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.” Matthew 16
One of my favorite TV series of recent years was called, “The Good Place.” In this light comedy, a group of four humans find themselves in the afterlife where they eventually learn that there is a point system that determines every person’s destiny. Do enough good while you are alive and you earn enough points to gain entry to the Good Place when you die. Don’t earn enough points and you are sent to the Bad Place.
Now when I first heard about the premise of the show, I groaned inside, expecting it to be another simplistic and banal representation of religion and faith. To my delight, as I kept watching, I was surprised by the sensitivity and thoughtfulness exhibited in both the writing and acting.
To their surprise and horror, our heroes eventually discover that no one is earning enough good points so everyone is being sent to the Bad Place. Even the famous examples of sacrifice and virtue you’d expect to get in right away are falling short in this system. The problem is that life has become so complicated. Even buying a tomato results in losing points because of the harmful herbicides and pesticides used to grow the tomato, the effect on carbon footprint from the transportation of the tomato, and the exploitation of the low-paid workers who harvested the crop.
Under a point system, no one is good enough to earn their way into the Good Place. And while Jesus is not mentioned in this secular TV show, the last season does explore the need for grace, forgiveness, and redemption is some tender and thought-provoking ways.
We Lutherans have a special phrase that captures our need for grace; simul justus et peccator, which means “at the same time saint and sinner.” None of us are “good enough” to earn God’s grace, but the good news is that because of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to. Here’s another Lutheran phrase: we are justified by grace through faith.
We get a great example of this in our gospel lesson this week. Remember, last week Peter was blessed for his confession that Jesus was the Messiah. But in the very next scene, when Jesus starts talking about the suffering he must face, Peter will have none of it. If last week, Jesus blessed Peter for his faith, this week Jesus gives him hell for his lack of faith: “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.”
I think Peter is a pretty good representation of all of our victories and short-comings. Try as we might, no matter how hard we try, we will never be the people God made us to be on our own. We need Jesus. We need each other.
The reason I enjoyed watching The Good Place so much was the relationships the four heroes formed during their struggle to correct a broken system. Their mutual love, care, and support end up even “converting” the chief demon whose job it was to torment them.
As we confess our inability “to make it on our own,” we are drawn closer to our neighbor who shares this journey. As together we take up Jesus’ cross to follow him, we also get to give up the individualism that isolates and disconnects us. Instead, we find new life in the interdependent body of Christ. The life we lose in the cross is one of loneliness and isolation; the life we find is one of mutuality and delight. Taking up a cross what we do together in order to witness to God’s transforming love in a way that is more powerful than what any one of us could do on our own.