbling block which may not only have physical implications but spiritual implications as well. I am sure there are plenty of people asking God why this happened to them; did we do something to deserve this. Where is God in the midst of the devastation of the flood waters?
To make matters worse, Texas Pastor Kevin Swanson recently stated that this hurricane was God’s punishment for Texas not passing a bill that would prohibit Trans-gendered persons from using certain bathrooms. Statements like this can lead to us believing that we have control over the actions of God. A professor at Tampa University said that this was God’s instant Karma because of the liberal leanings of the state. So if this is really how God works, I guess Jesus should have followed the advice of Peter and followed a different path, one that didn’t lead to his crucifixion on the cross. If we still believe we have control over the actions of God and if we believe our own works can either grant us God’s grace or retribution, then the church hasn’t been doing a very good job at preaching the Good news of Jesus Christ! Has the church been guilty of providing stumbling blocks to the faith of God’s children?
Peter may have been perceived as a stumbling block to Jesus, but we are all stumbling blocks at times as well. Jesus didn’t cut off his relationship to Peter, he didn’t punish him, he reminded him that Jesus himself is a stepping stone to discipleship. We need to get behind and follow Jesus. I believe that Peter is the perfect representative for discipleship – his faith was far from perfect, he loved Jesus, and he certainly didn’t know all the answers. But yet, Christ chose to use him to lead the church, the church that still exists today, a church that is full of Peter’s. While Peter may have questioned Jesus, tried to control events, we know that Jesus never left Peter.
Peter of all people knew that being a disciple of Jesus involved stumbling blocks as well as stepping stones. What the disciples may have perceived as the largest stumbling block to Jesus – his crucifixion – Jesus showed them that it was really a stepping stone to eternal life. Death was no longer a stumbling block.
Sometimes what we may view as a stumbling block may actually become a stepping stone. Water, while it can be devastating, can also be life giving – we are baptized in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Water keeps us alive physically and spiritually.
There is no doubt that the flood waters of Harvey is a catastrophe, but the residents of Texas and Louisiana also used this as a stepping stone to helping their neighbors, opening their doors those in need, making meals, providing clothing and of course for the whole country to come together to help alleviate suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We not only have the power, but the responsibility to remove the stumbling blocks that prevent us and others from fully experiencing the kingdom of God. WE can do it through serving our neighbor, or from prayer or from living our lives imitating Christ to the best of our ability. And we do this, not because we will earn heavenly brownie points, we do this out of gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on that cross.
So instead of focusing on what the stumbling blocks that prevent us from living in Christian Community, let’s focus on stepping stones that help to bind us together. I am going to close with a quote from Parker Palmer:
In true community we will not choose our companions, for our choices are so often limited by self-serving motives. Instead, our companions will be given to us by grace. Often they will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as that place where the person you least want to live with lives….
Community will teach us that our grip on truth is fragile and incomplete, that we need many ears o hear the fullness of God’s word for our lives. And the disappointments of community life can be transformed by our discovery that the only dependable power for life lies beyond all human structures and relationships.
In this religious grounding lies the only real hedge against the risk of disappointment in seeking community. That risk can be borne only if it is not community one seeks, but truth, light, God. Do not commit yourself to community, but commit yourself to God…In that commitment you will find yourself drawn into community.