Proper 17, Year A, St. James’ Church, Sewanee

You are a stumbling block to me” (Matt. 16:23).

“Stumbling block” is a vivid metaphor: it’s something in the way, something you trip over, something that causes you to fall. Anybody who’s ever tripped over his own slippers in the dark will know what a “stumbling block” is. Of course, it’s much worse when the slippers are someone else’s. That’s a bit closer to what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel today.

The idea of the stumbling block occurs a number of times in Matthew’s Gospel, including our reading. Later in Matthew, Jesus talks about stumbling blocks as occasions for sin, as the sort of barriers we put in someone else’s way; then, in the same breath, he mentions stumbling blocks that are interior to our own selves and that cause us, in turn, to sin (Matt. 18:5-9). So, we can be a stumbling block to others, or a stumbling block to ourselves, or even (as in our Gospel today) come a cropper over others.

All of this should ring true to our experience as human beings and Christians. It’s when people rub up against each other that sin intervenes; that we become stumbling blocks to one another. I think that we’re usually aware of how irritating other people are, but not aware of how irritating we are to others! What kind of stumbling block are we to them; what occasion for other’s sins do we create? Jesus strikes a warning note when he says later in the Gospel, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” (Matt. 18:7).

Not only do we provide a stumbling block to others, but we’re our own worst enemies, fouling up our own life, getting in our own way. We’re stumbling blocks to ourselves, exhibiting compulsive and sometimes destructive behavior. Again, as Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “if your right hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off” (Matt. 18:8): an instructive reminder of how hard it is to overcome the stumbling blocks that are internal to ourselves.

Jesus’ words about these various kinds of stumbling blocks are a challenge to us, as we consider our life together in the church. Each of us gets to play these roles in our life together: we stumble over others and others stumble over us. We find within ourselves causes of offense which we seem powerless to change. Yet God gives us the grace we need for our life together, sustaining our community life.

Today, however, Jesus is taking aim at Peter, now no longer the rock on which the church is built (as he was just a few verses ago), but rather the stumbling block in Jesus’ way. 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” (Matt. 16:23). When Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” he’s hearkening back to the temptation in the wilderness, when the devil offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Matt. 4:8) if he will fall down and worship him.

Peter is the stumbling block for Jesus here, trying to trip him up by offering him another way forward instead of the road that will take him to Jerusalem and to the cross. Peter’s thinking in human terms, about Jesus and worldly success, rather than embracing the way of the cross. Here, the celebrated rock of the church turns out to be a false teacher, a stumbling block to Jesus as he sets out on the journey. In other words, in Peter we have before us a stumbling block that’s not a simple irritation to good will and charity but rather a diabolical misrepresentation of God’s will.

Our reading reminds us that there are attractive and tempting ways for the church to proceed in its mission and ministry, but that the right course is to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). This is a difficult teaching to follow, of course, so it’s no wonder tempting alternatives arise.

Sometimes the temptation takes the form of a comfortable alliance with those in power; a tempting alternative for the church in many times and places. Sometimes the temptation is on the opposite end, as it was for Jesus on Palm Sunday, to lead a revolution whose object is earthly power. Both represent stumbling blocks on the road to Jerusalem: the life-giving way of service and sacrifice.

At the end of the age, Jesus says earlier in Matthew, all stumbling blocks will be removed by the angels of God (Matt. 13:41). But until then, we will continue to struggle with sin, and with our own propensity to fall. We will continue to be presented with stumbling blocks, of various sorts: some internal, some external. We will continue to be stumbling blocks to each other in the church, as well; not least of all as we attempt to do our mission and ministry with each other. But the way of the cross is the “way of life and peace” (BCP, 272), as it says in the prayer; the way of resurrection and new life that Jesus has shown us. That’s the promise, from the Lord himself.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee