“A Stone’s Throw From: Heaven”
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
There was a three-year-old who had never been "trunk or treating" before but he’d seen how excited his big brother was, so he was excited, too. His big brother wanted to go as the Hulk, so he wanted to go as the Hulk. When the family got to the church, big brother went with some friends, Mom passed out candy and Dad took the three-year-old around. Dad stayed in the background, as the little boy walked up to one of the cars with a friend manning the trunk. “Trick or treat.”
As the man reached out with a hand full of candy, he asked, “So you’re the Hulk, right?”
The little boy nodded his head “Yes.”
Then the man asked, "Why aren’t you wearing a mask?"
The three-year-old looked up at the man and answered, "‘Cause I’m afraid of it." (1)
We all have things we fear. Most people are afraid of speaking in public. Many people are afraid of change. Some people are afraid of dying. Some of us are simply afraid of looking like an incompetent fool in front of friends, family or colleagues, which might actually be worse than death.
I don’t know what spurred Peter’s fear in today’s Scripture, but something did. Let’s look at the passage from Matthew 16:13-25
 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
 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.
 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you."
 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."
 Then Jesus told his disciples, "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.
Let me put this whole situation in context, it will help us understand some of the deeper issues and implications of what is going in this passage. Jesus and the Disciples have travelled, intentionally, to Caesarea Philippi which is in the far Northeast corner of Israel. It is located some 30-35 miles northeast of Sea of Galilee at the foot of Mt. Hermon. At the time it was located in the Tetrarchy of Philip. And is now in the Golan Heights.
When Jesus and the Disciples travelled there, it was basically a gentile or non-Jewish community. That’s significant because the Jewish leaders who were trying to trap Jesus wouldn’t set foot in that area for fear of being soiled. Jesus sees it as a way to be alone and teach the Disciples.
Another significant aspect of Caesarea Philippi was the number of other religions represented there. William Barclay says there were no fewer than 14 different pagan temples there. Some of which included temple to Nemesis, the goddess of justice and revenge; Pan, half man, half goat; a fertility cult heavy into sacrifices. Philip, Herod's son, even built a temple to Caesar. He built in front of cave known as the Cave of Pan. That alone held deep significance.
First, deep within cave was a spring which is the source of the Jordan River. We know how important the Jordan River is to the life and faith of Israel. Second, because this cave seemed to reach into the very depths of the earth, it came to be regarded as the entrance to the underworld, the abode of Hades, the god of the lower regions, and home to the disembodied spirits of the dead.
I hope you see the significance of where the events of today's passage takes place. Here's Jesus, a carpenter turned itinerant Galilean preacher with twelve ordinary guys following him. At the very moment of this event, the leaders of Jesus’ very own faith are plotting to destroy him as a dangerous heretic. Jesus and the Disciples are gathered in a place filled with a plethora of temples. You couldn't walk 10 feet without tripping over one. Pagan worship dominated the landscape and polluted the very water which was central to the faith of Israel. Temple after temple caught the eye, each one more beautiful and elaborate than the other.
I think Jesus deliberately set himself against the background of the world's religions. I think Jesus probably positioned himself so as they were looking at him, the Disciples had the panorama of all those temples as the back drop. It there Jesus questions the Disciples
Jesus, who is the light of the world;
Jesus, who is the spring from which flows living water;
Jesus, who is the one whom even the dead obey;
Jesus, who is the one for whom and through whom everything was created;
Jesus, who preaches a message of mercy and forgiveness; turns to the Disciples and asks, "Who do people say I am."
They give all kinds of answers. But then the conversation turns personal. Jesus asks, what some would call, the money question: “Who do you say that I am?” At that moment they all stood A Stone’s Throw From Heaven.
I don't think the responses surprised Jesus at all. I think he was probably expecting all of them except one. When Jesus asked, "Who do you say that I am?" It seemed to cause them to freeze. They all choked. And not just your ordinary "duh, I don't know" kind of freeze. But I'm talking about one of those duck your head, I should know this answer, embarrassed kind of freezes that are immediately visible on your face, even though you are trying your best to avoid telegraphing your discomfort.
Into the midst of this dead silence comes the voice of Simon Peter, "You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." And at that moment, Peter was as close to heaven as he would get before he joined the other early martyrs of the faith. But in that moment, Peter knew because the very voice of God whispered it in his ear.
Three times in his life, Peter would experience and stand a stone's throw from Heaven. The second time will be in the very near future with James and John on the mount of Transfiguration, when standing side by side with Moses and Elijah, Jesus is seen in all of his heavenly glory, so dazzling white that they had to hide their eyes. There God spoke, "This is my Son, listen to him."
The third time would be in the future, after the resurrection at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descends upon Peter and the entire crowd. But here, this time, weeks before the crucial events of Holy Week, God speaks to Peter and only Peter. No one else heard the words. No one else stood a stone's throw from heaven. This time it was for Peter alone.
Jesus is ecstatic. Peter got. The others may have confused and quizzical looks on their faces, but Peter got it. With his arm around Peter’s shoulder, they start back to Galilee and Jesus begins teaching them about what is awaiting him in Jerusalem; suffering, injustice, the cross, death and resurrection.
And then Peter sticks his foot in his mouth, says, “God forbid it.” He tries to dissuade and tempt Jesus from going, which makes Jesus angry. “Get behind me, Satan!” One minute he is standing a Stone’s Throw From Heaven, being called the Rock upon whom the church would be built, and the next he is compared to Satan.
III. SO WHAT:
A. When ever I’m mentoring young clergy in preaching I always ask them to answer the so what question. So, what difference does it make? How does it apply? I try to ask that question of myself, too. Up to this point, we’ve had a pretty good Bible Study lesson. But So What? Here’s the answer, here’s what I want you take with you.
Peter let fear enter his life and faith. That’s what was going on in his life. Fear! He was reluctant to face the future. He was afraid of losing Jesus. He was afraid of the cross. His fear began to choke his faith. You see: Fear Freezes. Fear locks us up; it chokes us and grips our hearts. It keeps us from doing incredible things.
B. I remember when my oldest son Paul was four or five, we were camping and the campground had a playground. On the playground were a couple of slides. One was short and wide, the “baby slide” as my daredevil son called it. And the other one was about seven feet tall. Paul was up and down that slide like a monkey. He couldn’t go fast enough.
As I watched Paul, I noticed another little boy about Paul’s age watching the other kids play on the slide but he just watched. I saw the other kids encouraging him to try it. They would slide down and then say, “See, it’s easy. Come on.”
Finally, reluctantly, the little boy went to the ladder and very slowly climbed to the top. Then he just stood there gripping the rails. He was frozen. All the other kids were hollering and encouraging him, but he just stood there. Finally, he shook his head “No” and backed down the ladder. He couldn’t do it.
You see Fear Freezes.
C. Fear Freezes But Faith Frees Us
It was Jesus’ depth of faith which allowed him to set his mind and heart upon Jerusalem and what awaited him there. Was he troubled? Of course he was. Was he afraid? If his prayer in the garden before his arrest was any indication then the answer is “Yes.” But did it stop him? “No.”
I think one reason Peter had so much trouble is he tried to compartmentalize everything, just like most of us do. What Jesus told him didn’t fit into any of those compartments. Peter was treating life like Cheesecake when a life of faith is really like Pie.
Bear with me and let me explain. I know you’ve all seen those Combo Cheesecakes with 4 to 8 different flavors. You do know that they are not baked that way don't you? Each flavor or style of Cheesecake is baked separately, sliced and then like a puzzle all the slices are put into place with a piece of wax paper between each slice.
We try to divide up our lives like one of those cheesecakes. We have a slice for family, a slice for work, a slice for God, church, civic organization, hobbies and we generally try not to let them bleed together or even touch. But that’s not how a life of faith should be lived.
Life is really like a Very Berry Pie (Get a Picture). You see, if you tried to bake a berry pie where one slice was strawberry, one blueberry, one blackberry, one raspberry, one boysenberry, one mulberry and whatever other berries you want to add, the best that you would get is a Very Berry Pie. You see in baking, all those juices begin to simmer and bubble and run together flavoring every other kind of berry in the pie. And that's the way it should be.
Everything in life affects everything else. Our faith is the overarching ingredient that binds them all together or it should. Sort of like the crust on a berry or fruit pie, our faith holds it all together and keeps it from falling apart. It’s true that cheesecake has a crust but it's pretty much incidental to the rest of the cheesecake. It’s basically just something used to facilitate slicing and serving and to keep the bottom portion of the cheesecake from burning or sticking to the mold.
Our faith, like the crust of a berry pie, holds all the rest of life together. It allows the rest of life to be marinated in the juices of out salvation. And like the aroma of a pie fills the house while it's baking, our lives are to be a fragrant aroma for God.
Like pie dough, if I push this illustration too far or stretch it too far, it will fall apart but I hope you get the idea that our Faith affects everything in life. That Faith Frees Us from the Fear that Freezes.
For Peter, it was his Faith which Freed him to hear God’s revelation of who Jesus truly is. But it was his Fear which Froze him and caused him to try to talk Jesus out of his purpose. But it was both the Faith of Jesus and Peter’s on Faith which Freed Peter and allowed him to follow Jesus to the cross. It was his Faith which allowed Peter to preach at Pentecost and eventually to preach in Rome.
There in the very heart of the Roman Empire, surrounded by temples to every religion of the world, Peter had to remember what happened in Caesarea Philippi.
Remember this, Fear Freezes. Faith Frees Us.
What is it that you are afraid of? What fear has gripped your heart and soul? What Fear Freezes you? Whatever the Fear, know this, Faith in Christ Jesus, the Son of the Living God, will Free you so you can live life unafraid.
Fear Freezes but Faith Frees Us to embrace life in such a way that every aspect of who and what we are is simmered and melded into a thing beauty.
What Fears do you need to let Faith Free you from?
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
Other References Consulted