Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time – August 30/31, 2008 (Dignity/NoVA & Dignity/Washington)
In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, we heard Peter’s divinely inspired proclamation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus responded boldly to Peter by affirming that he was correct, and by stating that Peter – the “rock” – would be the foundation upon whom the Church would be built. Jesus then continued on in language that bespoke the authority Peter would have as the first among the followers of Jesus – and last week our homilist shared with us some of the challenges that we have had over the years in understanding the proper role of this authority in the history and life of the Church.
Today, however, the scene continues and we see a very different encounter between Jesus and Peter. In speaking to his disciples, in helping them to learn more clearly about who He is and what He has come to bring and to do, Jesus offers what scripture scholars call a “Passion Prediction.” Jesus prepares his disciples for what lies ahead by telling them he must go up to Jerusalem, that he will suffer greatly at the hands of the religious leaders of the day, that he will be killed, and that he will rise on the third day.
The disciples’ mindset is apparently still one that was expecting the Messiah to be an earthly king, one who would restore Israel to its previous glory, one that might perhaps throw off the yoke of foreign oppression and bring Israel back to where it should be. For Peter in particular, this prediction is apparently too much to take! How can it be that the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, would suffer such a humiliating and disgraceful defeat? How can it be that Jesus could speak so calmly and acceptingly about a future that does nothing to restore Israel and does not live up to their expectations of what the Messiah was supposed to do? And because it’s too much for Peter to bear … what does he do? He doesn’t just question Jesus and ask for an explanation. He takes Jesus aside, and, in Matthew’s words, “begins to rebuke him.” Peter – the disciple and follower – begins to rebuke Jesus whom he has just acknowledged as the Christ, the Son of the Living God!
And so – to leave absolutely no doubt about who is the Leader and who is the disciple – Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do!” “Peter the rock” has become “Peter the stumbling block.” The word “obstacle” in Greek is “skandalon” – and a scandal in the biblical sense is something that causes someone else to stumble and fall. In this brief response to Peter, Jesus is presented as speaking with as much force and strength of character as anywhere else in the Gospels. He firmly and clearly and without equivocation is telling Peter that he has overstepped his bounds and that he is still a disciple. It’s almost as if Jesus is reminding him: “You may be the rock on which I will build my church … but I am the builder and it is MY church, not yours.” By extension, these words of Jesus to Peter are also a strong and clear reminder to anyone in a position of authority within the Church. It’s a reminder that one’s authority remains only insofar as one’s words and deeds are consistent with the Will of God. God’s Will comes first – and when the person in authority speaks or acts in ways not consistent with God’s Will, the authority is void.
And then – perhaps taking a deep breath and calming down a bit – Jesus returns to “teacher mode” and explains in greater detail what his “passion prediction” means for anyone who wants to be his disciple. Just as Jesus will suffer and die, so too must anyone who wants to bear the name “Christian” follow this same path of suffering and death. To be a follower of Jesus, one must deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow him.
As I was thinking about these three steps – denial of self, taking up the cross, and following Jesus – I myself got held up on that first challenge of self-denial. I got caught up on it because it sounded much too much like what the Church and Society have told us as LGBT people that we should do. After all, haven’t we been told that we should deny that deepest part of us that calls us to love in the way we love? Haven’t we been told we should disregard what we know to be the truth of ourselves and that we should embrace a cross of inner repression, even though it leads to self-hatred and outward dysfunction?
As I thought and prayed about this further, I realized that I was not seeing the whole picture of Jesus’ own description of discipleship. As Jesus goes on to explain, there is a paradox in Christian discipleship. If someone wishes truly to live, then he must be willing to die. If someone wants to save her life, she must be willing to lose it. I was failing to see that any understanding of discipleship that does not lead ultimately to life is false. Yes, we are called to deny ourselves; but we are called to deny our false selves so that our true selves might emerge. We are called to lose those parts of us that are not essential to our humanity so that the divine image within us might be revealed.
How do we know, then, if we are being faithful disciples – or if we are succumbing like Peter did, to the thinking of this world? Some insight into that answer is provided by Paul in today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans.
“Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”
Paul reminds us that this age – as every age before us and every age until the end of time – is not entirely aligned with the will of God. Every “present age” is not in tune with the mind and heart of God. Just like when on a long road trip, the favorite station that we have tuned to our radio might become “staticky” and eventually lost the further and further we drive from home, so too can our individual and collective lives become “out of tune” with God whenever we forget the fundamental meaning of Christian discipleship. While we all know that there is no playbook for the game of life – no answer book to tell us what to do and how to act all along the way and in each and every situation – our lived faith should be constantly challenging us to deeper and deeper discipleship.
Discerning what the Disciple would do in this situation or in that situation – that is the constant challenge of our daily lives; it’s the question that faces us every minute of every hour of every day. Perhaps one rule of thumb might be to ask ourselves regularly whether we – as today’s psalm reminds us – are constantly thirsting for God? Let us pray that our hearts, our minds, and our souls never fail to recognize that we are incomplete; that we are like a parched earth without water, and that only the riches of God’s banquet can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.