The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 30, 2020
Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Last week we heard Jesus asking his disciples, “who do men say that the Son of man is?” Then, after they wildly named a variety of possibilities, he asked them, “but who do you say that I am?” Having listened to the other disciples’s ideas, Peter gives, as it were, the text book answer: “You are the Christ (the messiah, the anointed one), the Son of the living God.” Jesus is clearly pleased with this response and proclaims, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” giving him (figuratively) the keys to the Kingdom.
Last week’s Gospel ends on this high note: Jesus asked his friends, “who do you say that I am?” and at Peter’s answer, he says bold and hopeful things about the future; about a future existing for his followers, for those who enter into relationship with God in Christ. Jesus says that in this future there will be a church, a body or assembly of those who will have been called to gather and continue his legacy, and that Peter will be its founder. In that moment, Peter and the disciples clearly heard that this Christ, this anointed one, this Messiah would be the kind of powerful figure who holds sway over the princes and powers of the earth. Indeed, this interpretation has remained central to the Roman Catholic imagination. It is the foundation, in fact, for justifying the vast spiritual and temporal power that would be exercised for millennia by Peter’s papal successors, and that would be enshrined in art as the founding moment of the Church.
Today’s Gospel, however, should give us pause when we think about grand images of Christ giving the keys to Peter, as if that action conferred the sort of power that the world recognises. Today we learn that there is much more to this “Christ [the] Son of the living God” than Peter and all the others have ever imagined. Jesus knows that an integral element of his purpose is to turn those old notions of the Messiah on their head and he sees in this moment that Peter and the others don’t yet fully understand. He also recognises that his disciples will have a hard time accepting this new conception of messiah, and he doesn’t want them to get ahead of themselves, although, of course, they do.
He begins, therefore, to explain to them what being the Christ, the anointed one, really means. He tells them “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Jesus tells us that the real Messiah, the real Anointed one, the real Christ, must confront the powers of the world and incarnate a new kind of power, a new kind of life, a spirit-filled life in union with the source of all life and love, a life that will be born out of suffering, a life born in the depth of human pain and human loss.
Can you imagine being told by someone you believe has come into the world to usher in the Kingdom of God, to reconcile humanity with God, that despite this connection to the divine, despite this extraordinary mission, despite all this, he will have to suffer horribly at the hands of worldly authority so that his work might be accomplished? You might wonder, is this a joke? What kind of Messiah is this? And this is exactly what Peter wonders; and he rebukes Jesus, “saying, ‘God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’” Peter says what all the disciples were likely thinking, and what any one of us might think. Peter, true to form, lets a truly natural reaction fly from his lips.
To this Jesus can only respond, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Jesus is emphatically telling Peter that he doesn’t get it, so he explains more clearly. Yes, Peter wants Jesus to be a different kind of Messiah, but Jesus tells him that this is the Messiah he’s got, the one whom God has sent. While this is a hard lesson to learn, a challenging reality to accept, Jesus also tells Peter that within it, there is also good news. God in Christ is offering a place for us in this work. Jesus tells Peter that in this understanding of his identity, there is a call to action, for us to live our lives in keeping with Jesus’ identity.
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?
Jesus tells the disciples that in order to serve him, truly serve this Messiah who will suffer and die before he is vindicated, that we must try and imitate him. We must take risks and put ourselves on the side of God rather than on the side of those who exercise dominion over the secular world. Jesus is telling us clearly that amassing wealth and worldly power, accumulating possessions in such a way as to serve only one’s own self interest will lead to nothing other than death and despair. We must be willing to risk not finding conventional, human success in order that we might find union, real success, if you will, with that which is ultimately important, with God and with Love. Jesus challenges us to give up the death dealing behaviour of the proud, whom Mary declared would be “scattered in the imagination of their hearts,” and embrace the works that bring life, eternal life.
We can now clearly see that in the end, these assertions of Jesus’ identity, his identity as the Messiah who will know what it is to love and to live, who will know what it is to suffer and to die, and through it all triumph and reign in Glory, bear directly upon our Christian life. This knowledge helps us see our duty to try as best as we can, even in the midst of confusing and difficult moments like the one in which we now find ourselves, to imitate Christ, and if we fail, to try again.
This call to imitate Christ, brings us right to Paul’s exhortation to the Romans, which we heard earlier, that the people of that great city at the centre of the known world, and that would become the seat of the Church, to take up their diverse ministries:
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
And here we find the true meaning of that Church, built upon the rock that is Peter. It is not of necessity a wealthy, worldly institution ruled over by the monarchical prelate who possessed the papal keys, but rather a diverse assembly, drawn together from all the peoples of the world by a sense of call to take up the cross and find “life.” We are called each of us, with different educations, ability, and talent, to use the gifts we have been given and have cultivated to serve the one who lives, truly lives, and knows what it is to suffer, and in doing so serve our neighbours, especially those who are now strangers.
We are called to be this Church and use our unique gifts and imitate Christ as best as we can and accept and love Jesus for who he is—not who we want him to be— because that is the way in which he loves us. Jesus, we discover is both the great anointed messiah upon whom is founded the extraordinary body of people that is the Church, and the one who, by having entered into our flesh and known suffering and death, unites himself with God and with us. This is the Jesus we worship and imitate and whose very body we shall behold at this mass. Amen.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Bernard of Clairvaux, 22 August 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume