by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Then, taking Jesus aside, Peter started to rebuke him. “Heaven preserve you, Lord”, he said, “this must not happen to you.” But Jesus turned to Peter and said: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks, but as humans do.” Then, he said to his disciples: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Matthew 16, 21-27
I want to suggest that today’s gospel reading gives us another incident in which we see Jesus in his full humanity. Peter had just publicly acknowledged Jesus as Messiah and affirmed him in his ministry. After acknowledging Peter’s enormous potential for leadership, Jesus proceeded to predict that, instead of being a popular Messiah and an acclaimed liberator of Israel, he would be executed in Jerusalem. Moreover, anyone who wanted to follow him as a disciple would encounter pain, humiliation and rejection rather than popular approval.
Repeatedly throughout his ministry, Jesus had urged his followers not to be afraid, pointing out that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. I want to suggest that, while Jesus could clearly see that the Jewish leaders, whom he had alienated, were planning for him a bloody end, the prospect of what they were plotting terrified him. Understandably, he was afraid of what lay ahead. And that’s why Peter’s interjection was a powerful temptation for him. Humanly speaking, and Jesus was fully human, he did not want to die the violent death he could see was being planned for him.
To state that Jesus was actually tempted by Peter’s interjection – “Heaven preserve you, Lord, this must not happen!” – is to honour Jesus’ humanity. Jesus was afraid, and why wouldn’t he be?” Yet, deep down, he knew that the easier way that Peter urged him to follow was not a real option. He knew that he had to keep challenging the Jewish religious leaders and the unjust burdens they continued to put on the shoulders of the people they led, especially the poor. It was his conscience and his sense of mission that made clear to him the way he had to follow. That’s why he saw Peter’s easier solution as a seductive temptation. And that’s why his rejection of it was so forceful.
In stopping by Caesarea Philippi and asking his disciples who they thought he was, Jesus was looking for reassurance and the courage to continue along the path he had chosen. Peter uttered the encouragement Jesus needed to hear, but just as quickly chipped in with an unrealistic expression of support and reassurance – that bad things should not happen to good people. Peter acted in a way that we, too, are inclined to imitate.
Pause for a moment to listen again to some of the things we find ourselves saying: “Don’t talk like that, grandpa, you’ll outlive the rest of us!” “Don’t be silly, grandma, you’ve never said a bad word about anybody!” If we delude ourselves with the view that there is nothing wrong with the people we love, that they never do wrong to others, we are really protecting ourselves from the difficult challenge of speaking the truth to them in love. If Jesus could have been stopped from being crucified, Peter would not have had to even consider the possibility of crucifixion for himself. Discipleship is not about us, but about following the lead that Jesus gave us, and accepting his invitation to walk with him. It is about naming injustice and evil and delusion for what they are. There is a cost to that. And the cost is rejection, humiliation, loss of popularity. And Jesus described that cost with the metaphor of taking up the cross ourselves.
Peter reminded Jesus of his humanity. That was his gift to Jesus, and that is his gift to us as well. The easy way will always seem attractive, but against that we know we have committed ourselves to the difficult path of discipleship and that we need the help of God’s Spirit to keep us on that path. When we reflect on the fact that right now in Yemen a child is dying every ten minutes of the day from malnutrition or cholera, that people seeking asylum from war are being denied shelter, safety respect and dignity, that millions of people in developing countries do not have access to clean water and sanitation, we begin to doubt whether our voices and actions for justice can make a difference. We wonder whether the difficult path of discipleship of Jesus is worth the effort to walk it. But if we stop pursuing justice, peace, healing and wholeness for our world and for ourselves, we become supporters of the very things we oppose.
But let’s not forget that we have other disciples to support and encourage us along the true path. In 2001, Dorothy and Gwen Hennessy, two Franciscan nuns who were siblings went to prison in Iowa for trespassing in protest on the grounds of a military education institution (Fort Benning, Georgia), built to train Latin American soldiers to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. Two of the graduates of Fort Benning were the notorious General Manuel Noreiga of Panama and Roberto D’Aubisson, of El Salvador, who were both linked to human rights abuses in their respective countries. A brother of the two Franciscans, Ron Hennessy, had worked for many years as a Maryknoll missionary in Guatemala. In letters to his family, he described how many of his parishioners, Mayan Indian peasant farmers, were being terrorised and murdered by Government soldiers. He had urged family members to become active in efforts “to help stop this madness.” Sisters Dorothy and Gwen became active, and for their efforts were imprisoned. Meanwhile, Fr Ron and Archbishop Oscar Romero had become close friends, and Ron was present in the crowd of mourners at Romero’s funeral when the military fired live bullets at them (New York Times, June 24, 2001).
The way of the cross is the way of faith – of claiming life and truth in the face of everything that tells us not to. Once we have seen and heard too much, once Jesus has come too close, then the only thing we can do is to witness to the truth, follow and keep on the path. But remember that this path of the cross is never lived outside of God’s love. That’s the promise in which we live, and that’s the promise that keeps us keeping on.