Sunday, August 28, 2011

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jer. 20:7-9; Ps. 63:2-6.7-8; Rom. 12:1-2; Matt. 16:21-27

Suffering is an inevitable and unavoidable part of being human. The main point of our readings today is that suffering is necessary if we are to become fully human. In the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, we are taught that Jesus Christ “fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (par. 22). In our Gospel today, Jesus issues this call in a straightforward and unvarnished manner, in a way that is at once unmistakable and more challenging than anything we could imagine.

In our first reading the prophet Jeremiah complains about being duped by God. Up to this point he has prophesied in God’s name many times. As a result of his prophesying he became a laughingstock, an object of ridicule and persecution. “Whenever I speak,” he complains, “violence and outrage is my message” (Jer. 20:8). Nobody wants to hear about God’s judgment. As with the people of ancient Israel, we often only have ears for God’s consolation, everybody wants to be comforted, nobody wants to be challenged. As a result, speaking God’s word brought Jeremiah nothing but derision and reproach. So, he resolved never to speak in God’s name again. Despite his resolve, the word of God is placed in his heart and becomes like a burning fire or a prisoner who must be set free (Jer.20:9). The prophet quickly grows weary of trying to keep his unholy vow. Hence, he finds himself choosing, once again, to prophesy, thus being made subject all over to the unpleasantness and misery that is the result of being faithful to his God-given call.

Jeremiah’s experience brings us to our Gospel today, which follows serially from last Sunday, when we heard Peter, asked by Jesus the only question that really matters, “Who do you say that I am,” reply that “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15-16). After Peter’s confession, Jesus begins to tell his disciples just what being the Messiah, the Son of God, meant; a call that makes what Jeremiah experienced pale in comparison. What Jesus unfolded for them was very much at odds with their understanding of the Messiah, who they still envisioned as a warrior-king, like David, who would drive-out the Romans and re-establish the united kingdom of Israel. In the book of Acts we see that these mistaken ideas persisted among the disciples even after Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, when, just before His glorious Ascension, they ask Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

Jesus is clearly upset by Peter’s response that, “God forbid,” such a fate as suffering greatly at the hands of and being killed by the religious authorities would befall the Messiah. But for Jesus, as for anyone who truly follows Him, there is no such thing as fate; there is only the will of the Father. But what causes Jesus to rebuke Peter, whom He just commended, is that the devil tempted Him, through Peter’s misplaced love, to deviate from His course, urging Him to chart His own, less painful, path.

What made Jesus identify Peter, his overly-fervent disciple, with Satan, is that Peter, by his denial of what must happen, shows that he still wants Jesus to accept the world as it is, instead of reconciling the world to God through the Cross. “Peter’s failure,” observed theologian Stanley Hauerwas, “in spite of his confession… is his inability to recognize that Jesus’s humanity is his divinity” (Matthew 152). Indeed, our fundamental dogmatic formula concerning Jesus’ divinity and humanity, defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, holds that our “Lord Jesus Christ…must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion or change, without division or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person” (DuPuis, The Christian Faith 228). We can certainly sympathize with Peter’s inability to fully grasp the Mystery of the One to whom he was speaking.

More to the point, Hauerwas goes on to note that more than two millennia “after Peter’s confession” Christians still “fail to recognize that this Jesus is the Son of the living God” (Matthew 152). We fail to acknowledge Jesus’ divinity “because, like Peter, we want Jesus to confirm our presumption that we can understand the way the world works only if we live as if God does not exist” (152). This is what prompted Evangelical pastor Craig Groeschel to write a book entitled, The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn’t Exist. In his book he recounts the time when he sat next to a young woman on an airplane. After discovering that Groeschel was a pastor, the young woman told him that while she had come to faith in Christ at the age of fifteen, an experience that made a difference in her life for a little while, her life at present did not look like the life of a disciple of Jesus (14). She admitted to Groeschel, as if in a confessional, “that she was doing things with her live-in boyfriend that she knew she shouldn’t” (14). She said she wanted to go to church but was too busy working and studying. She told him that she prayed almost every day- mostly that her boyfriend would become a Christian (14). Wiping away tears, she said that maybe if her boyfriend believed in Jesus he would want to marry to her (14). This sad tale prompted Groeschel to write, “Welcome to Christian Atheism, where people believe in God but live as if he doesn’t exist” (14). To wit: we don’t want our lives disrupted, overturned, exposed, which is what is required if we are to live in fidelity to Christ. My friends, what Jesus is telling us is that to follow Him does not mean simply giving up some things, as a token of belief, but giving ourselves to Him entirely, just as He gives Himself for us. This is exactly the call God placed on Jeremiah, despite the prophet’s determination to no longer co-operate.

It is our consistent failure to acknowledge that Jesus’ humanity is his divinity that causes St. Paul to so passionately urge us, in the passage taken from his Letter to the Romans, not to be conformed to this age, “but to be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). This transformation occurs when, as a member of God’s priestly people, you offer your body “as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). You may ask, “What does this mean in practical terms?” A.W. Tozer answered this question: “The 'layman' need never think of his… task as being inferior to that of his minister. Let every man abide in the calling wherein he is called and his work will be as sacred as the work of the ministry. It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular, it is why he does it. The motive is everything. Let a man sanctify the Lord God in his heart and he can thereafter do no common act. All he does is good and acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For such a man, living itself will be sacramental and the whole world a sanctuary. His entire life will be a priestly ministration” (Pursuit of God 127).

The mystery of your own existence will remain incomprehensible to you as long as you refuse to acknowledge that pain and suffering are necessary for your salvation, as long you mistakenly see suffering as God’s punishment, instead of as your salvation. This is what it means to take up your Cross! To understand this you have to see that our nature “is revealed by the One who gives testimony to unconditional love by giving up Himself for the salvation of the world” (Wencel, The Eremitic Life 191). Christ calls us to participate in His saving work. You respond by your refusal to be conformed to the world and by allowing yourself to instead be renewed and transformed, which change happens as you continually offer yourself to God “as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). My dear friends, if you fail to see that this very Eucharist is not just a matter of receiving, but also of offering yourself anew to God, it cannot have the effect God intends it to have because God, as we see with Jeremiah, won’t violate your freedom. So, the choice is yours, as are the consequences of your choice. In the same way that Jeremiah warned ancient Israel, Jesus warns His disciples by telling them that when He returns in glory He will “repay all according to his conduct” (Matt. 16:27).

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