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The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 16, 2018


    
Like it or not, front and center in today’s readings is suffering.  The next time we hear that first reading – one of the Suffering Servant poems from Isaiah – will be Palm Sunday. The Church has long read those particular poems in light of Jesus and his passion.  For good reason.  Much like Jesus, the mysterious servant, even though at the mercy of evil forces, is serenely in charge of himself as he resolutely embraces his destiny. “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard” he says, “my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” We find language reminiscent of this – maybe not as poetic – in one of the Eucharistic prayers of the Mass: “At the time He was betrayed and entered willingly into his passion, he stretched out his arms on the cross.”

     In the gospel, Jesus displays the same serenity as Isaiah’s servant when he calmly tells his disciples that “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed….”  His timing for telling them is worth noting.  He had just put two questions to his disciples.  The first: “Who do people say that I am?” was one they had answered easily.  They were well aware of what people were saying about Jesus: that John the Baptist had come back from the dead, or Elijah or one of the prophets had returned.  But the second question wasn’t so easy: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked.  This question didn’t allow them to fall back on hearsay.  This was a between-the-eyes question and Peter was up for it.  “You are the Christ,” he said with laser-like clarity.

     But take note of what happens next. No sooner does Peter proclaim Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, than Jesus gives an entirely new and unexpected meaning to Messiah.  He begins to talk about his approaching suffering and death. Of course, Peter would have none of it. In his mind suffering and Messiah or Christ didn’t belong in the same sentence.

     It’s worth noting the way Mark tells this story.  “Peter took Jesus aside,” Mark tells us. In the gospels, it’s usually Jesus who takes people aside, away from the crowd so he can connect with them in a personal way - like he did with the deaf mute in last Sunday’s gospel. But here it’s Peter who takes Jesus aside, and what does he do?  He rebukes Jesus!  He rebukes the one he has just confessed to be the Christ, the Messiah! 

     Rebuke is a strong word.  Rebuke is what Jesus did to the unclean spirit earlier in Mark’s gospel; rebuke is what Jesus did to the wind and the sea when the disciples were in danger of drowning.  Rebuke is a very strong word that makes it clear just how deeply opposed Peter was to the thought that his master, the Christ, would suffer and die.  And is it possible that there was some self-interest on Peter’s part?  If the master would suffer and die, what would that mean for Peter…?

     But Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is not the end of the story.  We’re told that Jesus turned right around and rebuked Peter.  And what a rebuke it was! “Get behind me, Satan!”  Jesus heard the words of Peter for what they were – a temptation worthy of Satan himself.  Jesus had met Satan before - in the wilderness, following his fast of forty days and nights, where he heard the same kind of talk from Satan as he was now hearing from Peter – cunning enticements to take the easy path to glory.

     But, my friends, Jesus wanted Peter – and he wants us – to know that there is no easy path to glory.  Nor is there an easy answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” although answer it we must.  Peter answered it on the road to Caesarea Philippi when he said, “You are the Christ!”  Years later, on another road, legend has it that he answered it again in a different way entirely. 

     I think you know the legend.  It carries a profound truth as legends often do.  The year was 64, A.D., when the emperor Nero was viciously persecuting the Christians of Rome.  The place was the Appian Way along which Peter was beating a hasty retreat, running for his life from Rome where there was a price on his head and on the head of every Christian.  As the legend has it, Peter saw a familiar figure in the distance coming toward him along the road.  It was Jesus. This time, Peter, not Jesus, asked the question:  “Domine, quo vadis?” (“Lord, where are you going?”), and Jesus answered him, “I am going to Rome to be crucified.”  This time, Peter didn’t rebuke the master.  He didn’t say a word.  Instead, he turned around and headed back to Rome where he himself was crucified. That, I would submit, was the moment Peter really answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” 

     My friends, it’s a question we too must answer and, admittedly, it’s not at all easy to answer in these days of upheaval and scandalous revelations in our Church. But with God’s grace we will find a way to answer with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” remembering that, no matter how bruised and broken it is, the Church is Christ’s Body, and we must not lose sight of that even as we pray that our leaders will, in this dark moment, have the courage to make the abrupt turn in the road that Peter made, and the wisdom to do everything necessary to lead the Church – to walk with the Church - through this darkness, this suffering and death, to new life.

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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