22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – The Rock has become a Stumbling Stone

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time - The Rock has become a Stumbling Stone

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Matthew 16:21-27

The Rock has become a Stumbling Stone

This weeks Gospel is in strict continuity with the Gospel from last week. This is the story of the confession of Peter and the founding of the Church. We heard that Jesus would found his new community on the rock foundation of Peter’s confession. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. And that this Church, “called out from” “Ecclesia”, will be a militant Church. We are a church on the march, trying to invade the today’s world, with the power of God’s grace.

Today is the passage just following that. Jesus lays out the cost, in no uncertain terms. “From that time on Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.”

He will go in other words, as the bearer of divine love, as the Christ, to the capital of the nation, and there he will be opposed even to the point of death. Hard message but a true one.

In a world gone wrong, the divine love will typically meet with resistance. Jesus knows he is entering a battle, a battle unto death.

Now here is the hinge of our passage today. Peter, “Cehphas”, Rocky, this newly christened Rock foundation. He is having none of it.

Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Heaven preserve you Lord, he said, this must not happen to you”

Now here is a basic rule of thumb in New Testament interpretation; if you are telling Jesus what to do, you are in a bad spiritual space. Take that one to the bank.

Remember, Martha, tells Jesus what to do. “Tell my sister to help me!”

Remember the mother of James and John who was telling Jesus where her sons should sit.

Here, most dramatically, Peter treats the Lord as a kind of simple student, who needs some elementary instruction. There are a lot of people who love the Jesus of their imagination, of their piety, perhaps the Jesus of the culture but who are as uncomfortable as Peter in with “real Jesus”. Because the real Jesus is always going to Jerusalem.

The real one is always willing to lay down his life in the great struggle. Why? Because He is the divine love incarnate in the world and that means he will meet with resistance. He knows it and he is trying to communicate it now to that “Ecclesia”, to those called to follow Him. If you are to be a bearer of that truth, you too will suffer.

Now in one of the strongest and most startling lines of the New Testament Jesus says to Peter who was trying to correct him; Get behind me Satan!”. Extraordinary, Peter, whom he had just praised as the Rock, the foundation on which he will build his Church, you are the one who correctly sees who I am, just moments later now, he calls him “Satan”..”Get behind me”…

One of the things going on here is that he has become a stumbling stone. A great irony, the Rock has become a stumbling stone. And a spokesperson for the father of lies. He is speaking, probably without knowing it the language of the father of lies. The great lie is that the Christian life can be lived without the cross. Which means without suffering love. It simply can’t. That’s why in trying to talk Jesus out of the cross, Peter is indeed speaking the language of Satan.

Notice too now the second sense of “get behind me”, and maybe even more powerful, “get behind me”, in other words, stop telling me what to do, and start following me. The right place for the Christian disciple to be is behind Jesus, especially as he walks to Jerusalem.

Now you see why this is so startling and so hard, why we resist as much as Peter did. It’s easy to get behind someone to fame or glory but get behind someone as He is going to the place where He is going to be killed, there is “the cost of discipleship”, to use Dietrich Bonheoffer’s great phrase.

Notice how Jesus accuses Peter of thinking as human beings do, not as God does. How important this is. Human beings think in terms of self- protection, safety, avoidance of trouble, and that’s our primary frame of reference, but God thinks relentlessly in terms of love. Even, and might I say especially when that love entails suffering.

So there is an important spiritual question, what is your final frame of reference, is it “how do I avoid pain?” Or is it “How do I love?”How you answer that, how you determine that will shape everything else in your life.

If when I wake up in the morning, my basic question is how do I avoid pain, well then I am going to live my life in a certain way, ultimately in a selfish way.

But if when I wake up in the morning I say, how do I love today? Then you will live the life of a saint. You’ll get behind Jesus. You will be a member of the “Ecclesia” a community “called out” from the world. And this is why now Jesus says to his disciples, Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”.

Notice please how active this language is, he doesn’t say that his followers “should accept the cross if it comes”. No, he tells them to take it up, consciously, purposefully, to lean into it if you like. We must consciously and freely walk the path of suffering love, if we are to be his followers. Take up your cross, don’t just accept it. Take it up, actively.

Then we have that devastating and haunting live that has touched all those who have heard it over the centuries,

”What then will a man gain if he wins the whole world and forfeits his life?”

Walking the path of self-protection and self-promotion can indeed gain you the whole world, but the price is way too high. For it involves the compromising of the person that God wants you to be, of your soul.

We are meant to be bearers of the divine word into the world, that is our mission. Now it takes a million forms. But that’s its basic purpose. And this will always involve suffering. Because it means the path of self-denial. And it means that the divine love will meet resistance. If you prioritize the avoidance of suffering, you might gain the whole world, but you will lose necessarily becoming the person God wants you to be.

That’s the hinge in this week’s reading, it’s asking us to make a decision.

In the movie, “A Man for all Seasons”, the story of Saint Thomas More, we see that More was a man of enormous accomplishment, he was a literary figure of great renown, he was a lawyer, a statesman and he was at the end of is career the Lord Chancellor of England, he was a confident of Kings.

Now throughout his life, More knew who he was, and what he was about. But the world did not massively stand athwart him, until the battle with Henry the VIII, whom he was serving as Lord Chancellor.

The King, as you know wanted to make himself the supreme head of the Church in England. More saw that as an attack on the Church, and so he stood opposed to Henry.

The Movie is so good at showing this, almost the whole of the Church, almost the whole of the English nobility, gave in. They were afraid of what the King would do to them. They were living primarily out of self-protection. But More held out and in a beautiful scene, his own daughter, whom he loved, tried to get him to swear the oath, she said, “Father just say the words but in your heart think something else”. But More corrected her, “when you take an oath, you hold yourself in our hands like water. If you open your fingers and the water runs out, you have lost yourself”.

Throughout the play there is a parallel story being told of Richard Rich. Who is a vain and ambitious young man, trying to make his way up the ladder at the court of the King.

First he tries the route of Thomas More’s help, but More is not going to help him as he see’s his perverse motives. And so Rich sells out, willing to abandon his ideals to advance in his career.

Finally, in return to becoming the Attorney General of Wales he agrees to perjure himself and to testify against Thomas More.

And then that funny and devastating line; after Richard Rich testifies against More, More says he would like to ask the witness one question, he says “You are wearing a chain of office, what is that?” Rich says“That’s the office of the Attorney General of Wales”. More looks at him and says “You know Rich, it profits a man nothing to gain the Whole World, and lose his soul….but for Wales?

That’s the same hinge now the Gospel is on, the same question we have to ask, what path are we walking? The path of self-protection or the path of self-emptying, self-forgetting love. Everything else will depend on how you answer that question.

Written by Father John Moloney

Parish Priest for St Antony of Padua Forest Gate.