Today’s gospel obviously goes with last week’s gospel. Last week’s gospel had Jesus declaring that Peter’s faith was the rock on which he would build the church. The Greek and Hebrew words for church in this context refer to the liturgical assembly formed to hear the word of God. The church then is the people who are called out by God’s word and who respond.
So, why does Jesus base this community on Peter’s act of faith? Because Peter has truly heard the Word of God. And what has Peter heard? He has heard that the Word of God just is the person of Jesus Christ. Peter’s act of faith is the true recognition of who Jesus is: the Son of God and the Messiah. Peter’s response then is to declare that the Word of God is incarnate and is personal and is right in front of him.
What happens this week? Well, Jesus teases out the implications of what it means to be the Messiah, what it means to be God with us. And it means that he must suffer and die. To be with us sinners, who are suffering and dying in our sins, means that he must suffer and die too. This is what God’s love incarnate looks like. Christ on the Cross.
Now, Peter doesn’t like this. He doesn’t like the fact that love involves suffering, being with those who suffer. And so he tries to stop Jesus. This causes Jesus to change from calling him Peter to calling him Satan. Maybe we can dig deeper into why Jesus does this by considering our first reading.
In our first reading, Jeremiah sets out the contours of a profound spiritual experience. The first moment of that experience is of being overwhelmed, he says seduced, by God. This perhaps is that experience of being overwhelmed by the glory of truth, such that we feel transported into a reality that has not yet arrived. This is that clear-sighted vision of what should be. What must be. A vision so brilliant, so obvious that sometimes we don’t understand how it is not yet reality. Why can’t everyone else see it? It is so manifest. In fact, it is so overwhelming that it reduces our distance from it to zero. We feel already in communion with it.
Perhaps for Jesus this is the kingdom of God. Except for him the distance really is zero. He is the advent of that kingdom. His person announces that it has become a reality.
Jeremiah, however, knows that in most cases – for us – the distance is not zero. That vision soon turns into a task, and a tough one at that. Not only is the distance not zero, it is in fact a long journey. We might even compare this to the gospel of Peter walking on the waves a few weeks ago. The sight of Jesus walking on the water overwhelms Peter, but then he notices the wind and the water.
Again, though, with Jesus there is no difference between who he is and what he does, where he is going and how he gets there. The love he sees at the end of this path is also every step he takes along the path. Each decision is completely free. Each step is one with the father’s love. He is God’s love for humanity at every moment.
For Jeremiah, the vision of glory ahead of him reveals the horror all around him. This means that his present task, the job that the vision demands of him is to point out constantly the deficiencies of the present so that the future reality might be born. Like Peter he is buffeted by winds and waves, except that for him it is the derision and insults of people who do not like what he is saying. Jeremiah is pointing out that people have no right to be so comfortable. They have no right to take it easy. Jeremiah’s vision judges his society, and it is not a favourable judgment, and so they seek to quiet him down.
Of course this is the same for Jesus. The love he shares immediately undermines anything less than it. All else is false in comparison. People feel foolish wanting less, settling for less, and no-one likes to feel foolish.
And Jeremiah also gets just how tiring this can be for the messenger. To remain true to the vision means having to fight for it. Means having to get up every day and battle the headwinds of an inert or actively contrary society. This is that spiritual sacrifice of oneself that St Paul talks about in our second reading. The spiritual sacrifice of physically demanding labour and thankless perseverance in pursuit of true love and real peace.
Jesus too knows this cost. He knows that temptation to give in. He has felt it in the desert and he will taste it again in the garden. Not only does he know the temptation, he recognises the voice. It is the evil one. The evil one who will do anything to break the solidarity Christ has with us. The evil one who seeks to destroy communion by destroying truth, by deceiving, by denying the goal and denying the suffering that must acompany it.
Jeremiah knows he cannot settle. The fire in his heart is his life. Outside of this fire, he is dead. Inside of this fire he suffers for love. He suffers the growing pains of a world maturing in love. Growing in truth and freedom.
Christ does not feel this fire. He is this fire. He knows that to give up would be to make life a lie, to give up would be to disown his loving Father. He knows that to settle, to compromise, to define truth by comfort would be to exclude those who are not comfortable. He hears Peter’s invitation as the temptation to close heaven off from those who really need saving, especially those whom suffering disfigures, those whose suffering threatens to hide their humanity, those whose suffering erases their position in the world, their reality in the eyes of others because we want to look away.
And so today as we reflect on this gospel and this first reading, on how easy it is to move from proclaiming Christ as God to ignoring his plan in our lives, ignoring the brothers and sisters he places next to us, let us pause and ask God for help.
Lord, help us to recognise when we are tempted to make our lives easier by ignoring someone else. Help us to recognise when we have settled for something less than true love. Let these all become moments when we reaffirm our faith in Christ and his resurrection, in God for whom nothing is impossible.