Lynne Smith, OSB, delivered the following homily at Sunday Assembly on August 28, 2011. The Gospel reading for the day was Matthew 16:21-28.
Imagine what Peter’s thoughts might have been after this exchange with Jesus.
“But I love you. I don’t want you to suffer or die. Besides, you are the Messiah. You are supposed to free us from the Romans – not be killed yourself. Bad things shouldn’t happen to good people, let alone to you, the Messiah. If they kill YOU, what will they do to ME? If YOU are put to death, what hope is there for ME?
What is this about losing my life? I don’t want to lose my life. Things were fine until a minute ago. Now I hardly know who you are or what you want of me. What is following you about anyway? You say I’m setting my mind on human things? Well, isn’t it reasonable, sensible and compassionate for that matter to be concerned about my own life and the life of my friend? What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t everyone think that way?”
That seems to be Jesus’ point. Most people think this way. I can identify with Peter. Perhaps you can too. Jesus’ talk about his suffering and death has awakened Peter’s fear for his own well-being. It has also exposed Peter’s misunderstanding of who Jesus is as Messiah and what it means to follow him. Jesus wants to teach his disciples a new way of thinking and acting based on God’s ways.
This passage is a pivot point in the Gospel. From here on Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and the cross. Some interpreters have said that that Gospels are just passion narratives with long introductions. This is a turning point in the disciples’ understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s not about them. It’s about what God is doing for the world through Jesus. The fear and self-concern raised in Peter by the words “great suffering and be killed” have made him deaf to the rest of Jesus’ sentence: “and on the third day be raised.”
Peter could stand in for each of us who follow Jesus. For a brief moment, he had an insight into what God was doing in the world when he recognized Jesus was the Messiah. But then fear, self-centeredness, his instinct for self-preservation, his notion of success or any number of false premises on which he has built his life shuts his heart to God’s revelation in Jesus. Peter unwittingly tries to impose his will on God. “God forbid it. This must never happen to you.” But this is exactly what MUST happen to Jesus in God’s plan to redeem the world. Peter cannot understand this until after Jesus’ resurrection.
If Peter is setting his mind on human things like self-preservation, a naïve sense of goodness, human friendship, what are the divine things on which Jesus wants him to set his mind?
Perhaps one of the divine things is this. At the center of the universe is selfless, self-giving love. This love created us and lives in us. This love is a fierce and tender power that holds the tension between justice and mercy. It so desires to give us life that it suffers with and for us. We see this love embodied in Jesus. Albert Nolan puts it this way. “We can only be saved from intolerable suffering by the almighty power of selfless love and compassion for one another. God in the end is love, selfless love.” (Concilium 2011/12, Being Christian. “On Being a Christian Today,” p. 56). The life that Jesus wants us to gain is a life driven by selfless and compassionate love for God, others and ourselves. The life we lose is a life driven by egotism and fear.
We might set our minds and hearts on the words like those given to Jeremiah in our first reading: “I am with you to save you and deliver you.” (Jer. 15:20b) This selfless, self-giving love has come to live among us in Jesus and continues to animate the world through the Spirit. We live in the context of God’s love and are, with all people, God’s beloved children. This is what Jesus shows us in his life, death and resurrection. “I am with you to save you and deliver you – even through suffering and death.”
Few if any of us will be called to take up our cross by giving our lives. But when we recognize that we are bound together with one another in community, we have small opportunities each day to lay aside our egos, to choose love over fear and pour out our lives for someone else. It is those choices, small or large that lead to life for others and for ourselves. The same Jesus who says: “Take up your cross” also says “Take my yoke upon you.” Christ walks with us as we make the choices that lay aside our egos and act on behalf of others.
A few have followed literally in Jesus’ footsteps taking up their cross to their death. Their radical act gives life and hope. Father Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish priest arrested during WW II for hiding Jews, offered to die in the place of another prisoner in Auschwitz who had a family. A survivor Jerzy Bielecki declared that Father Kolbe’s death was ‘a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength … It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said,” You can do what you want, but we shall go on loving you. Put us in prisons and we shall go on loving you. Let them throw bombs at our houses, threaten our children, and, however hard it may be, we shall love these too. Let them send hired killers in the dark of midnight, let them strike us, and even if we are dying, we shall love them.” (quoted in Concilium 2011/12, “Being Christian Today,” by Jon Sobrino, p. 91.)
Through the power of God, selfless love does indeed save us and give us life.