Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time: 9-3-17
Peace be with You,
Ah, to be Peter! In the history of questions he hit the jackpot last weekend in his response to Christ’s question, “who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). While all the other disciples were quick to respond with answers as to what other people thought about the identity of the One whom they had the privilege to call Master, “some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matt. 16:14), Peter outshines them all with his answer to the crucial question, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). With no hesitation and firm resolve Peter utters a confession that no one in the history of humanity up to that point would have ever dreamed possible, the Son of God had become the Son of Man! And for his conviction Peter hears some of the most precious words ever heard by human ears, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:17-19).
We spent a great deal of time examining the significance of this passage last week, gaining what we may boil down to three main insights. First, in reading the passage along with Augustine and John Chrysostom, we found that Peter is called the rock in a derivative sense; i.e. it is as though Christ says to Peter, “On this rock, therefore…which you have confessed, I will build my Church. For the Rock (Petra) was Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4); and on this foundation was Peter himself also built…For what the Church is essentially in Christ, such representatively is Peter in the rock; and in this representation Christ is to be understood as the Rock, Peter as the Church” (Tractate 124 on the Gospel of John, 5; cf. John Chrysostom, Homily 54 on Matthew). Christ, therefore, is the Rock upon which the Church, the Body of Christ (Colossians 1:24; cf. Ephesians 3:6 & 5:23), is built, and Peter’s confession of faith is the rock which sustains the life of the Church by sustaining her connection to her Head, Christ, and by virtue of his confession, Peter is also identified as the rock; for in turning to Christ and uttering his confession of faith, Peter finds his truest identity, and this his truest identity is given to him, not to Lord over the other members, but to serve them, to edify them, to build them up (cf. Ephesians 4:12), and to be a servant-leader of the Church in carrying out Her work of bringing healing to the human family by the forgiveness of sins. Our second and third points derive directly from this discussion, and they are first, that we too, just as Peter find our true identity in our relationship with Christ and our faith in him; and secondly, that only the Church, as the presence of Christ on earth has the power to bring healing to the human family, both through her sacramental power, and through the working of each individual member, whose gifts have been given especially to them to fulfill an irreplaceable role in the body (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-30).
In terms of our growth as human persons, created in the image and likeness of God, it is crucial that we understand and view our lives in light of this discussion; for only in Christ do we find our identity as individuals and as a family, the human family, destined to be one with God in loving communion for all eternity. There simply is no you, me or that other guy over there apart from Christ, and likewise any human community established apart from Christ is bound to fall apart, for it lacks the one key ingredient which sustains life individually and communally, i.e. the love that is our God (cf. 1 John 4:8); for through Christ all things were made, “and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3); in and only in him do we “live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Life then, is a journey to life, a journey of growth which is found only in reconciliation with our God and our fellow human beings; for what other reason would God give the command repeatedly through human history to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40; cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18)? Not because he stands to gain anything by it, but because we do! This is precisely the only way we can truly live (cf. John 10:10). When The Captain and Tennille sang “love will keep us together,” they were right! But our love will not keep us together, only the love of God which lives in us, allowing us to move closer to him with every breath, so that we might be continually more immersed in the fullness of life which he only is the true possessor of. It is this process of growth which comes at once painfully and joyfully into focus today, and to that we turn our attention now.
The opening line from our gospel reading ties us directly to our reading from last weekend, “from that time;” that is from the time of Peter’s confession and Jesus’ subsequent response; “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). Before going on there are a couple of important things to notice here that will give us some perspective. Notice please the language of time’s passing in this verse, “from that time…” We really don’t know how long it has been since the episode of Peter’s confession; all we know is that this is the next episode of the journey of Jesus and his disciples which the sacred writer inspired by the Holy Spirit chose to share with us. Also, notice the previous verse; this verse is connected with the famed “Messianic Secret” theme so prominent in the gospel of Mark, which Matthew picks up and utilizes more subtly. There, after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God,” our Lord “strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (Matt. 16:20). Our first response might be the question, why? Why doesn’t Jesus want his disciples to tell anyone that he is the Christ? The first verse of our passage for today gives us a hint, but once again it will be Peter’s response that cracks the code wide open.
Upon hearing that Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God must; that last word “must” is worth underlining, “ go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21), Peter is quick to exercise his newly proclaimed leadership role among the disciples. He does so by taking our Lord aside and rebuking him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). This is a scene we can easily imagine, it happens all the time at dinner parties, family gatherings and in offices around the world; the boss or a particularly boisterous family member or dinner guest says something that just shocks the room, but no one really knows how to respond, all acting as though the air hasn’t really just been sucked out of the room. Later on then, at a more opportune moment, someone takes this person aside and asks, “Do you realize what you just said in there? Are you out of your mind? Why would you say something like this?” This is essentially what Peter is asking Christ here; “You’re God! You’re not going to die! You’re the Messiah, you have come to sit on the throne of David! To restore the Kingdom of Israel! Why would you say something like this!?!?” And there we have it, this is precisely why Jesus had told the disciples why they must not tell anyone that he was the Christ, they really had no idea what it meant for the Son of God to appear in Incarnate form, nor how it was that he would bring healing to the human race, and when Jesus did begin to tell them, they were shocked, more to it, they were scandalized as is obvious by Peter’s response. And who could really blame them? They had left everything to follow Christ, and now he was telling them where exactly they were following him to, death! Not to a glorious restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, which was what had been expected of the Messiah, where they would sit at the right and left of his throne (cf. Mark 10:37), but to a tomb! Who among us wouldn’t have wanted to say exactly what Peter said?
Ah, to be Peter, the one called blessed just a few short sentences ago, now hears some of the hardest words that human ears have ever had to listen to, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matt. 16:23), our Lord says to him rather sharply. From here things quickly fall apart. You see our Lord knows how his motley crew of disciples worked, Peter is the spokesman, if they have something on their mind he is generally the one to speak up as we have seen in these last two episodes; so he knows that if this is something on Peter’s mind, the rest of them are more than likely thinking and talking about it as well (N.B. remember how we started our reflection by saying that this instruction had been taking place for an undisclosed amount of time). In fact, it is entirely possible that they had come to the conclusion as a group that something must be said to Jesus and it was to Peter as spokesman of the group that the card fell upon to confront him about it. Picture to yourself the group of disciples as they watched Peter be upbraided, they probably did what most of us do when some extremely uncomfortable scene happens in public; this is like a child being scolded publicly in front of their parents, everyone around acts as if nothing is going on, painfully trying to make small talk or draw attention to anything else in the entire world except for what is going on in front of them until the moment passes and everything returns to normal. But our Lord does not stop here, he knows that if this has been spoken by the spokesman it is on the mind of the group, thus he turns to them all and says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matt. 16:24-26).
We will turn to examine this most important words of our Lord in a moment, but let’s first try and identify with the disciples a bit more. Among the chief misunderstandings of those who make the decision to intentionally follow Christ is that life will somehow become easier; we see here that our Lord makes no such promises. The life of discipleship is hard precisely because, as we see here, the life of discipleship is one of little deaths; little denials of the self. Why is this necessarily the case? Well, before we commit ourselves to living the gospel, we have accumulated a lot of baggage, or to put it negatively, we have lost a lot of who we were created to be. Thus, the process of discipleship is one of healing, and as with many medical techniques healing comes by way of pain; or to put it positively, we can think of it in terms of building muscle, anyone who exercises knows that to make progress involves pain, fatigue and soreness for that is how we grow. Thus, the way of little deaths is simultaneously the way of little resurrections, for with each death of some illusory part of our life comes new life, new virtue.
Let’s take Peter for an example; in the Teacher’s rebuke of Peter what is Jesus rebuking? Fear? Perhaps. Ignorance? Likely. But over and above either of these Jesus is rebuking Peter’s pride. Peter, along with the rest of the disciples, thinks he knows more than Jesus does, thinks he knows a better way. And how often don’t we do the same? How often don’t we make excuses for the little lies we tell? How often don’t we see the pleasures of this world, wealth, fame and fortune even in the littlest of ways, by buying some gadget or extra clothing article we do not need and whose “worth” could instead have been invested in something really worth the price, our fellow human being in need? All of these things and countless more are little and big ways of looking at our God and saying, I know better. And in this we, as Peter, succumb to the temptation of the original sin; i.e. to define ourselves and our lives in our own terms and not on God’s; we succumb to pride.
Christ’s challenge for us today is the challenge of discipleship, it is the challenge of being human; for as opposed to finding a stable spot to call our own, a place of comfort, our God calls us to grow in our humanity, and the only way to grow as human persons is to grow closer to God. St. Gregory of Nyssa writes that “in truth the finest aspect of our mutability is the possibility of growth in good; and this capacity for improvement transforms the soul, as it changes more and more into the divine” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection). What is he saying here but that our finest quality is to die the little deaths that lead us more and more to participation in the resurrected life of Christ? Yes, our finest aspect as human persons is to be able to change! But this change, if it is to be for the good, can only take place with the aid of grace; and the first movement of grace is always humility, which Augustine would associate with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the fear of the Lord (cf. De Sermone Domini in Monte, 1.1.3).
Humility opens the door of possibility in our lives because it enables us to be meek, and to be meek, i.e. to be teachable, makes us docile to the action of grace in our lives, continually prompting us to growth in love. This is what our Lord is in reality telling his disciples and us today, for in saying “take up your cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24) he is saying learn how to love as I love; learn to give of yourself as I do; for my gift of self gives life to the world and united to me, yours does as well. If there is a biblical basis for anthropology this is it; for in telling us that to lose one’s life for his sake is to save it (Matt. 16:25), Christ is explaining to us what it means to live as one created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). And what does it mean, at bottom? It means ultimately to assume the stance of the Son of God, who from all eternity is begotten of the Father and responds in Eucharistic Love, i.e. in a complete gift of self in thanksgiving for life! This is precisely what Paul is telling us when he says that Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).
My friends, today we hear Christ call us to a life of discipleship; a life which loves all things in thanksgiving to the Father as the source of all being; he calls us to live a eucharistic life; a life which is a complete gift of self in loving thanksgiving for the life and love we have received, first in being born, and then in being reborn in the saving waters of baptism. This eucharistic life is not confined to a building of worship or to an hour on Sunday, it is to be lived with every word we utter in speech and deed. It is a life characterized by humility and lived in charity, and it is this life and this life only which has the ability to give us life to the full and through us life to the world. Yes, we as Peter and the disciples will have setbacks and fall short from time to time, but our Lord never tires of loving us back onto our feet, and he will see this good work begun in us to a safe end.
Almighty Father, loving source of all that is, we ask you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, give us the grace this day to imitate the Son’s eucharistic response of love in all things, for in so living we grow in conformity with your precious image, impressed upon the depths of our being, and proclaim your desire that all may be one, as you are one with the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Your servant in Christ,