3 September 2017
Some years ago two of our SMA priests were kidnapped in Liberia where there is a terrible civil war. For some time we did not know whether they were alive or dead. Eventually after intermediaries intervened with the rebels the two priests were released. For a long time we have been working in this war torn country at great risk as one never knows what will happen next. And at present we have the Ebola virus to deal with (as do the people we serve in Liberia, Sierre Leone and Nigeria). Yet these men continue to expose themselves to danger because of their strong faith. They know that to follow Jesus involves suffering.
In the gospel today Jesus began to make it clear to Peter and the disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and the Scribes. He was to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day. No sooner had Jesus said this than Peter reacted with violence. Peter had been brought up with the idea of a Messiah of power and glory and conquest. For him the idea of a suffering Messiah was incredible, in fact, unthinkable. Peter ‘caught hold’ of Jesus, putting a protecting arm about him to try and stop him from following such a suicidal course. Peter’s words indicate this: ‘This must not and cannot happen to you’. And then came the great rebuke of Jesus that makes us catch our breaths – ‘get behind me Satan’. The literal meaning of the word ‘Satan’ is adversary. Peter’s words were not those of God but humans. What Jesus is saying here is that Peter cannot be the one who leads Jesus. It is the other way round. Jesus is the Messiah and therefore the leader and all others are invited to follow. Jesus’ reaction contains both firmness and welcome. The Lord knows that discipleship involves a process. It takes time to understand and to put into practice.
So Peter’s image of the Messiah, of God, was a God of power and conquest, someone totally in control. Maybe we are like Peter at times. We wonder why God allows so much suffering in the world. Why doesn’t he use his power as we think he should? Again a human way of thinking. Sure, we would like to know but as people of faith and humility we have to bow our heads and accept it. And whether we realise it or not the cross is at the very centre of all our lives. It is easy to say this. But when suffering comes our way even when we try to lead a good life, we might feel tempted to stop following Jesus. The cross is not just on a wall in a room or in a church, or on a hill on Calvary, it is in all our lives when suffering or tragedy visit us. So it is not too difficult to understand Peter’s reaction.
How will we react as Christians when any cross comes along? Jesus has gone the way before us and he invites us to follow him. We have his help and also his Holy Spirit to strengthen us.
We must remember too that each moment of our lives does not involve the cross. We could make people depressed if we gave that interpretation. Reading the gospels we know that Jesus stayed in the houses of Peter, Mary and Martha. He certainly enjoyed eating and being with his friends and their families. But when the cross came he didn’t run away from it. And so too – for you and me – he invites us to do the same. Peter had still to come to a full understanding of what following Jesus involved. It was not just only using the words he used last Sunday: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ Neither was it the number of miracles or the great popularity Jesus enjoyed earlier on.
The first reading from the prophet Jeremiah is very instructive. He says ‘you seduced me Lord and I let myself be seduced.’ When first called by Yahweh, Jeremiah did not see all the consequences of his call. Later on when speaking the message of Yahweh which the people did not want to hear, he suffered greatly at their hands. Nevertheless he continued to be faithful to his vocation in spite of this.
May it not be the same for us? When couples marry everything is wonderful and full of hope. But married life is varied, as the marriage vows say: better or worse, sickness and health, rich or poor… Same too with religious life. We ‘grow’ in awareness of what our previous decisions means for us. But we can deal with the challenges of our life, with God’s help and the strength of our faith. Our own experience then may help us understand what Jesus meant by saying that he would suffer, be put to death and be raised up on the last day. We need to hear this Good News as well as the rest of his statement about suffering. In fact, we will have many experiences of resurrection, of being raised up in our lives: the birth of a baby or a grandchild; the success of our children at school in spite of many difficulties during their school days and study times; the recovery from a serious accident or health problem etc.
‘Lord Jesus, you invite us to follow you when times are good and enjoyable but also when suffering and difficulties come our way. You have walked the path ahead of us. You know our human struggles and are very patient with us when we fail. Give us your powerful Holy Spirit to help us to be faithful to the end.’