22nd Sunday of the year (A)
23 But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men."
As we heard last Sunday, Saint Peter, by divine revelation, had declared Jesus' true identity, and then our Lord had given him the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, with the power to bind and loose. With regard to whom Jesus is Peter had got it right. But, as we heard in the gospel today, with regard to the mission of Jesus, Peter really did not have it right. It would take Peter time, in his journey of faith, to get to grips with Christ's mission. The mission of Jesus flows from who Jesus is; it is a working out in one's life of the consequences of accepting who Jesus is. Peter had got the first bit right, but working it through would take longer. And this is not just Peter's problem; it is a problem for just about all disciples of Christ. Assenting to the Christian faith is one thing, working it through into daily life is a much longer project for most of us.
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
The difficulty for Peter then, and for most disciples of Christ, then and now, is the attachment we have for the things of this life. We feel more secure grasping the tangible things of this life for support and to find meaning and purpose. But Christ reveals to us that in fact we will not find what we are searching for. If we look for our ultimate security in tangible things we will not find any real security. If we search for meaning and purpose in this world we will find none. If we seek salvation by grasping at our lives and clinging on, we will in fact lose it. Peter saw things as the world saw things and acted upon this way of seeing as he remonstrates with Christ: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Peter is thus getting in the way and obstructing the mission of Christ; and our Lord calls Him “Satan”, who is the one who always seeks to obstruct the mission of Christ. Peter does not realise that in conforming to the world he is actually doing the work of God's enemy.
St Paul in his letter to the Christians of Rome, sums this up brilliantly in the first two verses of chapter twelve. In the first eleven chapters he has shared the gospel, now he begins exhorting the Christian community to start living it out in their daily lives. For a number of years now these two verses have stayed with me and I have often thought about them, particularly the second verse. The very great danger for the Christian is to be conformed to the world. It is a very succinct way of describing it, but it happens in all sorts of ways – it creeps in; it is invidious. We must be vigilant and beware. Yet this has been one of the very great disasters of the modern period, for, in many and varied ways, members of the church in the West have fallen for the allure of the ways of the world. In lesser or greater ways most of us have been touched by this. This isn't a simplistic battle in the church between revisionists and traditionalists, or liberals and conservatives as it is so often portrayed. It is about discerning the will of God and rightly offering ourselves as a living sacrifice – our true spiritual worship as St Paul puts it. Our mission, the church's mission, is to do the will of God, whether or not it fits into one of our favoured categories – whether that be “conservative” or “progressive” or whatever.
Ultimately we will only give ourselves as a living sacrifice to the one whom we desire most, whom we thirst for the most. Today's psalm puts it very strikingly:
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where no water is.
It is only in a true relationship of love that holy self-sacrifice becomes a realistic possibility. And a relationship of love is cultivated through familiarity and repetition. This is a truth married couples know if they can persevere.
Whether we are married or not, for disciples of Christ it begins in our personal prayer life and finds its summit in the offering of the mass. In the mass we offer ourselves to the Lord as a living sacrifice, offering to Him our weak attempts at doing His will and our repentance, so that He can raise them to the heights of His own self-offering on the cross.
St Peter didn't always get it right. He did get a most important thing right – proclaiming who Jesus truly was! It took him some time before the truth of that proclamation was applied to all his life. But this is true for us. The great danger for him and for us was to allow one's thinking to be conformed to the world rather than to Christ. This is what St Paul was doing in his letter to the Romans: proclaiming the gospel and then exhorting the Christians of Rome to apply the gospel to their lives rather than living according to the world's thinking. So the priority for us all as disciples of Christ is to discern the will of God, and then to rightly offer ourselves as a living sacrifice in doing it, which is our true spiritual worship.
1 I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.