This is not the Gospel reading I would have chosen for a first communion. Satan, Cross and losing one’s life are not the topics that first come to mind on what is truly one of the most joyous day for any parish. Yet if we step back and see how these fits into St Matthews Gospel it is very joyous indeed and given the pandemic hopeful as well. I will first speak to the adults and then Anya and Evie making a comment to myself along the way.
This tense dialogue with Peter comes after a much more pleasant one a few paragraphs before. Jesus asks Peter who he thinks he is and Peter answers “The Messiah”. Jesus is so pleased with this answer that he blesses Peter and tells him that God himself has revealed this to him. He then informs Peter that he will be the rock on which he will build his church and gives him great authority over who will be part of it.
I hope that everyone has or will have an experience like this: singled out for praise and honor. Pre-Covid we all could have given great examples. Being praised at a work meeting and given new responsibilities with appropriate compensation. I don’t know that this means now when the office is often one’s kitchen table. Friends have expressed some regret that they have gotten new positions but there was not even a lunch to congratulate them in person. Half the fun of getting a scholarship is being congratulated by other students at something public. Zoom just isn’t the same. So simply think of what would be the most wonderful thing that could happen to you professionally or personally and that is what Peter experienced.
Yet calling Jesus the Messiah was not completely correct. Jesus is so much more than that and today Jesus will give him a lesson in how much more.
Peter’s view of the Messiah was based on earthly power and position. He could see himself as an important person in the religious establishment that would form around Jesus. When Jesus says today that he would be martyred he jeopardizes Peter’s future job prospects and indeed his very life. He may say politely that no such thing should happen to you, Jesus, but he is thinking about himself as well.
We might expect that Jesus, kindness itself, will say comforting words to Peter but instead we hear “Get behind me Satan, You are an obstacle to me,” Another and more accurate translation of this is “stumbling stone”.
He then tells the disciples that they will know that they are truly following him not by the honors they will receive but the comforts they will lose.
This goes against human instinct. So much of life is spent seeking the good things that may be found in the world that we are confused when we are told that joy may be found giving them up.
This is, as Jesus chides Peter thinking as human beings do, Jesus is very blunt in order to shock Peter into the recognition of this basic truth. For what profit would there be for Peter to become the ceo of Jesus Inc but to forfeit his very life”?
This passage has taken on new life for me this year. St Charles was humming along better than any parish in which I was ever involved. We were meeting the needs of a large percentage of our parishioners and had plans that would have included more. There was a Parish plan for the future and a Parish leadership that could attain it. For me it seemed an effortless glide to a peaceful retirement. Then Covid 19 hit and everything was derailed.
My reaction after I realized that this was going to be a long haul was:
“God forbid, Lord, no such thing should happen to your church”
“God forbid, Lord, no such thing should happen to me.”
I was thinking as human beings do and showed myself, despite my good intentions a stumbling stone and Jesus doesn’t fall or fail.
I need to deny myself such great certainty and see where Jesus wishes to lead St Charles. I expect to be surprised and at least immediately, not happily. But here faith means following the Spirit of God and learning to do so willingly.
The rhythms of life have been changed and we are all marching to the tune of different drummers. I cannot imagine what working from home means when you have children schooling from home? Perhaps those teaching from home have it even worse especially primary school teachers. There are also the people who I have met at the Catholic Charites food panty and the pop ups this summer who will soon be facing eviction as well.
Now you might wonder how I could begin this homily speaking about joy and hope. Simply because anytime we experience Jesus is joyful. Good things can stand in the way of our truly knowing him and when they are stripped away his presence is revealed. Hope is not optimism but our commitment to put our trust in the presence of Jesus that he reminds us that he is revealed not in flesh and blood but by his heavenly father
Matthew shows us how in the next chapter. A mere 6 days after harshly rebuking Peter he takes him and James and John to a high mountain. First note that Peter continued to follow Jesus despite being scolded. Second on the mountain Jesus “was transfigured” before them. There the Father told them that Jesu was his beloved Son and to listen to him” This was a great gift that Peter would never have been able to experience if he was seeking a messiah which fit his previous preconceptions. The spiritual lives of so many of us are like Peter’s. We have an idea of Jesus which is comforting until something happens to disturb it and then Jesus can seem very strange and foreign to us. If like Peter we still follow Jesus he will lead us to a better understanding of him. This is a personal transfiguration. We know him better if we still don’t understand him.
Now Anya and Evie, let me wish you a blessed first communion. It is the church’s way of saying that you are welcome at the altar. As you get older, you will come to know Jesus better and like St Peter today, me and the adults you know there will be times that you will not understand him. When this happens, go to your parents and grandparents and ask them why they still believe and listen carefully to their answers. The only real answer to questions about God’s actions which we do not understand are experiences of God’s love which we share with each other.