Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC
Proper 17 A – Sunday 03 September 2017
Matthew 16: 21-28
|Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC|
In the gospel according to Matthew, the confession of Peter marks a transition in Jesus’ ministry. After the disciples have acknowledged him as the Messiah, Jesus spends more time teaching and preparing the disciples for his passion and his resurrection.
From that time on, Jesus teaches the disciples what kind of Messiah he is to be. And until that is clearer to them, he doesn’t want the disciples to spread that title around for it is fraught with preconceptions that run against Jesus’ redemptive mission.
And understanding Jesus’ type of Messiah is a difficult transition for the apostles. That difficulty is amply demonstrated by Peter’s rebuke of Jesus for announcing his passion in today’s gospel passage.
You see, the Jewish people were waiting for a Messiah who would come in glory and redeem Israel from oppression. The Jewish people were under the rule of the Roman Empire and the collaborating civil and religious authorities. Oppression under a domination system was the Jews’ clear and present reality in the time of Jesus.
No wonder Peter is attached to the generally accepted view of a glorious redeemer as Messiah. Wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus were to be increasingly revealed as an all-powerful vindicator who would put everything right for Israel very soon?
Don’t we all, at times, wish for a God who would instantly fix all sufferings and injustices? What if God could give us very soon Universal Healthcare, Free College Education for All, Living Wages for All, Restorative Justice instead of Mass Incarceration. Even Jesus might have found divine overrule over human destiny a tempting alternative. Does he not say to Peter “You are a stumbling block to me.” Jesus seems to be tempted, if for a moment, by the allure of being a vindictive Messiah who puts all right by power.
But let’s remember that this is a temptation that Jesus had already rejected in his meeting with the devil after his baptism.
In Matthew, Chapter 4, we heard:
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
This was the last of three temptations in the desert and after this the devil left Jesus for a while. But in our gospel passage, Peter is again mirroring to Jesus the temptation of grabbing and using divine power to achieve human ends.
From the time the disciples recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus will teach them to understand what God’s version of those titles is. The Messiah must suffer with humanity to the fullest before the glory of resurrection can happen.
Even today, after his resurrection, the Messiah continues to suffer with humanity to the fullest, even now. There is no human pain or suffering that God does not understand or feel. God feels the pain and suffering of those who lost loved ones, homes or livelihood to Hurricane Harvey, God feels the pain of non-white Americans who bear systemic racism, God feels the pain of North Koreans living under an inept, brutal and megalomaniac dictatorship. God also feels your pain even now.
And in calling the disciples, in calling us as disciples, Jesus calls us to not be afraid to take up our cross and follow him to his passion. This is a countercultural call today as much as it was in Jesus’ lifetime. We hear a harbinger of the apostle Paul’s call to not be conformed to this world as we heard in the epistle today.
We are to be ready to deny ourselves on our path to following Jesus up to the point of being detached from what happens to our very life.
Mind you, Jesus is not asking us to deliberately turn our lives into a misery. But he asks us to not hold back anything from our commitment to him as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
In a way, today’s teaching is a mirror image of the Shema prayer found in Deuteronomy (6:4-5) as applied to Jesus:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
We are to hold nothing back from our love for God, not even our life. And in exchange for giving our life, Jesus promises that we will find our life. “Those who will lose their life for my sake will find it.” And while this may sound like a promise of eternal life beyond death, I also believe that it is a promise of fulfillment of life in the here and now. We must die to our false self, to let the true God-centered self live abundantly. In giving ourselves totally to God, we are finding the fullness of whom we are meant to be.
As an important aside on today’s gospel, I would like to come back to Peter’s predicament in this passage. Not long ago Jesus blessed him for his insight and named him a foundation of his church. And a few days later, the same Peter, for his traditional interpretation of who Jesus is, is called names and told to step behind Jesus.
Peter is not less in today’s gospel passage than he was in last week’s gospel passage. Peter is still a chosen servant-leader of the church. And yet, we are shown here that not even our most distinguished leaders are beyond needing to fine-tune their image of who God is.
We all need to listen to what God is saying about Godself in our lives. God can still surprise us. We need to question our long-held views of who God is.
Are we instrumentalizing God in any way to achieve what our goals and hopes are? Are we willing to accept that God’s being may be different and larger than the picture we have put in God’s place?
Throughout the gospel, Peter is learning who God is, sometimes in embarrassing or painful ways. May we be willing to continue to learn who God is in any way God sees fit for us.
And may we be willing to hold nothing back to follow Jesus, no matter what detachment is required of us.