August 31, 2014

13th Sunday after Pentecost


Jesus is beginning to prepare the disciples for the end of his earthly ministry.  This is the start of his teaching regarding what the future holds, both for himself and for them.  Now remember that it was only a scant few verses ago in the Gospel (last week in the lectionary) that Peter had confessed to all who were listening that he knew who Jesus was.


Jesus said to his disciples, "But who do you say that I am?"

"Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God'."

Then Jesus went on to say,

"Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven."

Now, here we are, barely five verses later, and Jesus refers to Peter as Satan, the stumbling block, attempting to separate Jesus from the will of the Father.


I can’t blame Peter.  After all, when he confessed Jesus as the Messiah, he didn’t really understand what he was saying.  He knew what the Messiah was supposed to look like.  The prophets had said that Messiah would be a warrior-king who would ride in to save the nation of Israel from her enemies and who would restore justice and peace on earth.  In Peter’s mind, how did that square with what Jesus had just said?


Jesus told the disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering and be killed at the hands of those whom the disciples respected as leaders of the faith, so that He could rise again in three days. He must have been thinking,  “You’ve got to be kidding me!  I know you are the Messiah, but what kind of justice do you think you can bring to Israel by dying?!” 


This would be akin to someone running for President of the United States on a platform of — “Elect me and I promise to be assassinated!”  So I understand why Peter reacted as he did, but what a reaction he drew from Jesus.


“Get behind me, Satan!”  This is the strongest rebuke Jesus uses in the Gospels.  And He uses it on the one on whom He has just bestowed the ultimate compliment and to whom He has promised the greatest of power on earth, the power to bind and loose sins.  And it is this very paradox that makes us so like Peter. 


Satan, the adversary — the one whose life’s work it is to put the easy way in front of us so that we might turn from the work that God has given us to do, so that we might lay our cross aside in the process.  That is precisely what Peter tried to do to Jesus, get him to abandon the road that he felt he must take in order to fulfill God’s will and to take the easy way out — exactly as Satan had done when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness.


We who hear this story today must be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap Peter did. We also know that Jesus is the Messiah, but like Peter, we tend to deny that fact when it is easier or more enticing to follow the wide, well-paved road.  After all, the Tempter tells us that our destinies are in our own hands and we can ensure our own happiness and well-being by working harder, earning more, getting additional power and prestige.  Get Behind Me Satan!


Those are the same things that Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness, but each time Jesus resisted in order to continue with the mission God had given him. 


The temptation must have been incredible!  “No Lord.  This must not happen!  Just use the power we’ve seen you use to heal and feed people to strike down the authorities, and bring in the Kingdom of God as it should be — with great fanfare and triumph!”  How that possibility must have called like a siren of the deep to Jesus.  But He responded not with agreement, but with his own call to discipleship.  Jesus says,

"If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it."


This incredible call to discipleship, the call to lay down our very lives and pick up our crosses is the absolute antithesis — the polar opposite — of what Peter has tempted Jesus with.  Come with me and suffer for the sake of the Kingdom, there you will find your life.  Or, as the Christian writer, Oswald Chambers put it, “The meaning of sacrifice is the deliberate giving of the best I have to God that He may make it His and mine forever.” 


Frederic Ozanam was a Frenchman whose life of only forty years ended in 1853. The France in which he lived remained torn as a result of the French Revolution in the late 1700s. The Church had suffered the loss, not only of property and power, but of many lives, and its leadership had become reactionary. As a result, it was treated with distrust by the working class, and with disdain by many intellectuals.


Ozanam was in his late teens when he arrived at the University of Paris to study law. He was appalled to encounter there an atmosphere of bitter hostility to the Christian faith. With a number of his fellow students, he formed a study circle in order to present a positive intellectual witness to their faith. The group engaged in many debates and public controversies on behalf of Christianity. Then one day, a student threw at Ozanam this derisive challenge: "You Christians are fine at arguing, but what do you ever do?"


It was in that moment that young Frederic Ozanam was struck by a basic insight: Christianity is not just about ideas, but about deeds inspired by God’s love. His fine arguments were useless unless they were validated by how he lived his life. He resolved to start a fellowship of Christian lay people who would immerse themselves in the world of the poor and perform acts of service at personal sacrifice. This fellowship became the St. Vincent de Paul Society.


We’re all called to follow Jesus.  Most of us will not be called to give up our lives as Jesus did, but we are called to be faithful to God’s mission in the world, to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow him living lives inspired by God’s love and empowered by God’s spirit.