Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 1, 2002
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Jeremiah 20:7-9; PS 63:2, 3-4,5-6, 8-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27)
"Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him."
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him? What an incredible line! We should be grateful to Matthew for leaving this incident in his Gospel. You know, Scripture scholars tell us that it is not all that sure that all the events recorded in the Gospels happened exactly the way they are recorded; some are inserted as the reflection of the church after Jesus' resurrection. And one of the criteria they use to determine the authenticity of an event or saying is if it could be embarrassing to the Christian community if it is left in. Well, certainly to have Peter, the leader of the apostles and the one we claim as the first pope, called "Satan" by Jesus is embarrassing. So we can be reasonably confident that the community is telling us something that really happened.
Last week we saw the end of Act One in the drama of Peter. He had been called by the side of the lake to be a disciple. He had spent some time going around with Jesus, seeing what he did and listening to his message. And Act One reaches its climax when Peter is able to respond to Jesus' question "Who do you say I am?" by making the ringing proclamation, "You are the Christ, the son of God." Jesus blesses him and declares that only the Father could have revealed it to him.
And now in today's Gospel we witness the beginning of Act Two. We see how dim, how feeble was his grasp of what he had so solemnly declared.
It's not just the story of the one we know as the first pope. It's your story, and mine -- and the story of the whole church.
In our Act One we declare some kind of commitment. We make a profession. A man and woman stand before the world and declare they will stay together for better or for worse until death. Religious men and women make solemn vows; priests declare that they will serve the people and not themselves. A friend vows to someone "we will be united in friendship forever; I will be for you." A man or woman begins a new job and vows that this time he or she is going to really work at it, be on time and do quality work; a student starts out a new school year and is confident that this year it will be different, he or she will knuckle down to study, avoiding the crowd that just wants to party and drink. The church promises to be the ark of salvation, the protector of the poor: the orphan and the widow and the alien in the land.
We make commitments, declarations; we say words. We say we will be the body of Christ for each other. Or it may be as small as saying I'll stay around to clean up after Jazz on the Lawn.
I think that Jesus might have just as well said from the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are saying."
In Act Two reality sets in. We begin to see the consequences of our commitments, our words. "I didn't think it meant that..." Sometimes we might say, "I hope this is what was meant by 'for worse' because it if it's the 'for better' I'm in deep trouble." We have that old joke about the man who retires and his wife says, "I married you for better or for worse -- but not for lunch!"
Peter squirms when he hears words like 'suffer' and 'die'. As you and I squirm. "It can't mean that is the signature of every broken relationship.
There is no way of getting around the sharpness of Jesus' withering comment to Peter. It can't be watered down. The leader of his disciples, called Satan! An obstacle, a stumbling block to Jesus and his mission.
We each become obstacles to God's plan when we reject the deaths it will take. The death to ourselves, to misguided expectations, to illusions that were so comforting. People walk away from commitments they made; popes of a church which declares it is for the poor amass great wealth -- for their children!; priests abuse children. And you and I each try to make others responsible for actions which were our responsibility.
An Act Three awaits Peter down the road. It takes the form of a woman whose name we never learn but who might be one of the most powerful figures in the Gospels. She is a servant-girl in the courtyard of the high priest Annas. She challenges Peter as he warms himself at the fire: "You too were with Jesus the Galilean!" You're one of that crowd; you've committed yourself to follow him and carry out his mission.
She makes Peter cry out, "I don't know the man!" I don't know this man with whom I have spent every waking hour for some years. It is surely a word of failure, uttered out of fear. And yet ironically it is the most truthful word he ever said.
He doesn't know this man. You and I don't know the Lord Jesus. The church doesn't know him. We don't really know him until we see him actually die -- and we confront our blindness, who we are and the kind of messiah he is called to be, and the ultimate meaning of God's free gift of mercy for us.
The woman by the fireside becomes the voice of truth. She calls Peter to the meaning of his commitment -- "that is who you are, one of his". She is the voice that will either compel us to accept the full consequences of our words, or bring us to our knees in tears and repentance.
As it did to Peter. Remember, he had even become so sure of himself that he could boast that even if 'all those other guys' might desert Jesus he would stand with him. He took that most risky step in the building of a spirituality: basing his value on comparison with others instead of confronting his own performance. And Luke, as he so frequently does, adds that most human detail when he tells us that it was at the moment when Jesus is being led away and the cock crows for the third time, that Jesus looked at Peter. And his conversion began.
There is a nameless women in your future and mine. She really does have a name, it's just lower-case. Her name is reality. She awaits the church, in the form of the victims of abuse, or in the form of the poor and despised of the earth. None of us know what form she will take personally for us, but it will be a revelation of the meaning of our commitments.
But by God's grace there is an Act Four in Peter's future, as in ours. In Peter's case we hear the story in Acts:4 and 5:
Peter and John heal a man born crippled , and the leaders, "observing the boldness (a common word in Acts) of Peter and John and perceiving them to be uneducated, ordinary men, are amazed and they recognized them as the companions of Jesus. (The very designation Peter had refused to acknowledge). So that the report might not spread further among the people, they decided to give them a stern warning never again to speak to anyone in this name. And Peter and John reply, "Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard." And in Acts 6 after they are flogged "they left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Messiah, Jesus."
As we receive the Lord today, let us ask him to send us that maidservant called Reality, and ask him to look at us -- as painful as that may be -- to take away our blindness and show us the full meaning of 'messiah'.
And then ask him to burn the word in our hearts si that like Jeremiah and Peter and John it may be impossible for us not to proclaim in our lives the wonderful mercy of our God.